I first met Madeleine L’Engle in a writers’ workshop she was leading at a New York City convent when I was trying to sell my first novel. She was very complimentary about my writing and in a burst of daring, I asked, “Will you read my unpublished novel?” She hesitated a moment and then said, “Yes.” And I think I ran the forty blocks home, my feet not touching the ground. It was a warm October night in 1989.
She loved the novel and submitted it to her own publisher who did not take it, but she endorsed my work, and when Nicholas Cooke: actor, soldier, physician, priest was accepted by W.W. Norton two years later, she sent me an enormous bunch of flowers. She recommended notable people to blurb for the novel. But more than that, she became my friend and I adored her.
Many small writers’ support groups grew out of that annual workshop, and once a year we’d all gather for a pot luck dinner at her house, one of those rare old New York apartments with a view of the Hudson River, posters of her late actor husband in the kitchen, and long hallways lined with books. There were up to seventy-five of us, sitting on every bit of the rug.
At that time I was involved in a bad relationship and when it all fell apart, I wept to her about it. The remarkable thing is that she was lying in a hospital bed for knee replacement when I told her…and that she had me come stay with her in that marvelous apartment for a few days when she was healing. I was taken into her world and it was precious to me.
Then it turned out that I was single again and lonely, and she had been corresponding for many years with a man from Georgia who was also newly single and through the most complicated twists of fate, we met in New York and fell in love. We fell in love so fast that we though we’d better keep it from her, so at a dinner party at her house, we stayed on opposite sides of the room. The next morning she called up and said in her deep contralto voice, “I think you and Russell will be very happy together.” One could not keep much from her if anything! She told others she wanted to make sure he was “worthy” of me!
When Russell and I married, she gave me away. There were church choirboys whispering above, and later I was told they were saying, “That tall lady is Madeleine L’Engle!”
Her apartment was less than a mile from mine, so my husband would cook dinner and bring it to her and we’d eat and talk about everything in the world. A few times we went to visit her in her cottage in Connecticut which she had built across from her old farmhouse Crosswicks, and I walked down the road she had walked when she could not find a publisher for Wrinkle in Time and went into the store she had owned with her husband Hugh, and attended the church where she had led the choir before she became a famous writer.
When she began to be sick and more incapacitated by her bad hips and knees, my husband and I would wheel her over in her wheel chair to one of her two favorite restaurants where sometimes, between courses, someone would creep over and ask for her autograph. We drank wine and were very happy. We told silly, wise, deep stories. And in all this I knew God was among us. He was at the table with us.
This is part of my very individual story of knowing Madeleine L’Engle. Madeleine knew thousands of people and played a deep part in so many careers and love stories. She was five feet ten and her capacity for love was boundless. I really do believe she was a bodhisattva, an enlightened being sent to earth. When I first knew her I thought I’d want to be just like her, but I do not have that gift. There was only one of her ever and those who knew her were blessed.
Once I called her up in the midst of a writing crisis and finally I said, “Madeleine, perhaps I interrupted you! What were you doing when I called?” And she said, “Oh I was just writing…” I often think of that and wonder what sentence of what great work was interrupted for me?
I miss her and will always love her. I knew what I had in knowing her was precious while I had it and now that she has gone on, I know its worth more. I wish with all my heart I could run up the mile to her apartment overlooking the Hudson and talk about everything again and go away feeling truly loved, as she always made me feel…truly loved.
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