Thursday, October 12, 2017

Celebrating Pumpkin Moonshine 

Because of Tasha’s affinity with the 1830’s, Conner Prairie in Noblesville, Indiana was one of her favorite places to visit. Located east of Indianapolis, the village features log cabins, clapboard cottages, a restored inn and other buildings that were transported to the 19th century homestead of William Conner, my ancestor. In her old-fashion frocks, Tasha felt at home as she wandered the narrow streets and visited in the cottages that embraced her time period. On one hilltop stands Conner’s restored two-story brick home that overlooks the White River. Conner was both a trader and a statesman who could afford a grander home than the average settler.
On a mild October afternoon, my husband, John and I drove from our Michigan home down to Conner Prairie. We rolled by fields where brittle cornstalks waved their golden-brown leaves as flocks of Sandhill Cranes flew overhead, trumpeting their eerie cry. At last, we parked our car and slipped through the time warp of Conner Prairie, strolling toward a large barn that had been moved to a location near Conner’s home. The sun’s last rays illuminated the wide boards both as flooring and as siding for the barn. Inside, dozens of people scurried about, hanging streamers, setting up snacks on trestle tables, and storing musical instruments in one corner. Strings of lights twinkled. Every woman was dressed in an 1830’s gown while the gentlemen sported dark broadfall trousers, suspenders, high collared shirts and sometimes a satin waistcoat. Straw hats and bonnets still adorned smiling faces.
“She’ll be here soon,” Beth Mathers said as she hugged me. “Everyone, Tasha should be here in about five minutes.”
The sun painted sky orange and gold when Beth signaled for everyone to shush. We waited in the shadows, for the sound of Tasha’s footsteps. At last, her voice floated through the gloaming, and she appeared in a pale rose gown with a lace pelisse and wearing a large satin bonnet. We clapped and cheered as Tasha entered the barn, wide-eyed and astonished.
“Happy 50th Anniversary,” Beth said. “Fifty years of Pumpkin Moonshine.”
With Tasha as the honored guest, she picked up a plate and urged everyone to partake of the lovely spread of food. Friends clustered around Tasha, offering small gifts to commemorate her publishing successed. She rode in the first wagon ride through the dark village, and then small parties took their turns, rumbling by grazing sheep and oxen. Paul Peabody’s marionettes told stories and referred to Tasha’s days of performing with her creatures. A Conner Prairie interpreter tuned his fiddle and lined everyone up for the Virginia Reel with Tasha as the lead dancer. For a few hours, we explored the past’s entertainment with our beloved author and illustrator whom I was blessed to call a friend.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Summer Afternoons

