Friday, June 30, 2006

From Another Time

Since I was a teenager, I have read The New York Times. No, I'm not that smart and worldly - I skip most sections and just go to the parts I like - fashion, food, business, the arts. When I moved to the country, I was at home with an baby and I didn't know anyone except Mark's family. And I was missing the cultural stimulation I was close to in eastern Massachusetts. Since it's not here - at least in cityish terms - I started buying The New York Times regularly again to get my culture-city-trend fix. Wednesdays (Food), Thursdays (House and Home, Fashion), and Sundays, I drove twenty minutes to the little town of Bernardston and picked it up at Streeter's Store. Pretty soon, it became a chore to remember but if I didn't read it, I missed it. I know - I could have looked at it on line. I'm an old-fashioned girl - I like the feel, the smell, the inconvenience of the large size - I like to hold my news in my hands and get them dirty with ink. And besides, with a dial-up connection, it takes forever to download a page of the Times.

So, I asked Eunice, one of the Streeter's, if she would hold three papers a week for me. She said she would try, but that it would be difficult. I told her it would be okay if she screwed up. They never have in over five years. Now, I only have to travel to pick up my paper once a week if I'm not going by and I get my culture fix.

When I started going to Streeter's, I never paid much attention to the surroundings or to the people working there. I was polite but I wasn't used to the small town pleasantries. When I lived in the Pepperell, I was invisible. I barely knew my neighbors names. I drove to work in Lowell everday, flew on a lot of planes, and never got involved. On weekends, we came here quickly but left. When we moved here, back to Mark's hometown, I was by myself, working in my studio, taking my daughter to school, doctor's appointments, doing the grocery shopping. My opportunities for meeting friends were limited. So the shopowners of the places I frequent have become our friends. This is such a strange thing for me. I've never been a "regular" anyplace - at least since I was a kid with my parents. Even then, the town was so large, it was easy to be anonymous. We were the family with all the little girls - kristinlynnlaurienancyjennifer.

I have completely surprised myself. I love being a "regular." People call me by name (okay - either by Mark's last name - "Mrs. Duprey" (who's that?) or by the most common "Julia's mom"). Once in awhile, someone will call me Kristin. Those must be people who know me really well.

I have become so fascinated with small town culture - specifically the entire culture at Streeter's Store. For Bernardston, this is Walmart. From where I live, I have to travel almost an hour to get to any big box retailer. I save a lot of money not shopping and not buying gas. That's a good thing - I have enough ugly plastic in my house (kid's toys). I don't miss having that opportunity, at all.

Every week, at Streeter's, I pick up my paper here --

But first I have to step by Whitey Streeter who holds court on this park bench next to the paper box. Whitey is a little bit like the town crier. If you need information, ask him. He probably knows it or will find out for you. On June 28th, he turned 86 years old. He told me the other day, he has been sitting on that bench since he was seven years old. WOW! What a chunk of small town history. Whitey is usually surrounded by men talking about the weather, hunting, town politics. He is polite and charming and when he was young, he had to be incredibly handsome - he still is. Each week, I look forward to seeing him as does Julia.

When I started thinking about this idea for a post, I started delving into the recesses of Streeter's store. They just have everything I need here.

I can buy my sewing supplies --

I can supply my kitchen with a whole collection of pots and pans --

I can purchase cleaning tools --

Mark can buy his entire wardrobe here - wool and flannel shirts, bright orange hunting gear (so when he is working in the woods, the hunters won't shoot him), jackets, boots. What else does he need?

Colorful cotton bandanas great you at the door - if you look up. I could make a great quilt out of them.

You can buy a chain saw, oil, nuts, bolts, screws and other hardware supplies, woodstove parts.... the list is endless. You can even buy a tractor. Mark bought his Massey Ferguson from them. They're the oldest Massey dealership in New England.

