When I got word the other day that our old friend Gretel Porter had died unexpectedly from a brain aneurism, it brought a flood of memories from years ago.
I haven’t seen Gretel in years. We reconnected, if you can call it that, on Facebook a few years back. It wasn’t a real reconnection. It wasn’t even enough of a connection for her to show up on my feed with any regularity.
I immediately flashed on Gretel’s Roseland apartment that she shared with Steve, who she was married to at the time. Gretel’s taste tended to the intensely colorful, influenced I think by the time she had spent in India. The apartment had a bright sun-filled room next to the kitchen. Old furniture was covered in spreads with Indian block prints, orange and red. The walls were adorned with the Bengali art she had brought back. In the living room was a work area where Gretel made earrings from the small parts of the circuit boards she assembled at the factory where she worked and and where she did labor and political organizing.
It is testimony to a person who has died that you can only remember good things about them from when you knew them.
And then there is what I didn’t know.
In reading the obituary I discovered that Gretel’s mother was Barbara Cooney.
If you teach children, or have children, or if you were a child with books, you may know the name Barbara Cooney.
Barbara wrote and illustrated over 100 children’s books. Two won Caldecott medals.
As an elementary Art teacher I made it a practice of reading aloud to my youngest students before we began an art project. A book choice might have been related to the project we were about to begin. Or maybe it just had wonderful illustrations.
Barbara Cooney’s books were in my rotation.
One of the favorites was The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes, which Cooney did not write but did illustrate. They were great drawings.
Anne told me yesterday that The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes was one of her favorite books as a child. And when our own girls were little, Anne’s mom sent a copy of the book to them.
This was at the very same time that we knew and worked with Gretel Porter, Barbara Cooney’s daughter, but had no idea of the relationship.
When Barbara Cooney won one of her Caldecott medals she said, “I believe that children in this country need a more robust literary diet than they are getting…. It does not hurt them to read about good and evil, love and hate, life and death. Nor do I think they should read only about things that they understand…. a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. So should a child’s. For myself, I will never talk down to—or draw down to—children.”
Gretel Porter was her mother’s daughter.