Phyllis Root is the author of over forty books, almost all of them picture books, both fiction and non-fiction. Her middle grade novel, Lilly and the Pirates, is currently under contract. Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble won the Minnesota Book Award, and Big Momma Makes the World won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award. Root was awarded a 2006 McKnight Fellowship for her book, Lucia and the Light.
In the past few weeks two events have converged. I bought yet another book on getting rid of clutter, and I had my sixty-sixth birthday. I don’t have sixty-six years of things to sort through, but I am finding bits and pieces of my life I had squirreled away and completely forgotten about.
Take this photo of a friend’s wedding in which I was a bridesmaid. I almost didn’t recognize myself in a long pink dress with long hair and a wreath of flowers, and I had to rummage in my memory to recall the bride’s name.
And these grade school pictures: here I am in sixth grade, fifth grade, fourth grade. In Talent is Not Enough Molly Hunter wrote about seeing a picture of her young self and thinking, “Warn her! Oh, for God’s sake, why did nobody warn her?”
Looking at these younger selves, I wonder what I’d say if I could send a message back in time. I had already lost my mother, so I knew about the uncertainty of the universe and the black hole of loss. Would I warn my ten-year-old self of more deaths ahead? Of the dark despair of depression? Would I tell her to find a good-paying profession with benefits and a pension plan? Would I whisper a few words that would allow her to develop the Internet or back a spectacularly winning horse?
I could tell her, “You will fall in love and out of love. You will have babies who grow up to be self-sufficient young women. You will have friends of the heart to see you through tough times and good times.”
And if my younger self pressed me for more, I might say, “You’ll go to South Africa and Vanuatu, you’ll raft down the Zambezi river and dogsled in 20 below weather and stand on the rim of an active volcano, you’ll sail and canoe and kayak and grow vegetables and wildflowers and hear whales breathing around you in the darkness.”
But mostly I think I’d tell her, “You will be very lucky, because you will live among words. Words to tell your daughters that they are strong and beautiful and can do anything they put their minds and hearts to. Words to write books that, amazingly, other people might read. Words with which to try to give a voice to the world you will inhabit.”
Most of what I’m finding now in basements and closets I’ll let go. The pages of old stories can be recycled into new paper for new stories that someone, somewhere, will write. The clothes in the back of my closer will keep other folks warm. The books I’ve read and loved will be read and loved by someone else. But I’ll keep those pictures somewhere where I can see them once in awhile, and when I look at them, I will tell those younger selves (and the self I am now), “Darlin’, you’re going to be all right.”