by Elizabeth Orton Jones
Tchrr-r-r-r! The phone would ring. I’d answer, and after a considerable while I’d hear a faint little quavery voice, as if someone were calling me from beyond the Pleiades…“E-li-i-izabeth?”
It would be my dear friend Bertha Mahony Miller, calling from Ashburnham, Massachusetts, about seventeen miles from Mason, New Hampshire, where I lived then (and still do), about something very important — always something important! Could she come over right now to talk about whatever it was?
“Why, of course, Bertha!” I’d say. What other answer could there be?
In an unbelievably short length of time, a great big automobile, with no driver visible above the steering wheel, would swerve into the parking place at my house and stop with dramatic suddenness. The driver’s-side door would open, and out would step a demure little smiling white-haired lady in a pale blue dotted-Swiss dress with a neat lace collar, wearing a stylish navy-blue straw hat and lugging a giant-size briefcase, or perhaps a purse roomy enough to hold a couple of picture books plus a thick sheaf of typewritten pages.
“Oh, E-li-i-i-i-izabeth!” Her blue eyes would twinkle. “I have an entirely new idea to share with you. I can hardly wait to know what you think!”
Up into the woods we’d go. Bertha would always prefer, weather permitting, to talk over a matter of import in the woods rather than inside a house. Out would come a brand-new book, just off the press, or several clipped-together typewritten pages — an article, an editorial for the next issue of the Horn Book, or simply an idea, a plan, a broader view. The talk would always be about imagination, originality, beauty of expression, inspiration, depth of concept; about truth, about things waiting to be which had not yet been. There we would sit on two mossy rocks with birds flitting hither and yon, and now and then a butterfly, with pine boughs moving gently according to each passing breeze, talking about the world and children, about dreams, high hopes transformed into actualities through words and pictures — Bertha’s specialty.
I didn’t know her when she had brown hair. I didn’t know her before she married William D. Miller and became mistress of that beautiful estate in Ashburnham, with its rambling house, its classic tiered gardens outside, its wealth of books inside. I didn’t know Bertha until she had fly-away white hair (such as I have now—wouldn’t she be surprised!). She was a year older than my father, yet I never had the slightest inclination to think of her as belonging to the “older” generation. I thought of her as my contemporary, even though the year The Bookshop for Boys and Girls opened in Boston was the year I entered first grade in Highland Park, Illinois. Publication of The Horn Book Magazine commenced the year I graduated from eighth grade. Not until after I graduated from college and had spent a year studying art in France, then another year in New York trying to find a place for my work, was I introduced to Bertha through a happenstance that I described at length thirty-five years later in the October 1969 issue of the Horn Book. I told about how my mother, having just presented my watercolors at a Newbury Street gallery and having received a disheartening verdict, was plodding doggedly ahead on Boylston Street when she suddenly stopped, fascinated, before the window of The Bookshop for Boys and Girls, and ventured inside to see more. She met Beulah Folmsbee and then Bertha, and the outcome of this happenstance was Bertha’s curiosity to see what was in the portfolio that Mother was carrying, followed by Bertha’s insistence on an exhibit of those watercolors and more, at the Bookshop: my first one-man show, the first stepping-stone on the path to my future, and the beginning of a significant and unique friendship that was to last for thirty-five years.
Rich years they were, holding unforgettable experiences: the Caldecott Medal, for instance, in 1945. Bertha wrote to me in May of that year:
I hope you will see that the amplifier at the dinner is fixed just right for you when you speak, and that you will “speak” your paper, not read it. I want the audience not to miss a bit of it.
The intensity of her interest reached beyond her own plans and projects in behalf of children and their reading. When I was involved in trying to create a children’s room in our small public library here in Mason — painting old discarded furniture in bright Czech folk style, trying to create something out of nothing, fairy-tale-fashion — Bertha would come with cartons of new books sent by publishers for Horn Book reviews, along with window curtains trimmed in rick-rack and peasant-design braid, sewn by herself. She would bring important people in the children’s book world to see the new room, to show them what could be done to bring reading to the children of a small town at no cost.
When I was painting the murals-that-never-got-finished at the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire, Bertha would bring armloads of picture books for the children as well as such people as the Cronans (the storytellers of Boston) to delight them. Not only did Bertha coax me to write about this magic mountain place for the Horn Book, but when we gave a Christmas pageant, the first in which most of these handicapped children had ever taken part, Bertha insisted on publishing the story of it in book form: a small volume entitled How Far Is It to Bethlehem?
She had no children of her own; yet in a rarer, more long-lasting sense, all children everywhere were hers.
Now and again I happen to meet someone I’ve never met before, and in some mysterious way, the conversation may lead to a mention of the Horn Book.
“The Horn Book, did you say? Do you know the Horn Book?”
“Know it!” exclaimed the person I met just the other day. “I love it! To me, the Horn Book is indispensable!”
Wow! Did you hear that, Bertha, wherever you may be, beyond the Pleiades, perhaps? I somehow know you heard.
As for you, dear beloved Horn Book: Happy seventy-fifth birthday to you! May you continue to thrive and to be indispensable for many and many a year to come!
This article, originally published in the September/October 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Elizabeth Orton Jones and Prayer for a Child.