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Following Grandfather
It was very quiet in the studio when I finished the call. I had just agreed to illustrate Following Grandfather, a short novel by Rosemary Wells. The Rosemary Wells, whose work as an illustrator, and a writer, I hold in the highest regard. She had asked the publisher for me. Naturally, I said.....yes. But after the excitement, the reading, and the meeting, came the quiet--and with it, the self doubt.

Following Grandfather is the story of Jenny and her grandfather. The two are inseparable. Grandfather, now retired from his famous Italian restaurant in the North End, raises Jenny. He teaches her how to button her coat, how to write her name and how to bake lasagna. They spend long days at the seashore collecting and naming shells. Together they explore Grandfather’s Boston, meeting his friends and in the process Jenny learns about her grandfather's past while also being gently guided into understanding how she can make her own way in the world. But when Grandfather is gone one day, his loss is simply too much for Jenny. She imagines seeing him at every turn and desperately chases after ghosts, trying to connect one last time with her beloved Grandfather.

Could I illustrate this? I knew that I could produce a competent set of images that would accompany the text, but could I create artwork that resonated at the same emotional pitch as Rosemary's writing? I did my best to outline the arc of the story, the place, the characters, etc.; all the "stuff" of the the book to be, but still had a difficult time beginning or understanding how to illustrate this manuscript.

So I began sketching and found myself thinking about my own Grandparents and their little house just outside of Bridgeport, in Stratford Connecticut.  My grandparents passed away many years ago, but  the experiences and images that came to me were vivid and alive.

I remembered one evening getting myself a cup of water at the kitchen sink. The window above me was framed by those little shelves common in 1930's houses, and topped by a short lace apron. The kitchen scissors hung on a small brass hook to the right. It was dark outside and snow had begun to fall while the family was watchingThe Wonderful World of Disney. The light above the sink made a warm, white elongated rectangle. Just at the far edge of the light, a doe stood looking back at me, perfectly still in the falling snow.

I remembered sitting in the wooden kid swing made by my grandfather and painted with the left over dull green house paint, and the summer afternoon light that came though the canopy of the huge maple tree that generously agreed to keep me aloft. I had been drinking a grape soda and the taste mixed with the smell of cut grass and July in Connecticut.

I remembered my Grandfather's little wood shop in the garage. The small shelves between the wall studs filled with jam jars of nails and bolts. The scarred workbench with a massive vice at the end and splatters of paint from the whirligig and birdhouse projects. The October sun warmed the structure just enough to produce the faint smell of machine oil and old pine boards.

I missed them and I remembered that like Jenny, I had never had a chance to say goodbye.

Somehow all of this reminiscing freed me up to work and gave me a starting point. Perhaps all those memories gave that doubting part of my mind something to think about while I made the pictures.

I finished the art, and along the way Rosemary and I became friends. A gift, really. She said that she loved the book and that I did a better job than she herself could have. I'm still not sure about that, but I appreciate the compliment. Nevertheless, as the project became part of my past, my doubts returned, and I wondered if I had done it properly.

This past October, Rosemary and I were invited to participate in a book fair in Connecticut. While fielding questions and signing dozens of books, Rosemary invited me to dinner at her house. When you are invited by Rosemary Wells to illustrate a manuscript or to attend a dinner (she is an excellent chef ) you say…yes. We planned to meet in a few hours. As I sat in the car, I realized that I was probably not far from that little house in Stratford, so I typed the address into the GPS. I was just seven miles away. I drove the last two miles from memory and then, there it was.

A man was outside loading things into a van. In fear of being mistaken for a real estate appraiser I introduced myself. “Frank” and his wife had bought the house from my aunt, and had raised his daughter there. He was gracious. We talked about the house and all the changes he had made. We would have gone inside but Frank had to go. He invited me to stay in the yard as long as I liked. His van drove away and there I was, alone-sort of.

I stood and watched, enjoying the parade of ghosts. Myself and my brothers running wild around the yard. My mother, young, sitting in an aluminum lawn chair, drinking a tab and chatting with my grandmother. My dad napping in a hammock over at the edge of the yard. There was the kitchen window. The lace was gone but I knew the view was from inside. The tree that held my swing was no longer three, but some 8 feet from its place stood a carbon copy. And there was the garage, and the wood shop inside.

I looked in the windows. Compelled to explore, I let myself in though the unlocked door. Garages rarely change much. I placed my hand on the bench. There were a few new splatters of paint but the dull green was still visible. I saw the hand drawn outline of pliers, a hammer, and screwdrivers on the empty pegboard attached to the wall. Small rings remained from the bottoms of the jars on the shelves. There was a smell of pine and even a bit of machine oil in the air. I was, for a moment, eight years old and at the same time, me.

When I left I put a copy of the book in the mailbox and a note thanking Frank.

As I drove south to my dinner feeling both happy and a bit melancholy, I realized that any doubts that I had about the book had vanished. I had completed a suite of images that were strong, but more importantly, they were right for the book. I had asked the question of the manuscript but found the emotional truths of the story within myself. How it can be hard to move on, to change, to let things go. That its OK to be sad and to remember. All of it is who we are and charts a course for our future. I took those truths, applied my craft, and produced something that I believe in, something real. I had done my job.

There is a new manuscript on my desk. It is also wonderful and poignant and I have said ...yes. As I read it again I will remind myself to to ask the question, trust the answers when they come, and to follow the thread. Like Rosemary's hero, Jenny, it will always take me to a place of truth and ultimately one of understanding.

House

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