My sons and Tasha' grandsons in her canoe on Tasha's pond

Summer Afternoons
When I was a young mother, one of Tasha’s greatest gifts to me was her example of discipline. My husband, John and I were thinking of homeschooling our two sons, but I wondered how could I fit in even more work into both my creative and farm life? Like Tasha, we lived a fairly simple life with only a few solar panels for electricity, a wood cook stove that heated our house and our hot water, and a huge garden to feed the family.
“How did you manage?” I asked Tasha. “You raised four children without electricity, cared for your animals, garden, and established a career as an illustrator/author? And for a while, you home schooled your off-spring.” I didn’t add the book tours and countless other roles she had fulfilled.
“Yes,” Tasha said and stirred cream into her tea as we sat on her porch on a mild spring day. A few snow drops bloomed and her garden was stirring with hints of buds. A blue jay flashed by us.
“It takes a certain amount of discipline to accomplish goals, and, of course, my children had responsibilities. They weeded in the garden, helped with the animals, and performed in the marionette shows when we created. So they truly contributed to the life of the farm.”
I nibbled on a buttered biscuit with a sliver of cheddar cheese in its middle. Minus the marionette shows, my sons also attended to our goats and chickens and weeded in the garden with me.
“And I always made sure that if they finished their lessons and their work, we would spend part of the afternoon at the river. While they splashed and swam or paddled the canoe, I would sketch and find ideas for the next book or cards. But if they didn’t do their work, then we skipped that special treat.” Tasha sipped her tea. “They learned early that the discipline of completing their responsibilities was much better than staying home.”
Back at my home, I applied the same parenting technique to my boys. If they finished their lessons and jobs, then they could swim in our pond or dig in the sandy shore. Sitting at our picnic table in the shade of a tall maple tree, I could write letters or even read. Tasha’s wisdom was good advice, and today when I spy our quiet pond, I recall my sons enjoying the summer afternoon, just like Tasha’s children when they cooled off in their river.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Birch Bark
            Most afternoons, after a wonderful lunch of soup and biscuits, Tasha and her corgis would retire for a short nap. Each time I visited, she would remind me that when she was a young mother, her doctor had advised her to cultivate the habit of resting. Tasha had learned that even a thirty-minute nap would refresh her creativity, her patience to be a good mother, and restore the energy she would need to manage her homestead. Even after her children left the nest to carve out their adult lives, Tasha continued to nap.
            Left to entertain myself, once I made the mistake of playing my recorder in the greenhouse, and later learned that the English Country Dance tunes had floated up to Tasha’s bedroom! After that incident, I either read or knitted by the hearth, or bundled up and headed outside for a walk. Because I usually spent time with Tasha in either January or February when my own farm was dormant, Vermont offered zero temperatures with brilliant blue skies or snow clouds. Coming from Michigan, I knew to add a few more layers of clothing, wrap a scarf around my nose and accept whatever the weather offered.
            While birch trees grew throughout the woods near Tasha’s home, their white-bark brightened the thicket of trees that lined the driveway. Even when snowflakes fell, like torches the birch trees shimmered midst the gray trunks and feathery evergreens. My boots crunched against the snow, and my breath floated in clouds as I strolled towards the dirt road that lead to the greater world beyond Tasha’s home. Chick-a-dees called as they flitted through the woods, along with an occasional flash of a blue-jay’s wings. Wood smoke scented the air. Sometimes, instead stopping at the mailbox, I walked on to view a pond only a short ways from Tasha’s mailbox. More birches stood sentry along that road, declaring that the land claimed a northern character. After the invigorating constitutional, I picked up Tasha’s mail and headed back to her home and the warm fire.
            Once while discussing her birch bark canoe, Tasha talked about how drawing or writing on birch bark was great fun. I confessed that because so few birches grew on my farm, that I had never stripped one of them and tried writing on the bark.
            “In the spring, when the sap is running, I will send you some,” Tasha said. “Your children will especially enjoy drawing on it.”
            I thanked her, grateful once again for Tasha’s encouragement to broaden my experiences and creativity. Later that week, I flew back to Michigan, and forgot about her promise. But sometime in June, a large box arrived in the mail addressed with Tasha’s familiar handwriting. I cut it open and removed a heavy roll of birch bark. With black streaks slashed the white and small nubs provided texture that would enhance anything drawn upon the skin of a birch. I cut off a few strips from the roll, and my sons sketched corgis and goats on them, and later stored the bark in their play house.

            While preparing for this year’s you-pick blueberry season, I swept and tied the playhouse that now serves as a weigh-in location, and noticed the roll of birch bark. How could I have forgotten this wonderful piece of Tasha’s life that exemplified her love of nature and art? Now the roll rests in a place of honor, a reminder of Tasha’s generosity and the slender birches crowning her woods.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Lavender and Silver

wisteria opening

            The first time my husband, John and I visited Corgi Cottage, Tasha led us to the upper bedroom with the canopy bed and long shelves holding her gardening books. From that point on, I called it the garden room because of the books and the splendid view of Tasha’s garden. But also, because of the tendrils of wisteria threading underneath the window and into the room. I’m sure Tasha didn’t plan on that vine sneaking into the bedroom, but its presence fitted the personality of Tasha who loved her gardens and reminded me of the garlands that often framed her illustrations.
            At that time, I didn’t know that it was a wisteria vine, because most of my experiences with climbing plants were with morning glories, clematis and ivy. I was unprepared for the waterfall of silvery, lavender cones of flowers cascading down the wall of her weathered cottage. The blossoms perfumed the air beneath our window. Their scent floated through the yard while a white-crowned sparrow sang, “Poor Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” and the sun painted the western sky apricot.
            Naturally, I pestered Tasha about the wisteria, and as soon as I arrived home, ordered two plants from a nursery. I planted them in front of my garden shed, envisioning a similar stunning display of blossoms. But nothing happened. I added more compost, mulched the plants, and still they did not bloom. So on my next visit, during the winter when Tasha’s vine slept, I asked many questions.
            “Try chopping at its roots, and don’t add any compost this year, maybe cut it back a bit,” Tasha advised. “And you might have to visit a nursery and purchase a blooming wisteria plant in order to know that have one that has the potential to bloom.”