I can even show my daughter a picture of the grandfather she never knew (and the father-in-law I never knew) on this great old framed collage of local boys serving in the Second World War. (Norman is the third from the left on the first full row down.) If I mention Norman's name, I'll get a story or two from Whitey or Eunice who went to school with him. Where else would this happen?

If you are driving on Route 91 north, take the last exit in Massachusetts (Bernardston). Go about 200 yards. You'll find Streeter's on the left. Stop in and say hi. Poke around and find a bargain. Strike up a conversation. You'll feel like you stepped back forty years. It's a great feeling. I'm so lucky to be able to go there whenever I want.

Maybe your town still has a place like this. Consider yourself lucky - most Americans don't. The mall culture is invading all the corners of the country. It's okay to shop at the mall - just open your eyes to what else is around you. Support the little guy!

Gotta run to Streeter's to pick up our Fourth of July flags. We're getting our piglets on the 4th and we need to decorate the "Pig Palace." I hope Streeter's has them.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Frida Kahlo-esque Bag for Knitscene

The first time I ever heard of Frida Kahlo was when my sister Lynn was pregnant with her first child. Lynn's husband was Mexican and when deciding on their child's name, they were going to name a daughter Frida after our grandmother and after the Mexican artist they both loved. Their baby was a boy and his name is Nicholas and he is now sixteen years old. Baby Number Two was going to be Diego (after Frida's famous husband) but ended up Francisco (he's eleven now).

My sister is always ahead of her time with trends. She's a make-up artist by trade but wishes she had more time to paint her wildly colored paintings. She works mostly in acrylics. Last summer when she and the boys were visiting, I tlet her loose with my oil paints and she created one of her signature bird paintings. We hope to see them here on the farm again this year. This winter, I taught her to embroider and she is decorating her jeans with fanciful, colorful stitches (that's a future post, I hope.)

As the years have passed since my first introduction to Frida Kahlo, I have seen her grow to be an icon. Her art has been shown again in museums. There was a wonderful biography called Frida by Hayden Herrara. Then the book became a motion picture with Salma Hayak as Frida. This too I enjoyed - great colors, great love story. Rent it if you haven't seen it. Directed by Julie Taymor, it is a visual delight. Much of the movie is about her long, out of the ordinary, marraige to the artist Diego Rivera.

A wonderful children's book is also part of our Frida collection. Entitled Frida, It brings Frida's tragic life, love of painting and passions right down into terms kids can understand. Published in Spanish and English, it is a must for parents who want to introduce their children to art. Here's a great link with an author interview - Frida's kids book interview. It is full of wonderful paintings reminsicent of Frida's own artwork.

And then shortly after the movie was released, the fashion world took Frida's style and made it theirs. She had a great sense of color and pattern and was often photographed in fashion magazines. She favored Mexican embroideries and traditional Mexican clothing. She was an important female artist when there weren't many. It's not hard to see why fashion people emulate her in their collections - she was beautiful, exotic and stylish.

She was also a very talented painter. Here's a painting that I found as a postcard by Frida of Dona Rosita Morillo. I, of course, was attracted by the hands knitting and the patterned background. I have the card above my computer. I aspire to paint that beautifully.

And so what does all this have to do with stitching? It's back to the Knitscene designer package, folks. Last winter, the editors of Knitscene sent a photo montage of Frida inspired styles. This was right down my alley, once again like the Fat Cat.

And so, I created a "Fiesta del Sol" felted bag. Here's the
link to download the pattern. It is knit in garter stitch so it goes very quickly. The handle was knit in two colors of wool. I did a little embroidery with some easy stitches. After I felted the bag, I
added a bunch of multi-colored pom-poms to the bottom and sides - the pom poms remind me of the flowers Frida used to wear in her hair. I made a multi-colored braid, attached pom poms and attached the bouncy tie to the center to close the bag. It's fun and easy. Although it is shown in Renaissance, my Julia would work beautifully too (it felts like a dream). It's a good project for summer knitting because it won't be too big and heavy to knit in hot weather.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Rex Begonia Color Inspiration

One of the reasons I started this blog was to chronicle color inspirations I find in every day life. I look around me all the time to find ideas that I can use in knitwear design.
This is a new Rex Begonia I couldn't resist at Atlock Farm in NJ when I was visiting my mom. The leaf is curly and jagged and textural - it's out of this world. I am hoping to keep it alive through the winter but my track record with house plants isn't too good.

