Meeting Madeleine

By Terry Preshaw | Mar 21, 2018

Back in 1995, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with a childhood idol: Madeleine L’Engle, the author of “A Wrinkle in Time” and numerous other works of fiction and non-fiction.

I had happened upon an advertisement announcing her visit to a Seattle bookstore on June 24.  I had no idea that she was going to be in town - on that very day, which also happened to be my birthday!

I immediately raced to the bookstore from Everett, battling traffic and time to be in her presence.

I made it and joined the long line of “fan girls” in our forties and younger. We exchanged stories of our introduction to and fervent consumption of Madeleine’s books of science and faith, so beautifully intertwined like a double helix.

Seventy-six year old Madeleine was seated at a large beige table, ensconced by towers of her books then in print. She cheerfully signed every book put in front of her. Her handlers hovered mindfully, monitoring Madeleine’s energy and herding her fans along.

As I observed her, I realized that she reminded me of a bright-eyed bird. She moved her head with an unexpected rapidity and then was suddenly still as she focused on what was being said.

Her gently lined face (wrinkled by time) seemed bird-like: a broad forehead, framed with short, steel-gray hair, wide, expressive grey/brown eyes, a little beak of a nose, and a gracious smile, finished by a small tapering chin. Her head would cock attentively towards an admirer as she listened to praises that she had undoubtedly heard thousands of times:

“I love your books so much!”

“Your books deeply influenced my life!”

“Thank you for creating a world where being ‘different’ saved the day!”

“Your writings restored my belief in God and Jesus.”

She was a surprisingly large woman - tall and a little overweight. I wondered if her awkwardness in movement was derived from arthritis or habit.

We inched closer to the woman whose writings had touched the hearts of millions. She was visibly tired and I realized that I might not be able to speak with her at all.

In my hand I held a small fossil “split” I had collected from a talus slope in Smithers, B.C.

It was a metasequoia twig, pressed into eternal splendor some 50 million years ago. My plan was to present half of the split to Madeleine as a memento of her visit here, and to keep the other half as my own memento.

I was about 10 people away from her when the handlers decided that Madeleine had reached her limit and she was ushered out of the room.

Folks were disappointed but understood. I still wanted Madeleine to have my gift so I sought out one of her handlers and asked her to give the fossil to Madeleine on my behalf.

 

The handler said that she was one of Madeleine’s godchildren and she thought it would be best if I gave my gift directly to Madeleine.

I was swiftly ushered to the backroom where Madeleine had been sequestered. She looked up, and I was embraced in a beaming smile, full of light.

I felt awkwardly star-struck and blurted out: “I know you are tired and I’m sorry to intrude! I wanted to give you something, a talisman (as opposed to a ‘Talis Canon’ - inside AWIT joke), a memento from your time here!” as I pressed the fossil into her hand.

She was delighted and wanted to know everything about it.

I shared its story and she grasped my hand, telling me that this was the first fossil anyone had given her!

Now I was beaming. I showed her the other half and then explained that this was my 41st birthday and that my best present was being able to share this time (and fossil) with her.

We talked of faith, connection and sustenance.  I knew she had faced many personal challenges (and years later learned more about her specific struggles: absent father, philandering husband, alcoholism and death of her beloved son, literary rejection. Her own children later accused her of fictionalizing the story of her marriage). Throughout all of these travails, her faith in God had sustained her.

My brief moments with Madeleine impressed upon me how deep and unwavering her faith in God’s goodness and light truly was.

I could tell that this was the space in which she was happiest, confident in her belief that no matter what happens, God is with us.

She shared with me that it is important to remember that sometimes “no” is an answer - and when it is, God is still with us, especially then.

Her approach was to seek out the positive and appreciate the beauty in every action, every person. I believe her fiction and non-fiction work reflects that approach.

A short time later, I received a letter from Madeleine in which she thanked me for “the wonderful fossils …and may you have many, many happy birthdays.”

She even addressed the envelope herself, by hand. I have treasured this letter and her words to this day.

When I re-read her books, I think about her as the person I saw; full of light, and one who consciously chose to walk through adversity by embracing her faith in an inclusive, loving God.

I’m glad her light lingers in our world.

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