            I tried Tasha’s gardening tricks, minus buying new nursery stock, but my plants only grew vibrant leaves. Seven years after planting the wisteria, I notice cone-shaped buds forming along a few of the branches. On a warm May afternoon, they unfurled, like theater curtains, and draped the roof of my garden shed. Bumblebees hovered among the blossoms. The sweetness of wisteria filled my lungs each time I lingered beneath the lavender shower. That evening while walking with my corgi, a hermit thrush’s silver call rippled through the woods, the wisteria shimmered in the sunset, and mirrored the splendor of Tasha’s garden.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Tasha's Fireside Book Reviews

            While sitting by Tasha’s fireplace, sharing tea and stories, at some point, our conversation moved into what books we had recently read or the books that had inspired us. Tasha was a well-read woman with a library tucked off her parlor, so that unless a visitor wandered through that section of the house, she wouldn’t notice the many bookshelves. While the room held Tasha’s literary selections, her gardening books dwelt in one of the upper bedrooms.
            One time while perusing Tasha’s book collection, I was amazed to discover a couple of first editions with Arthur Rackham’s illustrations. My hands shook as I viewed the pages and realized what treasures I held.
            “I found them in a London shop years ago, when I was living in England,” Tasha explained. “Mr. Rackham’s art inspired me to want to illustrate children’s books.”
            While I had read Pride and Prejudice, Tasha waxed on about Austin’s other novels, Sense and Sensibility and Emma and nudged me to read them. She also pointed out that to some degree, they are books that women cherish more than men.
            We both loved Thomas Hardy’s books and would muse about certain scenes such as the chapter with country dancing at the beginning of The Return of the Native. And of course, while living in England, Tasha had seen some of the places Hardy mentioned in his books. My husband, John and I had never read any of Wilkie Collins’ mystery novels until Tasha praised The Moonstone, and The Woman in White, plus she pointed out that Collins predated Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. So, John and I read all of Collin’s books and watched the film adaptations of his most famous novels.
            Ever generous, one snowy morning, Tasha drove us to a bookstore housed in a barn that was managed by a friend. She insisted that there were a few books that I must own, and that the shop owner would probably have them. Among the volumes she chose was the novel, Cranford by Mrs. Gaskell, with forty colored illustrations and sixty pen-and-ink sketches by Hugh Thomson, published in 1898. Miraculously, the shop owner located that exact edition of Cranford, and Tasha showed me the illustrations.
            “Thomson was another artist who inspired me to become an illustrator,” Tasha said. “When you read this, think about how much his art contributes to the story. And it is a lovely story.”
            I cherish that faded green volume with gilt lettering, a symbol of times spent learning from Tasha, and hearing her memories of what inspired her art, just as Tasha continues to inspire me.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Scented Treasures

