My grandmother had a kaleidoscope. Someone gave it to her during her long last illness and I used to sit in her room and hold it up to the light, tilting it and watching the colors, the pieces, the patterns fall into place.
Did she play with it when she was alone? I like to think so. I like to think, in part, it helped her maintain her unfailing good cheer that gave something back to everyone who visited her.
But that was a long time ago, before my children, who now have children of their own, were even born, and since then I had largely forgotten about kaleidoscopes until last year when I saw one in a craft store. In fact I saw a whole row, lined there on the shelf, some with the shafts made of wood, some of metal, of plastic, and I spent the better part of half an hour holding first one and then another up the light, twisting, tilting. And suddenly I wanted one with a kind of burning intensity. Or at least wanted to buy one for someone else. I didn't, though, and continued on my way.
I went back to the store this year when I needed something extra to go along with a daughter's birthday check: something that spoke of lights and colors and things falling into place. Would she like it, I wondered as I stood in front of the display hesitantly picking up a kaleidoscope and putting it down again. Is there any place in this world of technology for something that doesn't do anything?
I was about to reconsider, to move on to earrings or key rings, or woolly scarves when I heard the voices and assorted snippets of conversations.
The store was, for the most part, empty and I looked around, puzzled at first until I saw the child. She was eight, or maybe nine, and was standing in the corner in front of the toys. Her hands were busy as she marched the wooden animals -- a lion, a tiger, an elephant on wheels -- over a shelf that was suddenly a jungle; as the puppets swooped and danced around her; as a marionette spun overhead. Her voice was both high and low: She was a frog, an ogre, a fairy-tale princess.
I eavesdropped unabashedly as she wove her stories. Then I picked up a kaleidoscope and took it over to the clerk at the counter, thinking all the while of my grandmother, my daughter, and the girl who talks to toys.
Colby Rodowsky's latest book for children is ''Dog Days'' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).