Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Beginning: Gramma, Tasha Tudor, & Me

The summer when I was 3 years old was momentous for several reasons. We were living in a little yellow bungalow on Orchard Street in Budd Lake, a tiny village in northwestern New Jersey whose population quadrupled every summer between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Orchard Street was a long block away from the highway that skirted the largest natural lake in the state, and in those days, cottages and boarding-houses like the Quicks’ big house next to ours would be filled up by city folks from New York, Trenton and Newark (always pronounced “Noork”; New-ark is a city in Delaware).

But that long block from the lake took you to another realm entirely, of mostly small one-family houses on either side of a narrow macadamed street lined with gnarled old apple trees. Once the daddies left for work by 8 am on weekdays, that street was empty enough for the kids to wander across and up and down it at will, even one as little as I was, until the dads came home around 5 pm. Oh, there’d be the occasional repairman, Fuller Brush man, insurance salesman, cleaners delivery truck, and on Saturdays, Dugan’s bakery van, but everybody knew their schedules, even me.

In late May, when the apple trees were still in bloom, my maternal grandmother, Abigail Jones Dangler, arrived for her annual two-month visit. Gramma was my best beloved, the kind of grandmother who wore flowered housedresses under bibbed aprons in soft pastels, those clunky-heeled black lace-up old ladies’ shoes you never see anymore, topped by a cloud of wavy white hair. She had exquisite skin, deep-set multicolored eyes behind her thick glasses, a clear flexible voice and told the best stories in the entire galaxy. She was also blind.

We hadn’t lived there very long, and as soon as she realized that I could talk plainly, she decided that I was going to be her “eyes” to help her learn her way around. She never had a Seeing-Eye dog. In those days, guide dogs were always German Shepherds, and the family felt that she was too old and frail to manage one, there weren’t many of them—and I somehow suspect that some of my aunts and uncles weren’t prepared to deal with either a large dog or the larger mobility a guide dog would give her. After all, like my mother, Gramma had more than six times the normal amount of energy; her blindness curtailed it to bearable limits for her less energetic offspring.

Her training meant that I had to increase my vocabulary, especially adjectives, comparatives and contrastive words, like "bigger/smaller," "wider/narrower," know my colors and numbers and directions, as in “Go left three steps so you can pick up the green bowl.” I had to learn to observe details in order to describe something clearly enough for her to accurately visualize it in her mind’s eye. One of her fears was always of stumbling over something and falling, which is why I learned at an early age to pick up my toys when I was finished playing on the floor and to push in chairs.

My reward was in wonderful stories and music!

Welsh dresser; ours had 2 drawers apiece under
the top shelf & below the top, & 2 doors.
One morning, as she was putting away breakfast dishes in the bottom of the sideboard (really more of a Welsh dresser) in the dining-room (the kitchen was too narrow to eat in, and dishes weren’t kept in the summer kitchen at the back), I asked her to tell me a story.

“I hae tae earn ma keep,” she said firmly. If I was proud of helping her, she was proud of still being able to do some light tasks as her contribution to the household.

She is the only person I’ve ever known whose eyes really did change color with her mood. Usually, they were a faded brown. When she was angry, they became green. Sorrow  made them look like dark brown velvet. Joy lightened them to almost gold. And in her fey moods—and she could be very uncanny—they would be all those colors mingled together, thinly rimmed about with grey-blue.

When she turned her head in my direction that morning, I saw that her eyes were green with irritation.

Gramma always felt that the best start to her day was for someone to read her a Bible chapter…and once again, to her frustration, no one had had the time. She never had access to Braille or Talking Books, either, and while she had huge chunks of the Bible memorized, it wasn’t the same.

But then I saw her eyes begin to gleam; if we’d been in a cartoon, I would’ve seen a light bulb go on over her head. She sat back on her heels, and asked, “Hoo wad you like tae hae stories whenever you wanted, and no’ be dependent on ithers tae tellt them tae you at their convenience? Hoo wad you like tae learn tae read?”

Oh, BOY!

I was very curious about this mysterious grown-up activity my family enjoyed so much. It was unusual in the 50s for a preschooler to learn reading, although my family didn’t know that. Jeff had learned at four. Mother often said that learning to read for her was like learning to breathe.

