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.