Henry was a regular. He was in afternoon kindergarten and he and his nanny had the mornings free to come to the storytime I did at the indie bookstores near his home. He was older than most of the other kids—a very wise and erudite six years. His eyes were black and luminous, his curls dark and unruly, and his brow furrowed when he thought deeply, which was the only way he thought. He used words like perhaps, suppose, as you know, and quiver (both as a case of arrows and as synonym for slight trembling). He knew the Latin names of his favorite plants. He had impeccable manners. When I watched Henry reading a book before storytime, I often thought he would look perfectly natural smoking a pipe.
We had a special bond, Henry and I. He loved to count in German. (We always count the books we read at the end of storytime—in as many languages as we can collectively manage.) He particularly enjoyed FÜNF! (5), which made him collapse into giggles every week. He always wanted to read “just one more book,” (especially if it meant we got to fünf), and we sometimes read even one more after the younger children got wiggly and headed home. The thing that really bonded us, however, was the deep meaning and gladness we each found in Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney.
Miss Rumphius, The Lupine Lady, was a child like Henry, I think. Soulful, beyond-her years, and wise in a way that takes others aback. As a little girl, she sat on her grandfather’s knee and listened to his stories of faraway places. She declared that when she grew up, she would go to faraway places, as well. And when she grew old, she, too, would live by the sea. Her grandfather told her she must do one more thing. “You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” he said.
Over several pages in this beautiful book, little Alice Rumphius grows up, travels the world, and finally comes to make a home in a house by the sea. Her love of lupines inspires her to order five bushels of lupine seed, then fill her pockets and wander “over field and headlands, sowing lupines,” making the world more beautiful.
Henry and I called it The Miss Rumphius Challenge. We talked of things we would do to make the world more beautiful. We would make pictures and leave them in coffee shops. We would write books about beautiful music and art. We would smile at everyone we met. We would plant a garden. Sing songs.
The day Henry came to tell me he was moving to California, I cried. His Dad got a new job—“a very excellent one”—and they were flying to San Diego that weekend, all of their things coming the next week in an enormous truck.
In a desperate attempt not to weep in front of him, I remarked that San Diego had a wonderful zoo and must be a beautiful place to live.
“Yes,” said Henry, nodding sagely. “We have visited. It is very beautiful. And closer to the sea, as well.” His brow furrowed. “It will be hard to figure out how to make it more beautiful. That’s the trouble Miss Rumphius had, as you know…. It’s hard to make the world more beautiful when it’s already pretty nice. I’ll have to find something like lupines that will grow in California, I suppose.”
I suggested maybe Black-Eyed Susans would grow there. He had brought me a bouquet of them once—it was another love we shared.
“They’re called rudbeckia, I believe,” said Henry, gently correcting my coarse nickname for the cheerful yellow flowers.
Henry shook my hand when he left storytime that day. He thanked me for reading him so many books. “I expect we might not see each other for awhile,” he said, “but I will think of you whenever I read a really really good book.”
It’s been over a year since he left. I’m sure Henry has forgotten about me in all of his adventures in San Diego—though I hope he has not forgotten The Miss Rumphius Challenge. As for me…part of my heart is in California with a little boy who made my world more beautiful because he was in it.