Here I have shown it with the following shades of Julia:

Blue Thyme NHJ4936

Celery NHJ5293
Magenta NHJ2083

Liac NHJ9235

Coleus NHJ4345

The kittens are growing up!

The kittens are growing so quickly. They should be ready to leave our farm on July 11th when they are eight weeks old. For the past week, they have just been cute beyond words. So playful with each other - tumbling, dive-bombing, ambushing. It's hard to get a good photo anymore because they are quick. They are eating solid food and exploring the stairways.

We have found a home for the fluffy black kittie with the white spot - she/he (not sure) is going to live with our friend Deborah across town. She's a textile collector and scholar so at least I know the kittie will be surrounded by beautiful things and loved like crazy. Her name will be either Maya or Maxx. I've made a sign to take down the our vet's office and I will keep my fingers crossed that the other little kittie we call Flora will find a good home.

Julia is keeping the little tiger cat with the white mittens and white patched face and chest. She is a real looker. Her name is Zoe Sophia (although she may be a he and if he is a he, he will be Mr. Zoe Sophia). As you can see, she is extremely friendly and lovable. We named her after a favorite children's book character named Zoe Sophia.

There are two Zoe Sophia delightful children's books written and illustrated by Claudia Mauner and Elisa Smalley - Zoe Sophia's Scrapbook - An Adventure in Venice and Zoe Sophia in New York - The Mystery of the Pink Phoenix Papers . The illustrations are wonderfully colorful and the heroine wears glasses like Julia and some super cute striped tights. In the first book, Zoe Sophia goes to visit her great aunt Dorothy Pomander, a writer who lives in Venice. She takes her dog Mickey who promptly gets lost amongst the canals of Venice. I visited Venice once and the illustrations really brought me back there. Every little girl should have a woman in her life as zany as Dorothy Pomander. If you've got kids, I highly recommend these books. The authors' website is nice too. There is actually a real little girl named Zoe Sophia - she is Claudia's daughter. Now, if you were her, wouldn't you be thrilled to have books written about you?

If you're not a cat person, sorry about all the cat talk - I promise, I'll move on to another animal soon!
Project Alabama Embroidery

Project Alabama is a high end clothing company selling embroidered clothing through stores the likes of Barney's in NYC and Brown's in London. Most of the clothing is made out of recycled tee-shirts by a cottage industry from Alabama. It sounds to me like a 21st century Gee's Bend type commercial collaboration between stitchers and fashion. (At one time the quilter's of Gee's Bend made quilts for Sears. This I learned by visiting the MFA in Boston twice to see those amazing quilts. I couldn't get enough of them.)

The interesting part of this whole story for me is that they are using embroidery and quilting techniques to make some pretty pricey, high-end designer clothing. Prices range from $400 to $2500 and they are often on the fashion pages of Vogue, The New York Times, Bazaar and more. The photos here of recent collections are from their website. It's worth a look around - they have a journal, photos of the actual stitchers, and lots of ideas for we crafty folks.

Rumour has it they have a book in the works for Fall 2007 with STC showcasing their techniques, ideas, and tales of adventure in the high end clothing world.

Me? I'm just happy someone is bringing embroidery to the forefront of fashion. Maybe one of my favorite crafts - embroidery - will take off yet and it will be as "hip to stitch" as it is "hip to knit."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Our Fat Cat Makes Knitscene

Cookie is our year old ginger cat. He and his sister Ginger were Lilly Pons' first set of kittens last August and they are still living here happily with us and the menagerie of animals we call family. Cookie is a monster - big and fluffy with an attitude. He prowls the yard and the fields as if he is king of all. I used him as the model for my new project in the Fall issue of Interweave's Knitscene Magazine.

