Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Dedham Blue Rabbits

Dedham teapot

Blue and White
            While Tasha owned several pink luster tea sets and even gave one of them to me, she also loved her Canton china and a special blue and white tea set from the early nineteenth century. Sitting by her fire, I would cradle the deep saucers decorated with simple blue flowers that resembled dianthus, and sip from the thin, handless cups. In The Private Life of Tasha Tudor, Richard Brown featured a photo of Tasha pouring from the blue and white tea pot as she served a young visitor.
            When pausing to gaze around Corgi Cottage, the combination of blue and white appears in the checked curtains, cream and blue crocks, and pillows, and of course, rows of Canton china shine in the kitchen cupboard. Much of the cherished china once served as ballast in Tasha’s grandfather’s ship. The Ice King figured out how to transport ice from local New England ponds to various southern locations, and return with cargo bound for Boston.
            While Tasha loved her antique china, she also introduced me to another, more whimsical pottery. One afternoon, she tossed tea leaves into a cunning teapot with a crackled glaze and a band of blue rabbits racing around its chubby middle.
            “Where did you find such a sweet tea pot?” I asked her.
            We carried the tea tray to the fireplace, where Tasha told me about the Dedham pottery, founded by a Robertson family in 1876. After the Scottish potter, Hugh Robertson attended the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and observed Chinese pottery with a crackled red glaze, he decided to create a similar type of stoneware with cobalt blue designs. The first pottery was established in Chelsea, Massachusetts and about twenty years later, move to Dedham. While the crouching rabbit with its ears back most often decorated the pottery, sometimes other animals, flowers and leaves appeared.
            Tasha showed me a couple of other pieces of Dedham pottery and declared, “A woman can never have enough china. It is her prerogative.”

            About a week later, after returning home, I opened my rural mailbox to find a package marked “fragile”. A twin of Tasha’s Dedham teapot glimmered midst the packing material; its cobalt blue rabbits snuggled among leaves. Each time I fill it with tea leaves and steaming water, I remember another peaceful moment, learning more than history near Tasha’s fireplace.

Canton China

Washing lovely china

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hollyhocks in my Garden

Tasha loved hollyhocks. Near the middle of June, I can remember her calling me and asking if my hollyhocks were blooming, because in Vermont’s climate, her stately plants would not open for several more weeks. In the early part of the nineteenth century, hollyhocks were one of those cottage flowers that surrounded homes and even appeared near outbuildings. Their iridescent bell-shaped blossoms shimmer in red, pink, deep maroon, white and yellow. For some reason, Tasha had lost her yellow hollyhocks and had not found any volunteers from which she could pluck a few seed pods until she strolled through a living history village.
“But I just didn't feeling right about taking any seeds,” she confessed, as we sat near her hearth.
“Next summer, I’ll send you some from my plants.” While the canaries sang, I poured myself more tea and nibbled on a slice of flaky pastry that held a thick, sticky poppy seed filling.
We reflected about playing with hollyhock dolls, and how the dolls could hold the flowers as parasols or use them as small boats. Slowly, our conversation drifted away from gardening and onto homestead activities, our baby goats, cheese making and how to create pectin from green apples. While none of those subjects would appear in flashy headlines, they illustrated the daily tasks that shaped Tasha’s life. A remarkable life that still inspires many others to delight in those simple pleasures.
Tasha's June Garden

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Feline Friend for Tasha

Napping in the weaving room

Perched on a soft coverlet

While most folks associate Welsh Pembroke Corgyn with Tasha, she also loved cats and they were attracted to her. Miaou, her one-eyed gray tabby often slept in large antique bowls, or snuggled on the bed in the winter kitchen. But of course, she was Tasha’s well-loved pet, but one day I saw a stray cat bond with Tasha.
Tasha and I were attending the Spencerian Saga, held each fall near Platt Rogers Spencer’s home in Ashtabula, Ohio. Along with the other students, we took a field trip to visit Spencer’s grave. A cloudless sky shimmered overhead and a few trees displayed their fall colors as Tasha and I strolled through the cemetery, looking at the flowers and sayings on the older tombstones. Because we were there to celebrate Spencer’s achievements and not to attend a funeral, the peace of the place settled over us.

Out of nowhere, a black cat with white markings sauntered up the brick path and paused by Tasha. He stared up at her with that certain look that asks for attention. She sat down on the grass, and cuddled him. Settling into her arms, he began to purr. When his desire for snuggles was satisfied, Tasha amused him with a blade of grass, wiggling it back and forth as the cat pounced on it. Finally, our band of students needed to leave, so Tasha gave kitty one last hug. He sat on the path, a quiet sentinel watching our car drive away.
Tasha and her new friend