Tasha Tudor & Corgi in her garden
Gramma consulted with her, and Mother took her shopping. They came home with an alphabet book, A Is for Annabelle, by Tasha Tudor[1], who also charmingly illustrated it in pen-and-ink and watercolors, with lovely borders. They also brought home an 8” Betsy McCall[2] doll; Gramma chose it because its knees bent, reminding her of the little wooden doll she had played with 70 yrs before, in the 1880s. I would immediately name her Abigail in Gramma's honor--athough later, whenever I dressed her in modern clothes, she went by various names as she portrayed different characters in whatever story I was playng. I was never a character in the stories, just providing voices, costume changes and movement.

This pink-covered book was just the right size for a little girl to hold!

A is for Annabelle, Grandmother’s doll, it began, with the first half of each rhyme on the left-hand page, and a bordered illustration of each thing on the right. Gramma, who learned the whole thing in no time flat, would recite it, and have me “write” each letter, upper and lower case, with my forefinger on her palm, to be sure I was on the right page.

Just to reinforce this, out of a big carton decorated inside to look like Annabelle’s bedroom, was the doll; that box (B is her box on the chest in the hall) and a doll’s suitcase containing every single item named in the rhymes, and at first I was only allowed to handle them during our lesson times. The rest of the time they stayed on top of Mother’s carved black hope chest in the playroom, which was Gramma's room when she visited. (We didn’t have a hall).

Annabelle was a 19th Century French fashion doll that with her wardrobe had been passed down in Miss Tudor’s family. In the time she was made, such dolls were used by fashion houses to advertise new designs for adults; they would be sent overseas to merchants who would display them for their customers to order full-sized replicas made to wear themselves. Judging by the illustrations of

            D are the dresses we want her to wear,

she dates from the mid-19th Century. My doll’s dresses were just like them, down to the full skirts over flounced petticoats, pantalettes, and with inset lace undersleeves. Later, when I was 9, Mother would give me a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, showing the same kind of dresses.
 In Annabelle’s book and the doll’s suitcase, I remember that

            M is her muff, so warm and so cozy

was a scrap of soft brown fur sewn into a muff on a blue ribbon, and that

            N is her nosegay, a bright, fragrant posy

was the hardest line for me to say without getting my tongue twisted. You try saying that fast three times, and see how you do! It was a tiny cluster of felt-petaled flowers, tied with a narrow strip of lacy ribbon.

            P is her parasol, all trimmed with lace

\was one of those little umbrellas used in fancy tropical drinks. Although it didn’t have any lace, you could open and shut it.

I loved

Similar to Abigail's but with no footposts
& dowels between the headposts
--& she had nicer bedding!
             Q is the quilt at the foot of her bed 

because Daddy made the bed from a cigar box with six round wooden clothespin tops for the feet and bedposts, with thin dowels between them creating the headboard. Mother covered the mattress (a block of foam) with the narrowest ticking I’ve ever seen, and sheets hemmed with impossibly tiny stitches, covered by a wee crazy quilt she and Granny pieced, a tiny bolster pillow with a matching frill, and a bed-skirt with an embroidered lamb on it, reminiscent of the blue lamb quilt on my own bed.

            For T is her tippet, the latest from France,

Mother knitted a white mohair shoulder wrap. When I was in college and she sent me my first formal gown, she included a tippet just like it—like wearing a white cloud!—that I still have.

            U’s her umbrella was a tiny plastic one, from an insurance company ad campaign.

            W’s her watch to tell her the time was a clock charm about the size of a dime.

            Y is the yarn her stockings to mend was echoed in a wee basket about the size of a large walnut filled with miniature skeins of very fine wool and embroidery floss, and a pair of knitting needles Daddy must have carved down from toothpicks.

   Z is her zither, and this is the end,

and there was a tiny wooden zither, strung with thread, very much like the one I had, complete with tiny music-sheets.

But of course that wasn’t the end. Very soon I was reading it for myself. Gramma started me on Proverbs, then Psalms, and then simplified versions of Old and New Testament stories, most of which I already knew from her.
I was so blessed to receive the great gift of literacy from Tasha Tudor and my granny. A Is for Annabelle was just the beginning!....

This is not Abigail, although she did have
fair hair like this doll. The zither's right, though.

[1] Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), American writer, illustrator and gardener. Her work spans 70 yrs! She also made wonderful dollhouses; I have a book about them.
[2] Betsy McCall dolls had their origin in the paper dolls in McCall’s women’s magazine. Mine was made by the Ideal company.


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