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joy taken

there it is, the very page that long long ago cocked and wiggled its finger at me, lured me into the spell, into the nestled place of a book, where one page is sewn to the next, where what spills out, pulls you in. enchants you. stirs you. sets you to dreaming.

in my case, it never let go.

as a child, i sat and stared at page 53 in a book now so fingered its cover is crumbling. but, there, on the pages the old book flops open to, there’s thumbelina in her tulip petal canoe, sailing across the porcelain pond. lily-of-the-valley spilling onto the banks at her back. forget-me-not, and bleeding heart taking the splashes on the windward rim.

it was tasha tudor’s hands, and her heart, that so finely drew, and thus drew me in. dabbed a whole paint box of watercolors, colors she matched from her garden, colors and petals she knew so intimately, she made it be real.
real, certainly to a 5-year-old girl who wished more than anything that all of her life could be like the ones in the storybook.

in fact, i stared so hard at that petal-rimmed bowl, i imagined that maybe i too could plant me a barleycorn just like the woman on page 52–the page where the words are–who wanted a little child more than anything in the world. and then, when a green shoot shot up, just like it did in the story, i might kiss the tight-wadded bud, and sprout me a thumb-sized little friend.

i’ve never quite stopped believing.

i’ve always known that far, far away, on a farm in vermont, there was a barefooted painter, one whose garden was as lush as her storybook drawings, who held the key to my heart.

she put me under the spell, and the spell’s never broken.

only today, the 18th of june, i let out a sigh, a very sad sigh, when word came that, after 92 years, tasha tudor has died.

tasha tudor, you see, spent the whole of her life painting and drawing and dreaming for children. pages and pages, book after book. from “pumpkin moonshine,” in 1938, to “the secret garden,” in 1962, right up till just weeks before she put down her paints, tidied her garden and died.

tasha tudor, in my book, is a national treasure. i mean, was. now here we are in that odd and awkward transition, in those hours when our words can’t catch up to the truth, when we fumble with tense, passing from present to thuddingly past.

i found out through a note, sent out by her children. must’ve been sent not long after she breathed her last breath. all i know is she was circled by those who most love her. and she was at home, in the hand-built, timeworn, new england farmhouse on the crest of a very steep hill, a place she called corgi cottage.

and when i read through the words, realized a very rare story had ended, i felt the light in the room suddenly dim, just barely enough to notice. but i noticed, all right. the sun seemed to slip from the sky, shadowed by the death of more than a friend, the death of the one who launched legions of dreams.

oh, i never met her, dear tasha tudor, although i did call her my friend.

i’ve grown her seeds, her very own forget-me-nots, and her blue-eyed morning glories. i’ve baked her buttery cookies, and wished i too could roast a turkey there on what she called “a tin kitchen,” some old-fangled contraption, a fine one, tucked in the hearth.

i’ve turned the pages of whole shelves of her books. i’ve read her christmas stories to my own children. i’ve kindled her beeswax candles, the ones she dipped in long rows of vats, the wax melted from all of her hives every fall.

i’ve corresponded with her grandson and granddaughter-in-law. and i’d been tempted to go out to meet her. to sip tea, maybe. to peek in her barns.

but something stopped me.

i dared not. couldn’t bear for the spell to be broken. preferred to imagine her, wrapped in her cloaks and her 19th-century aprons and skirts whose hems swept the stones of her garden’s walk, brushed ever-so-barely against her lupine and foxglove and the great spans of cobalt delphinium.

all my life long, there’s been a tasha.

and now, there is not.

tonight, in this room with walls the color of freshly-churned butter, in this room where the glow of but one lamp is shining, i sit and spread page 53 in my lap.

i can practically hear the wisp of thumbelina’s cat-whisker oars slapping the water. can breathe in the perfume of the shore-hugging lilies-of-the-valley.

i reach out to the bookshelf, where another one of my tudor treasures is her 1979 christmas book, “take joy!”

a dear friend of mine found it some years ago in a used book store, the best place to find a tasha tudor treasure, except for the few i bought straight from her farm in vermont.

the book, 159 pages of christmas stories and poems and carols, tells just how to bake the christmas cake, hang the stockings, and bring in the tree. she tells, too, how to remember the birds at christmastime, how to make them balls of peanut butter and raisins and nuts that are chopped. and how the pet canary gets a chicory salad in a wee flower pot.

she opens the book–and, forever, my heart–with a letter of fra giovanni, who writes: “….the gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.”

joy was taken today.

but because i believe in the world carved, painted, seeded, and stitched by one tasha tudor, because the spell, even now, hasn’t been broken, i will do what tasha would wish:

i will take joy.

in the maiden voyage of a tulip leaf across a soup bowl, or in the feasting each christmas of all my little bird friends, in the unfurling of a wide-eyed morning glory, or the stirring of her old stand-by, corgi cottage soup.

take joy, always. before it’s taken away.

if you too have been touched by the magic of tasha tudor, born in boston in 1915, author and illustrator of more than 75 children’s books, beginning with her first, “pumpkin moonshine,” in 1938, please inscribe a few words. i’ll send this along to her family, all of whom, i’m certain, are very much aching this moonlit almost-summer’s night.

and, always, take joy…

if you need just a little more tasha, i wrote more of her here, back in the winter of ‘007.

goodnight, sweet tasha, good night.