When the Knitscene designer package came through this past winter, the editors were calling for projects that combined knitting, felting, embroidery and more. That kind of thing is right down my alley and so I signed on for a "Fat Cat." The yarn is Classic Elite's Renaissance but my Julia Wool/ Mohair/ Alpaca would work beautifully too. I knit a piece in the round combining stripes and little bits of Fair Isle. Then I threw it in the washing machine to felt. When it was felted enough, I cut the tube down the center and cut out these pieces - two bodies, four "arms", four "legs" and a little heart (not shown). Note how the appendages were cut so the stripes are diagonal for interest. I worked the legs and arms together with blanket stitch and stuffed them, sewed the heart on the body, embroidered a face and then sewed the whole thing together enclosing the appendages in the seams.

Julia was in tears as I stuffed him into the Fedex package. He went en route to the photo shoot a la "Flat Stanley". (I have promised her another one since I won't get mine back - add it to the list!)

Lucky for you, this project is on the Knitscene website. Here's the link for the entire set of directions and pattern pieces in a PDF file: Knitscene PDF File for Fat Cat. If you make one, Julia and I would love to see a photo of your version.

The nice thing about this project is you can use felted bits of old sweaters or failed projects. A texture stitch would work out too. And if you're not in as much of a hurry as I was, add some whiskers! Doesn't that parking lot at Staples make a nice textured background?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Twenty-Two Years

The Farmer and I have been married twenty-two years this weekend. We here in this marraige aren't much for gift-giving. We tend towards the practical.

So, how's this for practical?

Four Boer Goats for him. That's them right here at the left. Right now, their names are Twenty-four, Twenty-five, Twenty-six, and Twenty-seven. Does anyone have any ideas to do better?

And I got a giant dump truck load of rotted sheep manure.

The Romance never stops.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Thanks for the orders!

Just a quick post today (I have company coming for the weekend). If you placed an order within the last week, it was stuck in my "junk mail box" at my service provider. This just happened with orders this week. So, please be patient - I will process all the Paypal bills as fast as I can and then get the books and kits out as soon as you send the funds. I talked with my service provider and she said that the "spam filters" are getting tougher and that's why this happened. It's all greek to me!

I'm so sorry but things should be rectified by the beginning of next week.

And thanks so much for the orders!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Favorite Cookbook

In the May 28th, 2006 Book Review section of The New York Times, Nach Waxman in an article called Save This Cookbook! asked several cookbook authors, writers, and famous television chefs what their favorite out-of-print cookbook was? I love articles like this. By reading their choices you can better understand what makes a person tick. (But then there is always the skeptical side of me, wondering which publicist tried hardist to get their author featured.)

The article did get me thinking about my cookbooks and which I loved the most. I love lots of different authors and my shelves are starting to spill over. When I had my bookshelves built when renovating this house seven years ago, I told myself I would have two shelves dedicated to cookbooks, no more. There are now three cookbook shelves and they are beginning to creep into other parts of the home. Part of this is The Farmer’s fault – he keeps giving me more. But part of it is mine, I keep acquiring.

When I think about which are my ultimate current favorites, here’s what I come up with:
• My signed copies of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volumes One and Two), Baking with Julia (also signed) and The Way to Cook (signed too!!) (Thanks Pat Chew!)

• Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, The Provence Cookbook, Trattoria, The Paris Cookbook. Patricia Wells is the food writer for The International Herald Tribune in Europe. She isn’t appreciated enough by we Americans. Her common sense approach and interesting recipes are wonderful and have been the centerpiece of many a dinner party and picnic here at our farmhouse.

