The Lessons of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler

April 26, 2015

Every adult who was once a kid reader has some books tucked away in his/her soul.  These stories are usually hidden quite well but they still guide the adult.  The history professor won’t talk about the book of ghost stories that got his attention in grade school but it stimulated his first interest in the past.  The attorney may speak of hornbooks and precedents instead of the copy of Katie John that stayed with her through fourth grade but the fictional heroine is still there.  And the old woman dozing in nursing home’s day room listens as child read about Pooh and Piglet and reacquaints herself with the citizens of Hundred Acre Wood who led her to a lifetime of reading.  The books we love as children incorporate themselves into our being and we carry their ideas with us through life.  I realized that today when I found an old friend, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Decades had lapsed since I last read the story but I wasn’t just seeing something familiar.  I found the lessons I’ve been living by for years.

A little background:  Claudia Kincaid makes the ultra-sensible decision to run away from home, in order to get a little justice.  Well, it makes sense when you’re the sixth-grade, always-responsible, eldest child  in a family of six and your future looks like more of the same.  She picks out a sensible hideaway (The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art) and sensible goal (stay gone till her parents appreciate her) but her best decision is to recruit her little brother, Jamie as her accomplice and financier.  This complimentary pair move into the museum, taking advantage of the artifacts and amenities in the building after closing time and joining the perpetual school tours during daylight hours.  The book is, among other things, a siren song to New York and I’ll bet many an out-of-towner has put the MoMA on their itinerary because of the role it plays in this book.  Still, the best part of Frankweiler doesn’t come from the museum or its mystery or even Claudia and Jamie.  Tucked away in the story are the observations of Mrs. Frankweiler as she follows the kids on their trip.

According to Mrs. Frankweiler, [becoming] part of a team is something that happens invisibly, and she’s right.   Real teams aren’t created by a coach or a director; they come through a mutual decision of the members.   My own sister and I co-existed for years, loving and hating each other as siblings but no one would have called us teammates.  Then our Dad died and we got each other through not one, but two separate funerals.  Somewhere during that awful time, we learned to rely on and like each other and we’ve been a team ever since.  I just wish Daddy had lived to see it.

Frankweiler is a big believer in internalizing experience.  She says some people spend so much time and energy documenting a pleasurable vacation that they miss the vacation they’re having.  Somewhere along the way, I folded that belief into my chromosomes.  Yes, I have some photos of trips.  But my best memories, the ones I think of when the words, “Vail”, “Camp”, “Family” or “Beach” come to mind, were never photographed.  Those come from the times I lived completely in the moment, implanting the memories in my brain, if not my camera.  I don’t need photos to remember the Atlantic’s spray on my face or the sun on my arms near St. Petersburg or the eternal green of summer camp.  The details I want to remember are there, gorgeous and rich, and once they’re gone, no photo could bring them back.

Frankweiler also says we need days when we learn and days when we absorb what we learn.  If not, we become trashcans of meaningless facts.  This may sound a bit new-agey but the wisdom here is sound.  We go through life bombarded with information these days and not all of it is accurate.  Periodically, we need to sit down and sort it all out: we figure out what works and what doesn’t and how it all relates to us.  It’s this process that allows us to make connections and gain a greater understanding of our world.  That work can’t be done while we are harvesting data, we need time to think as well.  And, as humans, we need time for rest and sleep.  Even as kids, we need time to just be.

Mrs. Frankweiler, or her creator (E. L. Konigsburg) believed that, “Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place, but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.”    I hope the woman and the character enjoyed a lot of that flapping in life.  They certainly gave a large measure to others and they taught me some lovely ideas.  I’ve held on to those ever since. 

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