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Bella English

Remembering the way a child could decorate a life

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bella English
June 8, 2008

Father's Day is a week away, and I know what I'm getting the man in my life: a copy of "Lulu Decorates Daddy," a sweet, uplifting book about the transformative power of a child's love and sense of wonder and play.

The author, Gretchan Pyne, claims that she's not really the author; she just channeled her daughter, Lulu, who died on July 14, 2001. The book is about the bond between a father and daughter, with cameo appearances by mother and older brothers.

She'd be nearly 11 now, but Lulu will forever be 4 years old in the minds of her loved ones: an irrepressible force of nature who dressed up in princess clothes while wielding her twin brothers' plastic weapons.

She loved flowers, "flutterbys," the beach, her parents, and her big brothers: "my guys," she called them. She never met a stranger, and spent part of her last day on Cape Cod teaching a child on a nearby beach blanket how to chew gum.

The Pynes are a close family, and live close to nature. Warren Pyne, a Brockton boy, spent his summers on Buzzards Bay, where his family had a cottage. When he started a family of his own, he returned to Wareham to raise the three of them. When Lulu was alive, the Pynes spent their summer weekends at the beach or on their boat.

At the end of that postcard-perfect day in Truro seven years ago, Lulu collected a big brown rock in the shape of a heart and gave it to her father to lug back to the car.

On the way home, the family stopped at an ice cream shop in Wellfleet. Lulu licked her cone and danced around the parking lot while her father videotaped her antics. She stepped onto the ledge of a bicycle rack and struck what her family calls her "Vanna White pose," pointing theatrically to the double rainbow that arched overhead.

But then the unthinkable happened. The unanchored rack flipped over on her. Lulu died almost instantly, her chest and trachea crushed by the bike rack. After that, the family could not return to the shore, and they sold their beloved boat.

The boys are now 16, finishing their sophomore year in high school. Their sister's bedroom, adjacent to theirs, remains, like its previous occupant, frozen in time: Everyone still calls it "Lulu's room."

Drew wanted his own room, so he sleeps there, but the walls are still covered with hand-painted angels, the closet still filled with her clothes.

"Drew did not want us to change it a bit," says his mother. "Even though he wanted his own room, he shares it with Lulu."

After Lulu's death, Warren, a chiropractor, and Gretchan, who owned a hair salon, began to look for a new weekend family place. They bought a cabin in Vermont and Warren did much of the rehabbing himself.

"Lulu Decorates Daddy" is the second book that Gretchan has written. The first was "Lulu's Rose-Colored Glasses." Both share a theme: that often, we learn simple yet profound lessons from our children, if only we listen.

After Lulu died, Gretchan started feverishly writing down memories. The memory that is central to the new book occurred at a Cape Cod campground. It was early morning and Warren was lounging on a chair outside the tent, enjoying his cup of coffee. But Lulu had other plans.

A field of wildflowers beckoned her and she began to pick armfuls, off-loading them to her mother while she sang a song.

Mother and daughter returned to the campsite and proudly displayed the colorful array. "Let's decorate Daddy!" Lulu declared. But Daddy had "woken up on the wrong side of the bed," Gretchan recalls, and did not feel like being decorated. He didn't want to leave his coffee or the lounge chair.

Little girls have better luck with dads than just about anyone in the world. Lulu darted over with her bouquets and began to place flowers in her father's hair. The twins joined in. Soon, there were flowers in his beard, his ears, and his hair. They wreathed his face, and sprouted all over his torso, down to his toes.

How could a father not be charmed? He was.

Gretchan self-published this book, just as she did the first one, which sold more than 30,000 copies. The artist on this book, Mary LoPiccolo of Lakeville, has drawn pictures that capture the simple truth of the tale.

Like her daughter, Gretchan is a force of nature. Just days after the accident, Warren found her at dawn, digging in the sand of their bay-front lot. He joined her and together they created Lulu's Rainbow Garden, with a seashell path and a lush flower garden. The sign says: "Angels and Butterflies Welcome."

They also have a website: lulubellebooks.com, and started a foundation in their daughter's name that gives scholarships to deserving students.

Their latest project is gutting a derelict cottage behind their house. It will soon be Lulu's House of Hope, where Gretchan will begin bereavement support groups for those who have lost children. "They'll be based on hope and transcendence. I really want to give people hope that loves goes on, that their child is with them every moment of every day," she says.

Despite her daughter's cruel and capricious death, Gretchan has chosen to embrace life. "I'm not the same person as I was before," she says. "My heart has just been cracked open. I don't have any other way to put it. I just have moments when I have so much compassion for everyone around me, and I know that's Lulu, and it's such a gift to me."

The wildflowers the family planted in Lulu's honor in Vermont have started to bloom. And Gretchan has attached a colorful lei of silky flowers to each book with the admonition to "decorate the special guy in your life."

Gretchan Pyne will be signing books from 2 to 4 p.m. today at Borders in Braintree.

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