But I think my dearest cookbook is called “Gram’s Cookbook." My paternal grandmother, Frieda Roessler Nicholas, was a big part of our lives when my sisters and I were growing up in Dover, NJ. When we were little, she was the chief babysitter and as we grew up, we spent more and more time with her at her house. Gram was a great cook and baker as well as a stitcher and a gardener. We often went to her home for a giant Sunday dinner complete with multiple desserts. She baked Christmas cookies for gifts and helped cook at our local church suppers. Her job for over twenty-five years was as the Head Cook at the North Dover Elementary School where she fed lots of children and teachers very well.

One year, when I came back from college, I decided I wanted to document my grandmother’s heritage. I proposed the idea to her that she write a cookbook for her grandkids. She thought I was crazy but ultimately, I think she was flattered. I spent an entire day at her house, interviewing her on a portable tape recorder while she baked her famous Christmas stollen. I took photos of her mixing, kneading and baking, then some portraits on her sunporch. I set her up with a spiral blue-lined notebook and asked her to write down her favorite recipes that she thought we would all like to make in the future.

Gram was eighty-one years old then. She was getting a little frail but she still had spirit and would tell you just what she thought. She was still living in her own home on Conger Street and tending her garden. I would call her from across town frequently to check on her progress. She had beautiful handwriting which to this day, I still marvel over. Slowly, she filled the pages of the little notebook using the felt-tipped Flair pen I gave her. She called me when it was done and I collected the project. I think she was proud and amazed that she had so many great recipes to share. I know she had a very good time compiling it.

Luckily, this project was done in 1982, just before desktop publishing became the norm. The finished book is not very slick, thank goodness. I photocopied all of the handwritten pages at my dad’s office after hours. The blue lines disappeared and all that was left was Gram’s beautiful handwriting. I collected some family photos from her old albums and shoeboxes and photocopied them. Then I wrote a family history. I collated the pages myself and then designed a little cover with type that I pressed onto a page. I had the cardstock covers laminated and then took the whole thing to a local printer to have it spiral bound.

That Christmas, Gram and I gave “our” book to my sisters and my cousins and a few family friends. We had kept it a secret from everyone except my mom. It is one of the best Christmas presents I have ever given. And besides that, I got to spend a whole bunch of time with my wonderful grandmother working on a project that we were both so proud of and learning from her years of life experiences. I’ll never forget that! The recipe here is one of my favorites - a meltingly soft, not too sweet cookie she used to cut into Christmas shapes - bells, stars, hearts - that turns a soft golden brown when baked just right.

That’s the cookbook I would save if my house were on flames.

P.S. It's a great summer project to do with a mother, a grandmother or special friend. You'll learn a lot and always remember working on it with them.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Local Heroes

One of my favorite movies of all time is Local Hero. It was filmed in Scotland at the incredibly picturesque coast. It is a sweet and poignant, feel good movie about a young American man named Mac who works for a very large oil company headed by of all people Burt Lancaster. Mac (who is played by Peter Riegert) is sent to the remote village to buy up the village and turn it into an oil field. There's a mermaid, a hermit, and lots of other funny Scottish characters. In the end, Mac becomes a "local hero" and his life is changed because of his experiences with the villagers and the coastline. If you haven't seen it, I highly suggest it.

Here in western Massachusetts, an organization called CISA (Community Involved in Supporting Agriculture) began a few years ago. CISA's goals are to sustain agriculture in Western Massachusetts so that the wonderful character and landscape of our area can remain. We live in the poorest county in western Massachusetts. Jobs are limited and many people commute very long ways to live here. Or like Mark and I are self-employed trying to make it on our own. Farming is still a way of life here but farms are being threatened by development pressures daily. Mark's older brother David and his wife Debbie still own Sunbrite Farm in Bernardston and milk about 80 cows on the land that has been in the Duprey family for five generations (that's them on the left). They are members of a local milk cooperative called "Our Family Farms of Western Massachusetts" and market their fresh milk to the region. Dairy farming anywhere is a struggle but in Massachusetts it is especially hard. I don't know anyone who works as hard as they do for so little money. Mark, my farmer, helps out when he can but he too is busy trying to juggle his own real business while tending our flock of sheep, and growing and harvesting hay, pumpkins, and sunflowers. (To say we're busy is an understatement.)