Sewing by the hearth with a sleepy tabby

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Winter Gardening Pleasures

Tasha's front porch
Like most gardeners, late winter was the time when Tasha perused seed and nursery catalogs. And because I usually visited during February, our conversations rambled off to our favorite heirloom roses, the heady fragrance of scented geraniums and our favorite colors of hollyhocks. Tasha also confessed her habit of now and then, taking a cutting or a seed pod while strolling through a famous garden. If I remember correctly, her boxwood plants were cuttings from a plant at Mount Vernon. She nurtured the same habit in me by giving me poppy seed pods so that I could splash their seeds around my garden. Every year, their lavender or pink flowers shimmer between the dianthus and clumps of thyme.
When I voiced my frustration over primrose seeds from seed companies that failed to germinate, Tasha explained that the freshest seeds came from the American Primrose Society. She encouraged me to join the group, and described the proper steps for germinating primula. Later that spring, I opened a birthday package sent from Tasha and there glowed a silver-green primula with delicate yellow flowers that I had admired in her greenhouse. Whenever I spy primroses as a nursery, I think of the many different varieties that bloomed in her garden and the small pots decorating her kitchen windowsill.
For Tasha, gardening was another art form with a three dimensional pallet of textures, colors and scents. With her imagination and penchant for design, she shaped flowerbeds that linger in her illustrations and inspire gardeners around the world.
In her greenhouse, Tasha and Carol Lueck

Friday, January 9, 2015

Teacups and blueberry pie

Because most of my visits to Corgi Cottage came during winter months, Tasha often spent time baking various savory treats, from a scrumptious poppy seed coffee cake to her trademark brownies. One time after the wind had blown out the pilot on her gas water heater located in the space outside her greenhouse, Tasha was going to call Seth to assist her in relighting the appliance. But together, she and I managed to restart the pilot and Tasha declared that we must celebrate our female victory with a tea. So she stoked her stove and rolled out biscuit dough laced with shredded Vermont sharp cheddar cheese and set the rounds to baking. As Tasha measured tea into her teapot, she explained why she preferred the Mark T Wendell blends.
“If you open up a teabag from a grocery store, most of its contents look like dust. But you can see full leaves in these blends, and that is why they taste superior.”
  Soon, Tasha placed golden-brown biscuits dotted with melted cheese on a blue and white plate, and I brought the teacups and saucers to the hearth where the teapot was steeping. We munched away while continuing a discussion about tea, and why Tasha believed in adding warm milk to her tea also improved the tea’s flavor.
On another afternoon when Tasha expected additional guests for tea, she sculpted a blueberry pie. In many ways, baking could display her skills to weave a flaky pie crust into lattice work that resembled one of the baskets she had created. Or she might draw a wren in the top of the crust and carefully cut the image in order to release steam and bubbling juices.

Tasha blended together art and daily life in everything, because she longed to bring beauty to simple moments and to her friends.
Tasha crafting her pie with the wall of notes, signatures and dates behind her

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Stitched by Hand

One morning, after milking and hauling water to the goats, Tasha and I lingered near the hearth, enjoying the fire’s warmth and a last cup of tea. For some reason, our conversation wandered onto the topic of women’s day caps and bonnets. Tasha recounted a tale of how one day while wearing an 1850’s bonnet and walking in New York City, women kept exclaiming over her stunning bonnet. The ladies complimented Tasha on having the courage to place such a creation on her heads and stroll through the city. Scampering off, Tasha returned with the admired bonnet, a small black style trimmed with a few silk flowers and tied with a wide black ribbon.
“We need to bring bonnets back into style,” Tasha said. “And day caps are also so feminine and practical.”
The year before my visit, Sturbridge Village had released, The Workwoman’s Guide, a collection of household and sewing information first published in 1838. Tasha found her copy, and we flipped to the day cap patterns, scanning the various styles. Because Tasha had provided me with one of her old dresses to use as a pattern, I usually wore her 1830’s style of clothing. I had also sewn a simple day cap, yet admired the frillier variations that Tasha sometimes donned.
“Would you like to sew a new cap while you’re visiting?” Tasha asked. “I could help you cut the pattern and have the perfect fabric for this style.” She pointed to the first cap in the guide. “The front of that one would look even better with a double ruffle.”
While I needed to dissect a dress in order to have a template, Tasha possessed the ability to simply look at a frock and cut a pattern that matched the original. Or she knew how to tweak the design to make her creation even lovelier. So Tasha sliced a paper bag, smoothed it out and drew me a pattern similar to the one in the book.
“Now to find some fabric,” Tasha said. From a trunk, she extracted several yards of the most delicate white lawn I had ever fingered. “I bought this years ago in Switzerland. You would have loved the shop; there were over three floors of any sort of fabric you could wish for. Wouldn’t it be fun to visit it together?” Tasha searched a sewing basket and presented to me a small wooden spool of extremely fine Styles Wax’t Thread. “Did you bring a thimble?” she asked.
Because I hadn’t, Tasha lent me one of hers. After cutting out the cap, she taught me how to roll a tiny hem on the edge of the ruffles with my left fingers while taking minute stitches with my needle. In fact, she told me to hem both sides of the ruffle and then on one side, draw the threads to gather it. Over the next few days, I sewed while Tasha drew and guided the cap’s progress. Tasha also displayed more of her caps, bonnets and pelerines so that I could marvel over the tiny stitches and embroidery. I wondered how nineteenth century women could produce such fine sewing without the benefit of electric lights.
Near the end of my visit, I finished the cap, and when my family returned for Tasha’s summer solstice party, I wore the ruffled creation along with an 1830’s gown sewn from calico that Tasha had given me, “because that looks like Joan fabric”. After that party, I donned both dress and cap for other special events. Now whenever my hands touch the delicate lawn, I can hear Tasha’s parrots chatting, inhale the scent of an blushing camellia, and most of all, relive the joy of sewing together beside her hearth on a winter afternoon.