The story behind the picture book

She was tall, especially when you were a child. She was a big woman of girth and substance, with heavy legs of which she was ashamed all her long life. In her closet hung a neat row of size 22 flowered polyester dresses. Below them, a row of size 12 lace-up shoes.

It took her twenty minutes to roll on her orange support hose, but you never once saw her wear pants. She smelled of talcum powder and a perfume the name of which you can’t recall. She had her hair done once a week at the beauty parlor, soft blue-ish white waves.

She did not drink, ever, but you remember twice at weddings she took a sip of champagne. Each time her button nose turned bright red and she hid her face in her hands and laughed.

You have written about her before. You always want to write about her. You have to stop yourself from writing about her more than you do, and also from talking about her more than you already do. Look at you, a full-grown woman of middle age, still talking about your grandmother?

But there you have it. She was one of the great loves of your life. You still miss her. You still talk to her. Out loud, sometimes. You say things like, “What do you think I should do, Christine?” and then you picture her and wait for her to answer.

Usually she just shakes her head in that way she had, and laughs the way she did.

“Oh, I don’t know, Alison.”

And then she reaches out and touches your arm and keeps looking at you, smiling, until you smile back at her. She knows that you’ll be all right.

In her presence you always were all right.There was nothing you couldn’t, or didn’t, tell her. You told her things you’d done, heartbreaking things, and she would furrow her brow and tilt her head and nod. And reach out and touch your arm. And ask you questions, but only so that you could keep talking if you needed to.

And she would say how sorry she was that you had to go through that. That she knew you had done the only thing you could. That she herself just didn’t see any other way around it.

In her presence you relaxed. You let down. Things inside you gave way. You didn’t have to try so hard, around her. You didn’t have to try at all.

She is the story behind Making a Friend, that new picture book over there, the one with the pretty blue cover of the little boy and the snowman.

That little boy makes a snowman one day. He gives him arms and eyes and a nose and a mouth. He gives him his red hat, to keep him warm.

You were thinking about your grandmother the day you wrote down the first few words of that story in a notebook. You were thinking how lucky you were that she lived so long, that you were in your 30’s before you lost her.

Did you, though? Lose her?

When you really need her, you sit still and close your eyes. You picture her. There she is, sitting at the dining room table, head supported by one arm. She’s wearing a blue bathrobe. She’s smiling and shaking her head.

You sit there and wait until you feel her next to you. That if you open your eyes, right now, there she’ll be.

You open your eyes and they rest on the needlepoint cushion she made, the one with her initials –CM– in the corner.

You open your eyes and see a squirrel –her nickname– poised on the pine branch outside your window.

You go to the store and see that her favorite ice cream –butter pecan– is on sale.

That these are all ordinary things, things that happen on any ordinary day, means only that she is with you. It doesn’t take anything special to conjure her. She is like electricity, invisible and everywhere.

A few years ago you were in a drugstore when you smelled her, that particular kind of talcum-y perfume she used to wear. You followed your nose from aisle to aisle, searching her out, until you stood directly behind an old lady wearing a dark blue coat. She turned to look at you inquiringly.

What could you possibly say, other than that you liked her perfume?

You said nothing. You lifted your shoulders and shook your head helplessly. You smiled at her. You wanted to thank her for bringing your grandmother back to you, there in the paper goods aisle.

The little boy talks to his snowman every day of a long winter, until all that is left is his own red hat. Snowman, where did you go?

“What you love will always be with you.”


  1. Hope · October 5, 2011

    Congratulations on your new picture book!

    I loved my grandmother, and still miss her, too, even though I’m of a certain age. I remember watching her change clothes when I slept over at her apartment. She’d roll off her girdle, her stomach would pop out, and we would laugh and laugh! Then she’d put on some long, lacy nightgown and let me watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett.


  2. Karen · October 5, 2011

    How wonderful to get to hear the story behind the book, and to have read about your grandmother before. And as a grown woman still missing my own grandma, still thinking about her death a year and a half ago, still hurting about the redbud trees that were blooming while she was dying that the city cut down this week– I want to thank you for writing about her as much as you have. I can’t wait to read the book!


  3. Kathleen · October 5, 2011

    This beautiful little reflection made me cry this morning. I sat at my desk at my place of work with tears streaming down my face. It made me remember my own grandmother and think about how she is still with me too. I’ve so done that exact same thing when I smell her perfume out in the world.

    Thank you.


  4. Nicole · October 5, 2011

    What a lovely story. It brought tears to my eyes. It sounds like you had a very wonderful grandma, and I am glad she is still with you in some ways. What a special relationship 🙂


  5. Ruth · October 6, 2011

    I enjoyed this immensely. I think of the enduring presence in my life of parents and grandparents and how they are with me in the physical and emotional spaces of my life. “What you love will always be with you” is a wonderful reassurance in a world of change.


  6. Becky · October 8, 2011

    Oh, I love the story behind the picture book!


  7. herhimnbryn · October 9, 2011

    My welsh Nanna stays with me still. Your post had her walking through my thoughts again this morning. Thnakyou.


  8. Denise Harbison · October 12, 2011

    There’s a plot.

    I can’t wait to read Making a Friend.
    Thanks for this post!


  9. alison · October 22, 2011

    Thanks, kind people. I just “talked” to my grandmother in my head. (Okay, actually it was out loud, but I’m alone here in this kitchen, so I figure I can talk out loud to my grandmother if I feel like it.) It’s lovely to see how many of you have the same feelings for your grandmothers. . . thank you for writing in.


  10. alison · October 22, 2011

    As for you, Miss Denise, I believe that would be *albino* squirrel, would it not??? 🙂

    And don’t go stealing my plot now.


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