We support local farmers at the same time as being one ourselves. We buy our vegetables at the local farmer's market if we don't grow them ourselves. We try to shop locally as much as possible keeping our money within the community frequenting the small mom and pop businesses in Greenfield rather than driving to the mall.

So what does this all have to do with yarn, books, and stitchery, you ask? This is where you come in. I want to thank all the people who have been buying my kits and books directly from me. I know you don't have to - you can order from Amazon and get a deep discount - but you haven't. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Every time I get an order via my website, I am overjoyed. I am not becoming a rich woman by any stretch of the imagination but I am a happy woman. By purchasing from me, you will:
a. Keep me stitching and designing yarn, knitwear and stitchery kits for you and others like you.
b. Keep me writing books to inspire knitters and stitchers throughout the world.
c. Help me feed my family.
d. Help us keep our farm and forest land safe from developers and unbuilt upon so that people in the future can enjoy its raw beauty.
e. Keep our neighbors enjoying the unbelievably picturesque views of sheep, hills, and everyone's favorite llama Jeremy.

By all means, if your local store sells my books and kits, buy from them. But if not, know that my family and I appreciate every purchase. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Summer Stitching

Summer has arrived and kids all over the USA will shortly be uttering the words “I’m bored” to their frustrated parents. I remember that feeling – being a kid and exhausted from all the schoolwork and social activities. Then summer vacation hit and there truly was nothing to do.

I’ve got an activity for all those kids out there – and their mothers and fathers too. Pick up a copy of my book “Kids Embroidery” and start a-stitching. When I was working on the book, I test-drove all the projects at my local library’s summer reading program. The kids did needlepoint on plastic canvas and then lots of free-form embroidery. They all loved it. I find children eight years and up are the most prepared to learn. I like kids to have success and not be frustrated when learning a new craft – that’s why I wait until they are ready.

The tools you’ll need are mostly around your home – scissors, rulers, little everyday tools. Go to your local craft or sewing store and pick up some felt rectangles and cotton embroidery floss in bright colors, embroidery needles with a large eye, and a removable marking pen. If you prefer to work with wool, hop on over to Magic Cabin and order up one of their wool felt color assortment packs - it's a nice quality and easy to work on. (They also sell Kids' Embroidery! and a nice little beginner stitching kit.) Grab my book and go – there’s hours of summer fun to be had.

When I work on a book, I often need multiples of the same project - in different colors to show the variety that can be obtained. Sometimes, I personally run out of time and then have to enlist the friends and family I have that can stitch to help me out. Kids' Embroidery became a team effort with some local girls stitching up projects and my sisters and their kids, not to mention my mom, helping out. One day, when I was extremely desperate and close to deadline, I threw a little stitching bee. These pictures show my sister Nancy and her friend Elizabeth and both of their children. We had a great day drinking ice tea, talking, stitching and teaching the kids to stitch. They all took their projects home and finished them within a weeks time. Then they came back and modeled for the book. Talk about a family and friend's effort! Thanks so much (AGAIN) Nicholas Girls.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Too Hot for Words

It has been so hot and humid here that none of the cats are moving unless necessary. This is one of the new kittens just trying to keep cool.
Milk Bar for Piggies

For the past four years, I have raised two pigs with my "partner in swine." No, not The Farmer - he's not interested in pigs. My "partner" in this endeavour is Mike Dougherty who owns a local bakery called 7 South Bakery Cafe.

