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Welcomed to Tasha Tudor's world

As I got to know Tasha, I discovered that her most remarkable creation was her life.

By Joan Donaldson / July 25, 2008

Idyllic: Children's book illustrator Tasha Tudor follows one of her corgis outside her home in Marlboro, Vt. Her drawings echoed her own picturesque lifestyle.

Richard Brown/AP

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In my garden, a lettuce poppy opened the week Tasha Tudor passed away. The buds unfolded into a fluffy mop, the same color as the Pink Luster china from which Tasha sipped tea. She had given me the poppy seeds from her garden several years ago and recommended "shaking them about like pepper." Such a comment was characteristic of Tasha, an artist who sculpted her own world.

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I discovered her illustrations as a young reader. At our Carnegie library, I dragged over a tiny chair, stepped up, and pulled one picture book after another off the top shelves, slowly working my way through the stacks. I searched for those simple, delicate watercolors of barefoot girls in long dresses toasting apples by a fire or riding home on a loaded hay wagon. And at Christmas, I sifted through the cards that arrived, hoping to find one with a Tasha Tudor drawing depicting children from a bygone era arranging a crèche, or mice and rabbits gazing at a decorated pine tree.

As my reading skills improved, I was thrilled to find that she had also illustrated chapter books. Repeatedly, I checked out "A Little Princess" and "The Secret Garden." I longed to step into those watercolors and share tea with Sara, or help Mary and Dickon transplant roses. When a best friend received a signed copy of "A Little Princess," I realized that illustrators were real people who gave book tours and talked to audiences.

I vowed that one day I would meet the woman whose paintings not only told stories but also drew the readers into scenes of simple pleasures such as decorating valentines or spying a flotilla of candles escorting a birthday cake down a river. And who was this person whose imagination created that romantic world?

Finally, years later on a dreary November afternoon, I met Tasha at a book signing, and because I had helped prepare for the event, I was invited to a special tea for the volunteers. Tasha and I chatted, comparing details about our farms and our love of spinning, gardening, and reading. Impetuously, she took my hands.

"You must come visit me in Vermont," she said. "We must become friends."

"Thank you," I said, feeling as if I were Cinderella, holding hands with a fairy godmother. All winter, I dreamed of the upcoming visit.

Six months later, one early June afternoon, my husband, John, and I rumbled up Tasha's half-mile driveway, passing birch and hemlock trees. We turned a curve and spied a meadow filled with daisies and lupines that flanked a barn attached to a cottage. Several corgis and an Irish wolfhound greeted us. Goats bawled in the barn. We stepped into Tasha's peaceable kingdom and at last could witness the artist in the midst of her creation.

After we carried our suitcases up a narrow stairway, skirted a table piled with Tasha's sketchbooks, and deposited our belongings on a canopy bed, we asked how we could help. Tasha sent us out to plant potatoes.

"I'm late getting these in," she said and handed us a woven basket with slices of seed potatoes. "Beyond the peonies and iris, you'll see the vegetable patch. Plant these there."

We dug and planted while gazing at the profusion of flower beds where yellow iris shimmered above blue forget-me-nots, and bleeding hearts cascaded over brick paths. Just like her illustrations, Tasha's gardens displayed contrasting textures and colors. Yet in addition to the vast gardens, the barn and outbuildings showed that the heart of a farmer mingled with the artist's antique tea sets and numerous bird cages scattered about Corgi Cottage. I marveled at the determination and labor that Tasha dedicated to creating and maintaining her cosmos.

On our repeated stays at Tasha's home and during hearthside discussions with us, Tasha continued to share her unique combination of graciousness and grit and revealed that her most remarkable creation was her life. Her illustrations grew from what she experienced, both the celebrations and also the manual tasks of splitting wood or building a chicken coop. Tasha had toiled to create that beautiful, pastoral world.

From her wisdom, I gleaned the courage to shape my life, and Tasha's encouragement prompted me to write for children. At the end of one visit, she sent me home with the packet of poppy seeds whose offspring still flourish in my garden, and from which I have gathered numerous envelopes of seeds for friends.

Now, no longer will I be able to stand in Tasha's kitchen listening to her parrots or admiring the camellias floating in an antique bowl. But I'll continue to give her books as presents and will share seeds from her poppies, hoping to pass on her inspiration to others who long to create a world of their own.

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