The Old Woman Who Named Things is about a lovely, gentle, kooky, probably-a-fun-chick-when-she-was-young type of elderly lady who wears funky prints and cowboy boots. She is the only one left in her circle; all her friends have passed on. And it doesn’t look like she ever married or had kids, either, or has any other kind of family around. To keep loneliness at bay, she has given names to objects such as her car, house, bed and armchair, but only to the items she believes will last forever, because she is afraid of outliving anything. So, no way is she naming her Sony DVD player or her pantyhose—nothing that will break down or wear out. She is quite content living this way, and she feels pretty secure that she will never experience loss again.
Then, one day, a shy, hungry puppy comes to her gate, and her plan gets shot to hell. The puppy starts visiting every day, and every day she feeds it and then shoos it away. She starts caring for the pup, even though she tries to keep her emotional distance. And when one day the puppy doesn’t show up at her gate, it forces her to face her loneliness and make a change.
I am impressed by the publishing house that read the manuscript and said to itself, “You know what? Sure, this book is about decay and dying and loneliness in both human and dog, but I bet kids will love it!” If publishing houses had balls, this one would have big brass ones. Because, although the word “death” never appears in this book, the word “outlive” does, many times. And if your kid is anything like mine, she will jump on this immediately. “What does ‘outlive’ mean?” When I explained, Nica looked sad and puzzled.
But she picks up this book once in a while and asks me to read it to her, and then she’ll flip through it and try to read a few words on her own. I’m always surprised by that, because the book, though well-written and charmingly illustrated, is melancholy in tone. I mean, I’ll be honest, every time I read this book, I can’t help but wonder what my life will be like forty years from now, and I ponder mortality—my own, my husband’s, my dearest friends’. I think about how fleeting life is, and how I want to be there for my children when they grow up. Then I realize how short their childhoods will be. And these musings are made all the more poignant by the fact that they’re happening while I’m holding my darling 4-year-old, who is snuggling her warm little body against mine as she sits on my lap and listens to me read this story.
So, yeah. This is not your ordinary children’s book.