It all began when a friend of ours, Kevin Gray, sold us half of a pig he and his wife Polly had raised. They fed them in their backyard and then sold the meat to friends and family. It was like nothing I had tasted before - full of flavor, juicy, and succulent. I was hooked. Every time I cooked a store bought roast, it was like cardboard. I had been spoiled. The next year, Kevin decided to take a break. No pigs. I mentioned my need for local pork to Mark and he wasn't interested. I was not deterred. My mind started spinning.

I approached Mike at his bakery and asked him if was interested. He was intrigued. I got a call later that day - he was in. I had a partner to share the chores with. Kevin became our pig mentor and we bought Storey's "Guide to Raising Pigs" . We found a source of piglets, packed up the dog carrier and we were in business. The first two pigs were Pinky and Blue (that's Julia below with them covered in mud and Phoebe, the pig dog looking on). Next came Jackie and Lee. Last year we fed Pumpkin and Petunia. It's not easy saying goodbye to them but at least we know where our food is coming from and everything that goes into them. We know they live out their lives in the sunshine, rolling in the mud we make for them and eating homemade bread and grain.

We're not sure who we will have this year but it's one of those in the photo at the milkbar. They're coming from Guilford, Vermont and we're awaiting. I'll post some baby pictures when they arrive in the beginning of July.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Lambs Ears - The Plant and The Real Deal

For years, I've grown these hardy garden herbs called Lamb's Ears (botanical name Stachys lanata). I got my first plants from my mom in NJ for a garden I was starting in eastern Massachusetts. I'm still growing them in my garden today. I couldn't think of a better name for a plant - the leaves are soft and hairy. The leaves range from a dusty grey to a soft green. In June, spiky, other-worldly looking flowers emerge. It wasn't until I had sheep that she and I realized, they really do look like their name.

I love to garden but I must admit, with Julia, it has become far more difficult to squeeze in the time. Now I prefer growing unfussy perennials that will come back and perform beautifully year after year. Lamb's Ears fill the bill. Every few years, I dig them up and spread them around to new places and everywhere they prosper. Last year, I ripped them up to weed them and replanted them. Evidently, some shoots hit the lawn because now there are some nice patches growing in all kinds of odd places. It's also nice that the sheep and the deer don't like to eat them. When they bloom, I pick them by the basketfull and they last for several days in the house. They're blooming now and here's my latest bouquet.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dr. MacGregor

Sometimes people touch you in the oddest ways. Not when you are expecting it, not when you are wanting to be touched. It just happens.

When we were living in eastern Mass, Mark came home from his farm adventures one day to tell me that a man had appeared at the side of the sheep pasture with a border collie. His name was Dr. MacGregor and his dog’s name was Skye. He wanted to see if Skye was interested in sheep. Mark, being the kind shepherd that he was and always will be, said, “Sure, come on in and see what she does.” This became a habit - Dr. MacGregor and Skye visiting the sheep and Mark obliging.

I only knew Dr. MacGregor and Skye from afar and from what Mark told me. He was a retired surgeon who had moved to a small home at the bottom of the hill. He was somewhere in his 70’s and passionate about his first Border Collie, his wife and family, and his life. He was a decorated WWII Naval surgeon, who saved many people’s lives not only with his medical talent but also with amazing recovery efforts somewhere off the coast of Europe. He came back to the U.S. to be with the wonderful woman he left named Tucker. He became a father of four children and grandfather of many. He was the Chief of Surgery at our local hospital. He traveled to foreign countries to help people who didn't have proper medical care. When he and Tucker were in their late 70’s, they got a Border Collie puppy they named Skye. He raised ducks for Skye to herd. He and Tucker took her on long walks. They even wrote a book about her.

One day he came into my life. I had been featured in a local newspaper article about a show of my paintings and a television feature. He watched the t.v. feature and called me shortly after it. He loved my work. I invitied him to a local showing of my oil paintings at A Bottle of Bread, a great local restaurant in Shelburne Falls. As the “opening” began, he and Tucker breezed through the show as quick as the wind, looking carefully at each painting and eschewing the other guests. I welcomed them but they left quickly.