postcard from daycamp

dear anybody out there,

it’s me. at camp. oh, i know. i’m not supposed to be here. back in january, when winds were howling and snows blew in through the cracks, when the farthest thing from any right-thinking mind should have been what to do with the long hot summer, back then, when i signed up for this little adventure, i did not check some wee little box, saying i too wanted to come.

nope, this was supposed to be daycamp for l’il campers. not daycamp for mamas. but, in the world that i live in, things don’t always unfold quite like they’re ‘sposed to.


despite the fact that right up till bedtime the night before the first day of camp, all was swell in the i’m-going-to-camp dept., somehow, when curls hit the pillow, something had changed.

suddenly, there was much tossing and turning and calling down stairs. “i feel nervous,” was one of the hollers. “can you come here?” was another. followed by a solemn request to climb out of bed and reach for the box with the little glass hearts, the ones employed back on the night right before the first full day of school. the ones we squeezed back and forth, our own morse sort of code, to make like an invisible wire kept us tied through the long lonely hours of a first day apart.

and so, duly equipped, on day no. 1, my little camper set out with sunscreen and towel, pb & little glass heart.

apparently, the ol’ heart is due for a tune-up. a sad fact that became abundantly clear faster than i could spit out, “sweetheart, how was it?”as he slumped off the bus at the end of the very first day.

the big yellow camp bus had not even coughed up its exiting fumes, nor started to roll out of sight after unloading my little one, when his face, red and splotchy for starters, turned into a miserable mess of sweat, sobs and tears.

“i was homesick all day,” he told me, clutching my hand, nearly collapsing into my side, crying so hard we plopped right down on the sidewalk.

the rest of the night was one long, sniffly attempt to try to decipher the root of the very bad case of mal de chateau, to put a french spin on the global affliction.

if the word p-o-o-l was so much as whispered, the sniffles turned back to the sobs.

seems the pool, according to said camper, was seven feet deep at the shallowest end, and you could and you would sink to the bottom. seems, too, the campers were warned, and spared no gory details, of the imminent dangers of cracked heads and corners of pool.

besides all that drowning and bleeding to death, it was just plain nagging homesickness that ruined the day.

there was no going back for much of the evening. he was, it seemed, on strike for the summer. would rather wither up in his room than have to board that darn yellow bus, romp in the sun, slip on the edge of the pool and succumb to the deathly deep waters.

scrounging for some sort of out here, some sort of way to turn this around–save calling and begging for refund–i asked, squeakily, would it help if i came for the swimming? to which he shook his head yes, in between inhales in between sobs.

and, so, that is how i came to be the only fully-dressed soul on the side of the pool at the next day of camp, which happened to be only just yesterday.

which brings me directly to my reason for writing: life ain’t how you script it, now is it?

so much for breezy, easy summer. so much for scootching the boy onto the bus and spending my worry-free days here at the keyboard.

nope, not once in my wee little memory can i recall something around here unfolding the easy way.

all over america, i assume, there are campers whistling their way onto lumbering buses, signing up gleefully for rope climbing and watersliding. not minding the sun, not even mosquitoes. heck, someone somewhere might even take plain old grape jelly with the ubiquitous smear of peanutty butter.

but not at my house. and maybe not at yours either.

here, i am holding my breath. waiting for the camp nurse to call. wondering and wondering if maybe there’s someone who’s taken a shine to my homesick sweet camper.

i did all i could: stood there and cheered at the side of the pool, come yesterday morn. eyeballed the depth, informed him quite clearly it’s 3 and a half, not seven and change. told him, nope, i could not come every day.

but i could and i did tuck a love note back in his lunch bag this morning. slathered him up, with plenty of sunscreen. promised i’d wait right at the curb for the bus at the end of the very long day. then i waved adios, and started my prayers.

i find myself wondering why it is that for some of us the equation is never so simple, never straight forward. camp + camper does not equal instant attraction.

these things are labored for around here. we soothe and we coax. we dial up camp. we explain, and we ask if maybe we might be an exception, and sort of just lurk by the pool in the midst of our workday. just this once. please.

so much for carefree summer. heck, if this keeps up, i’ll be longing for school days.

and i know i’m not alone. i know a mama who had to walk a sixth grader into the school social worker each day, just to get the child out of the minivan. i know kids who won’t get near a bike. kids who refuse to go on a sleepover.

all i’m saying is there’s so much of growing up that everyone pretends is so easy. only it’s not. not at all for the kids whose hearts ache, and the ones whose tummies are tied up in knots.

i’m just saying summer’s not always a breeze. and some lemonade just can’t be made sweet enough. i’m saying for every 10 kids who take to the ballfield, there’s one–at least–left on the sidelines, shaking in fear.

i’m saying, God bless those children who find it so hard. and God bless the mamas and papas and all of the grownups who pay close attention, who don’t just slap the kid on the back, tell ‘em to buck up or else. turn out the light, let ‘em cry in the dark.

Lord have mercy, is all i ask. and try not to forget, a pool, even a mere three feet of water, can look to very small eyes like enough of a sea to swallow ’em whole.

and for just such a child, there’s no harm, i’d wager, in a grownup stopping the workday, and heading to daycamp. streetclothes and all.

don’t worry ’bout sunscreen. the sun doesn’t shine where a child is homesick.

did you find it harder to grow up than you thought it should be? than it seemed to be for everyone else? do you know little ones–or now big ones–who found every climb up the mountain to be steeper than anyone warned you? who lightened your climb? how have you lightened some homesick daycamper?