Saturday, December 13, 2014

Friends at First Sight

Tasha at the Kalamazoo Public Library with Mary Rife in the background

Friends at First Sight

            In the fall of 1985, my good friend, Mary Rife, who was the head of the Kalamazoo Public Library’s Children’s Room, told me that next November, Tasha Tudor would be presenting during the library’s author’s weekend. Mary had heard me describe my deep love for Tasha’s artwork and how as a child, I had sought out any book that she had illustrated. In fact, before I could read, I pulled picture books from the stacks, hoping to land on one of Tasha’s creations. So following Mary’s announcement, I circled that particular November weekend on my new 1986 calendar and daydreamed.
            Mary also understood that the best way to provide me with extra time with Tasha was to invite me to help prepare for the author event, because being volunteer would allow me to attend a special tea and even be included in an intimate luncheon. Because I live by the motto that participating is more fun that merely observing, I reveled in being part of the team who prepared for Tasha’s visit. Mary’s main request was for me to recreate the pink and white quilt in A is for Annabelle, because a generous donor had paid for a replica of Annabelle who would be on display in a section of the children’s room. After I measured the doll bed, Mary and I chose a pink reproduction calico and I pieced and quilted the top.
            The day that Tasha arrived, I marveled that my arms carried stacks of her artwork from Mary’s car into the library. The child who had searched for her books now touched original illustrations that attendees could purchase. After everything was in place for Tasha to speak that evening, Mary and I picked up Tasha who lodged at a local bed and breakfast inn so that we could take her to lunch.
            Like any admirer, I babbled to Tasha about how much I loved her illustrations and her lifestyle that reflected my family’s similar values of farming and homesteading. She perked up as I described how John and I had constructed several timber-framed buildings, including our house and a large barn, and naturally, Tasha was interested in my large garden, dairy goats and chickens. Over lunch, Tasha and I continued to discuss beloved varieties of roses, our favorite seed catalogues, and even how John and I powered our home with solar electricity. By the end of the meal, Tasha began hinting that I should come visit her home.
            The next day, John escorted me into a lecture room packed with Tasha’s fans who listened to her tell stories about her life while watching her draw. Because everyone shared a similar love, the audience felt like a gathering of friends, and no one minded when we stood in line for over an hour to have our books signed. We chatted about our favorite books and marveled over how Tasha’s creativity overflowed in so many ways, from her marionettes to her garden, to her old-fashion home. After Tasha signed my books, I was stunned to read her inscription: “You must come visit me at my home in Vermont.”
            A special tea for volunteers and library staff followed the lecture, and during that time, I questioned Tasha about what she had written.
            “Do you really want me to visit you?” To step into Tasha’ world was a gift that I had never imagined and could barely believe that she had offered it to me.
            “Yes, I do, and bring that handsome husband of yours. How did you ever convince him to wear nineteenth century clothing?”
            “It was John’s choice, partly because I could sew all his clothes.”
            “Well, I look forward to seeing both of you next spring.” Then Tasha turned to chat with other guests.

            And on New Year’s Day when I hung up our new calendar, I had already circled the first weekend in June for our visit to Tasha Tudor, the first of several that I made over the next decade.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tasha's bird feeder and corgyn

Tasha feeding the birds in her hand-woven dress
Feed the Birds

While most folks know that Tasha loved her many canaries, diamond doves, parrots, and zebra finches, she also cared about the song birds who visited her farm. Each spring, she and I would compare the arrival of the first wren and the hermit thrush. I loved how the white-sparrow resided on her farm and its plaintive call sounded during Tasha’s summer solstice party. Of course, some of the song birds showed up in her illustrations, swinging on a garland or sitting in a bush. One wintry morning, Tasha and I watched a gathering of blue jays as they swooped down to her bird feeder and then back to a leafless branch. She had just come back inside from filling the feeder, with a little help from Owen and Megan, two of her corgis. She was amazed by the quantity of jays and kept counting them, trying to ascertain exactly how many were fluttering in the trees. That moment must have lingered in Tasha’s thoughts, because when she sent me a packet filled with copies of the illustrations for The Real Pretend, there were the blue jays, fluffed up and sitting midst pine branches that wreathed the scene in the kitchen when the children explain their dilemma. Tasha had also painted me as the mother, another one of her charming ways to include friends in her books. So now when I sprinkle bird seed on the snow and fill my feeders, I often think of Tasha and her great love for her feathered friends.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Parma Violets in Tasha's Parlor

Opening the door to Tasha’s parlor, I sniffed the scent of spring. Snow flurries sifted outside the windows. But from somewhere in the room, floated the fragrance of violets, as if someone had secretly placed a May basket on one of the tables. I wandered around the parlor, searching for the source of the perfume and noticed a row of three pots on a windowsill. Tiny white, lavender and rosy flowers trailed from plants with shiny heart-shaped leave. Bending my head over the mounds of greenery, I inhaled and fell in love.
   After Tasha woke up from her characteristic afternoon nap, and as we settled near her hearth with a tea tray, I questioned her about the violets.
 "Those are Parma violets, aren’t they lovely? In the dark of winter, one plant can perfume an entire room. They are tender plants and can’t survive the cold like regular violets, but they thrive in a cool place.” Tasha picked up a pink luster tea cup, while reaching for a slice of poppy seed cake.
            Tasha barely heated her parlor, only lighting a fire when we sometimes ate dinner in that room, so it offered the temperatures of early spring. Tucked on an east facing windowsill, the location provided for ample sunlight, yet sheltered them from any bright afternoons.
            “Parma violets were first grown in Italy,” Tasha said. “Sometime in the late nineteenth century, they were brought to England where they were madly popular in small bouquets.”
            “I understand why, they remind me of my small, English violets that bloom in early April on my farm. I love to bury my nose in the plants and fill my lungs with their perfume. On a sunny afternoon, the scent of violets floats from that corner of my garden.”
            “Yes,” Tasha said as she poked at the fire and tossed on two birch logs. Their bark blazed, sending sparks up the back of the fireplace. At her feet, her corgi, Owen, waited for crumbs or for his mistress to offer him a bit of cake. Always ready to talk gardening, Tasha continued, drawing from her years of cultivating plants.
            “When the violets were imported to New York City, they became the rage. Young ladies liked to wear a cluster on their shirtwaist or slip them into a wedding bouquets. I suppose when plant breeders created larger violets, people fell for the showier blossoms.”
            “And ignored the lack of scent,” I added. When discussing seed catalogs, Tasha and I admitted to reading through a plant’s description, searching for and selecting those varieties that could claim, “highly fragrant”.

            I poured each of us another cup of tea and leaned back in the settle, listening to a canary trill. The warmth of the fire flushed our cheeks while visions of next year materialized in our minds. Upon arriving home, I wrote out my order and soon, Parma violets perfumed my kitchen with the fragrance of an April afternoon.