I got a phone call the next day. Would I paint a portrait of him and his dog Skye? He said he loved my colors and the texture of my work. He wanted one of my paintings to look at for his 87th birthday. I told him to take some photos and I would see what I could do.

One cold winter day, he called me and said he had the photos ready. I said, “Come on up.” He arrived at our farmhouse on a cold winter day, black and white photos in hand. He didn’t exactly arrive – he bounded in – full of energy and enthusiasm. Mark and I were enjoying a fire in the fireplace (I think this may be the only time that ever happened on a weekday), I was knitting, he was reading. We spent awhile with him, talking about his life and his dog. He was wearing a handknit Icelandic sweater he had purchased in Iceland. He and Tucker were still travelling all over the world – skiing, scuba diving, biking, and more. I thought to myself – “Oh, to be so active and live such a productive, full, and happy, successful life.”

His painting had to be 9” x 12” to fit in a certain spot above his computer in his home office. I imagined the room full of certificates of accomplishment – medical school, naval bravery, chief of surgery of the local hospital…. Pictures of family, old dogs. The memories that a man of 86 years might have squeezed into a small space. My painting would be amongst it all. I was intrigued, flattered, and anxious.

I worked on the oil painting for about five months. It wasn’t easy for me – the format was very small and I couldn’t be loose. I had to paint eyes – his and Skye’s - not one of my strengths. There was lots of fine detail. I was doing the best I could, giving it my own spin. I knew Dr. MacGregor loved his Scottish ancestry and had been to the highlands many times. I researched tartan plaids. I dressed him in a modern Scottish Macgregor tartan and used the antque Macgregor tartan on the wall. After several attempts, I came up with what I pronounced "done" and called him. He came up and gave me my check and he took his painting.

I passed their house several times a week. I wondered how my painting was. Was he happy with it? I never heard from him again. Not long after, I found out that his wife of over 60 years, Tucker, had been diagnosed with cancer. Their travels were over. Dr. MacGregor was caring for her, in his totally focused way – knowing what he had to do, and making it as easy for her as possible. I drove by their house several times a week - my heart aching for what they were going through.

This Easter, Mark, Julia and I went to my mom’s for Easter. We picked up the paper at our mailbox and brought it to NJ. It wasn’t until Saturday morning that Mark noticed that Tucker had died. We would miss the service. We weren’t close by any means. But I felt connected to them after painting Dr. MacGregor for all those days, trying to represent him in oil as the larger than life man he was. As I applied the layers of paint, I had fantacized about his wonderful life with his beautiful, vivacious wife – they were still totally in love after 62 years. It was such a great love story.

We came home later in the week and went about our daily business. The next Saturday, we opened the paper again and there it was – Dr. MacGregor had died. One week to the day that Tucker had died, he died also. I was dumbfounded. I called a neighbor. He said he died from advanced leukemia but had never told a soul about it. His health deteriorated quickly after she passed. He had put his all into making her comfortable. And then he slipped away – his job done. Skye had died two months before Tucker. It was the end of an era on our street, in our lives.

I imagine he and she on a star together somewhere far away continuing their happy life full of love for life and each other in another place.

I wonder what will happen to the painting I agonized so much over. I hope he was happy with it for the short time he had it. I’ll never know. It’s funny - sweaters I knit, paintings I paint, meals I cook – they all disappear quickly. But memories – good memories of good people living good lives, live on. I am so happy Dr. MacGregor came into my life and left a mark on it. He will never know what he meant to me – he gave me a chance to create a piece of art for him but more than that I learned about passion for life. He wanted to write a book about Skye so he did it and self-published it. He wanted to help others in poor health in foreign countries, so he left his safe American job and did it. He followed his passions in whatever he did. He and his example will remain with me forever.