Scented Treasures
As a child, my mother grew great clumps of large violets that bloomed in late April, just in time for filling my May Baskets. I picked the purple or white flowers splashed with purple, and encircled the bouquets with some of their heart-shaped leaves, and stuck them into decorated paper cups. In my heart, I dearly wanted to pluck some of my mother’s primroses so that I could add a little yellow to each basket, but I was forbidden to pick any of those flowers.
On May Day, I snuck over to our neighbor’s house, left a basket on her porch, and rang the doorbell, and hid in her shrubs. This delicious trick, the opposite of Halloween’s begging, was repeated at a few other neighbor’s houses, plus my grandparent’s home and of course, my mother found a basket at her door. Thank goodness, for my mother’s long borders of violet plants that provided generous bouquets, yet I often wondered why those violets had no fragrance.
Once while visiting Tasha in late March and touring her garden, she showed me a patch of small English violets that had emerged from a covering of snow. Unlike my mother’s large plants, these violets grew closer to the earth with smaller leaves.
“When the sun warms their blossoms, they perfume this corner of the garden,” she said.
Back inside her cottage, Tasha gave me a nursery catalog featuring eight or nine varieties English violets with different levels of fragrance. Mirroring her taste in heirloom roses, Tasha had noted the most odiferous of the violets. The catalog listed different colors, red, white, lavender, purple, maroon, and dark purple, and some even had names such as “lamb’s ears” for the tiny white variety. I was enthralled and ordered several violet plants for my garden.
When they arrived, I planted them beneath a forsythia bush, eager for their blossoms to scent the shady space. But while on a walk around our farm pond for the first time, I noticed violets similar to the ones in Tasha’s garden, and when their lavender buds opened, I smelled their sweet violet odor. After talking to my husband, we discerned that the previous owners of our land were of English decent, and Mrs. Wadsworth adored gardening, so most-likely she had planted that bed of violets. Like so many other seasonal details, I called Tasha and told her about the wild planting and because their blossoms had just opened, she could expect her plants to bloom in a couple of weeks.
Slowly, my own bed of violets expanded, and I never walked by it without pausing to burrow my nose into their jewel-like flowers. A few deep breaths would slow my heartbeat, calm my mind and renew my energy. Despite their short stems, I picked tiny bouquets to fill a doll’s teacup so that even when inside, I could inhale their sweet scent. And come early, November, I was delighted to find a few blossoms blooming, a final gift before snow covered my garden.

Now that Tasha has passed away, each spring, my small violets remind me of tender moments spent in her green house and garden; like May Baskets, they were full of wonderful surprises and joy.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Goats and Artistic Cheese

Starting in March, my phone conversations with Tasha often discussed the first snowdrop or crocus to blossom, the return of red-winged blackbirds, or the constant cheeping of spring peepers. As much as we loved the first flowers and flocks of robins, one of the most important markers in the progression of spring was when our goats delivered their kids. Even though we had both kept goats for numerous years, we confessed tidbits of apprehension when we found a doe in labor. Most of the time the births were normal, but now and then, we had to assist the mother as she brought forth twins or triplets. When all the does had birthed their young, our conversations turned to how many kids now scampered in the barn, how well they drank from their bottles, and which female kids would make champion milkers.
 But of course, the spring ritual of goat kids actually began in a different shed where Tasha kept her male goat, nick-named Bucky after Buckminster Fuller, who lived with another goat in a separate shed. While Tasha never accepted my offer to milk her does, she sometimes sent me to fill Bucky’s water bucket and to feed him hay.
During the evening chore time, I would follow Tasha around, assisting in small ways. Milking her does was a cherished task. Her gentle female goats knew who was to be milked first, and without any prodding, the does would walk out of their pen, and jump on the stanchion. They needed no restraint to keep them on the small platform where Tasha stripped them of their milk as they munched on a pan of grain. As soon as one goat was finished, she jumped off, and allowed the next doe, her special moment with Tasha. The only sound was of milk flowing into the metal bucket and the goat’s teeth crunching on her feed. As the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh wrote, these sounds are the “music of milking”.
Tasha preferred Nubian goats with their floppy ears and broad Roman noses, splashes of vanilla-colored spots shimmering on their brown coats. Nubian does love attention and can be one of the most vocal breeds, bawling about their need for more hay or a small snack from the garden. Because the goats provided a rich manure that Tasha spread on her vegetable and flower garden, so that those plantings yielded bountiful crops, and lush blossoms on her peonies, foxgloves, and numerous roses.

Although I had crafted cheese from cow’s milk for many years, I turned to Tasha for answers about how to perfect my goat cheese. She suggested a French cheesemakers book, The Fabrication of Farmstead Goat Cheese, and also gave me a subscription to Dairy Goat Journal. Tasha also pointed out that cheesemaking is an art that demanded precision, patience, and constant practice. Like the paintings and sketches scattered at the end of her trestle table, Tasha applied these character traits to her simple life and encouraged me to follow her example in whatever artistic pursuit I explored.