Columns, In the Garden

Remembering Tasha Tudor (1915-2008)

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by Henry Homeyer

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Tasha and her last corgi, Meggie.

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – Tasha Tudor, one of America’s favorite children’s book illustrators and writers and a great gardener, died peacefully at home on June 18, 2008, at the age of 92.

She sold her first book, “Pumpkin Moonshine,” in 1938 by going to New York and walking from publishing house to publishing house with her book under her arm until she finally sold it, after many rejections, to the New York office of Oxford University Press. Since that time she has illustrated about 100 books including classics like “Little Women” and “The Secret Garden,” and written several of her own books, including “Corgiville Fair” and “Corgiville Christmas,” which came out in 2002 when she was 86.

Mrs. Tudor dressed and lived as if she were living in the 1830s, making her own clothes (similar to those of that period), growing vegetables, and until she was 84, milking her own Nubian goats. She loved to go barefoot, wearing shoes only when entertaining guests or traveling. She lived in a little house far off the beaten track in Marlboro, Vt. Her house, built by her son, Seth, was modeled on a New Hampshire farmhouse built in 1740; it was so small that when I visited her I had to duck to get through the doorways.

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Tasha’s Tea service.

In general, Mrs. Tudor hated politicians and journalists. I managed to wheedle my way into her good graces by bringing her homemade cookies and unusual plants. I’d read that she loved clematis and primroses, so I presented her with some, unusual species she did not have. After she decided I was all right, she admitted, with a wry smile, that she lined her bird cage with newspapers showing the faces of politicians, face up. A very proper lady, she did not say what she did with pictures of journalists.

An excellent cook who believed in the goodness of butter and cream, Mrs. Tudor had made a pineapple upside down cake in my honor. She loaded it with heaping spoonfuls of fresh cream she had whipped up just before my arrival, telling me she didn’t believe in the evils of cholesterol. She told me that once, when she was tired of waiting for a stone mason to show up to build a retaining wall behind her house, she put up a “Wanted” poster for him at the local post office. She offered a homemade pie as the reward for bringing him. The mason turned up the next day, claimed the pie, and began the work.

Gardening was a passion for Mrs. Tudor, and she did some every day all spring, summer and fall. She also had a small glass greenhouse in which she grew tropical plants like Angel’s Trumpet and a huge peach-blossomed Brugmansia. She told me she first fell in love with plants at the age of five, while she and her well-connected family were visiting Alexander Graham Bell, who grew a fragrant yellow rose known as Father Hugo’s rose (Rosa hugonis).

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Tasha loved roosters, including this one named Chicahominy.

Mrs. Tudor was quite formal in some ways, but progressive, too. She used her mother’s last name, not her father’s or her husband’s. She expected to be mentioned in writing as Mrs. Tudor not Tasha, and insisted on calling me Mr. Homeyer, even when I protested that I preferred being called by my first name.

During our first visit she lamented that she wanted to plant more of her favorite crabapples, but that the varieties were no longer available. I found one for her at E.C. Brown’s nursery in Thetford, Vt., and she had her son take her there the very next day. She generally traveled with her pet rooster, Chickahominy, but no one at E.C. Brown’s remembers him being there that day. Maybe he was feeling tired: her Corgi, Meggie, loved to chase him. She told me that Chickahominy “likes to go motoring” and that for his ceaseless efforts controlling cutworms, he was “getting a PhD in entomology”.

Mrs. Tudor stayed fit and trim throughout her life. When I saw her in 2005 she said that she could still fit into her wedding dress and chin herself on a bar. She continued planting trees when she was in her late eighties, including a crabapple that Wayne Mezitt of Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Mass., made especially for her. He grafted a scion from an old variety that was out of commercial production, “White Weeper” onto rootstock. She had purchased the same variety of crabapple some 40 years before, and was still remembered at the nursery. She made an impression wherever she went.

Near the end of my second visit with Mrs. Tudor I asked her to what she attributed her energy, good health and long life. Without a moment’s hesitation she said, “Goat’s milk and gardening.” Then, with a straight face but a twinkle in her eye she added, “And choosing the right parents.” Mrs. Tudor grew huge expanses of forget-me-nots that bloomed in waves beneath her crabapples, which seems appropriate. She marched to her own drummer, and will not be soon forgotten.

[Homeyer’s column appears on an occasional basis. Reach him at [email protected] or PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.]

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