“Friends for Frances” – Studies II

Frances’s eyes often look exactly like cat eye glasses frames, tilted up and narrowed – as in suspicion. They make her look disapproving. Not only is she black to their orange, her personality differs dramatically from the orange man cats. Frances was abandoned in an apartment with a litter of kittens – perhaps that origin story explains her present personality.

But both Wolsey and Cromwell were equally abandoned in their pasts, and Wolsey has a nearly permanent air of innocence and trust. I’m not sure how he’s kept that demeanor (he survived two years outdoors, through Anchorage winters).

Cromwell has the roundest eyes, saucers in his flatter face, above his slightly protruding jaw. I don’t know Cromwell’s origin story, but before Downtown Abbey he was returned to the rescue people because he had “issues.” At Downtown Abbey he is often referred to (when out of earshot of the other critters) as The Best Guy in the World.

None of these personality thoughts and back-story speculations are part of “Friends for Frances,” but I find myself thinking a lot about these survivor cats. It’s a privilege and a joy to work with them.

Cromwell  - field notes II-1

Frances  - field notes II-1

Wolsey  - field notes II

“Friends for Frances” – Studies

On Julie Davidson’s wonderful blog “Seven Imps,” she asks Maira Kalman about her work methods. Kalman responds: “There is a lot of hope involved. And hoping for the best.”

And in the part I like best, she says simply: “You just do your work. I can’t emphasize that enough. Just sitting there and doing it – persevering. Being patient – and seeing the long view. To let the work happen and to find the unexpected. To allow mistakes to be part of it. To not get it right, but just to get it.”

“Just get it,” just start, begin.

Frances  - field notes I

Wolsey  - field notes I

 

Cromwell  - field notes I-1

 

 

 

 

May, and Maybe

Mrs. Hughes recently sent a video of Lady Baby (wearing boots), standing on a short footstool in her kitchen, pointing to a refrigerator magnet picture of a polar bear. Under the bear, the word Alaska is spelled out. Lady Baby points to the word and tells her mother: “It says: polar bear you have to wait for your baby.” She can’t read, but she knows the power of letters and understands she can assign language to the picture – she’s making up a story.

She likes to look for pictures in my journal. When she discovered drawings of cats – she studied each one, looking for familiar features. But she liked best a pretty awful drawing of This Baby with an inky face (a rough for the postcard I sent her). She returned to it repeatedly, recognizing somebody she knew in a drawing delighted her.

I’d love to make her a storybook. I have always wanted, like lots of readers who draw, to make a children’s book. If I don’t try, I will be truly disappointed in myself. (Writing that sentence makes me feel like one of my Workroom people, and I’d be the first to encourage – dragoon the timid, badger the reluctant – into giving something long desired a try.)

Ideas for a story have come – a picture in my mind to begin, and a critical addition by our younger son over dinner one night (he handed me the very simple overall theme: Cromwell and Wolsey teach Frances about friendship). Amongst the enjoyable house thinking of April, I strayed frequently to this story.

Writing “Her spirits rose…” is a routine and a pleasure. I can always let it get in the way of doing anything else, so I’d like to use the power of that routine to work on this project. I was recently told illustration is hard, and I know that, but for love you’ll try anything. Lady Baby is tolerant and accepting – she won’t be “judgy.”

It might seem I’m taking a break (and that’s a good thing – summer is nearly upon us!). Maybe I’ll post bits and pieces, studies, the outline of the story as I make myself tackle what seems a difficult task, confronting the myriad decisions and self-doubt in such an undertaking.

And maybe, maybe, I’ll figure out why the polar bear needed to be instructed to wait for its baby!

cats - c commons II

A Postcard Portrait of Lord Wolsey

Wolsey postcard

Wolsey, who lives at Downtown Abbey, is a magnificent cat – bold, large, and chronically good-natured.

I didn’t catch it, but in this drawing his mismatched eyes reveal that I have a lot to learn always (and also to be reminded of: don’t draw what you can’t see). Shadow obscured his left eye, and in drawing I failed to match the right. The postcard’s gone north, so I can’t try to correct, but both Wolsey himself and learning experiences in general are on my mind – more next week!

In the meantime – a most happy May Day to all you wonderful readers – I appreciate you!

Harry Potter’s Creative Life

When we visited London three years ago with my young friend and her mother (a trip we still speak of often), we joined a Harry Potter walking tour and saw places where the movie was filmed and sites “that probably inspired J.K. Rowling.”

But Warner Brothers’ Studio Tour “The Making of Harry Potter” wasn’t yet open. My young friend would have loved it – not just because she grew up reading Harry Potter, but because it is all about the work of clever and creative people.

Reaching the studio requires a long ride from London on a bus dressed up to suggest the night bus. I felt a little sheepish climbing aboard – wishing we had in tow all sorts of fans: my young friend and her mother, my niece’s best friend, Mrs. Hughes who loved those books, and my painter friend’s grandson for starters.

But the sweet bride was there, and very excited, having read all the books in Thai, in Thailand. (Thinking about that makes me pause in awe of J.K. Rowling – of how she created a whole imaginary world to enchant countless children all over the real world.)

The actual sound stage, a warehouse-like complex where the movies were filmed, now welcomes masses of visitors. The ticket line snakes below larger-than-lifesized photos of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the others at various ages.

The cavernous space contains the enchanting sets, complex and detailed in person – Hogwort’s Apothecary Department, Hagrid’s Hut, and Daigon Alley (where you could walk). In the Gryffindor Common Room, comfy red couches and plenty of cushions, a beautiful room-sized rug, good lighting, and an enormous fireplace with inglenook seemed a great place to be with your friends, and worlds apart from the sad, bleak set depicting Harry’s bed under the stairs at the Dursley house – electrical junction box and bare, dangling light bulb. (Our younger son commented that it resembled the small bedroom in our flat.)

We were there in December, and snow fell as we circled around the enormous model used for filming Hogwarts Castle. In the Great Hall we walked among decorated tables piled high with dishes for a Christmas feast. In the boy’s dormitory, a red garland wound around Ron’s bed with its coverlet of colorful knitted squares and worn velvet curtains.

Descriptions of how moviemakers achieved effects accompanied each set – books and furniture distressed to look worn (fat London phone books became ancient volumes, apothecary potion bottles labeled by hand), intricate costumes designed and made – we learned how artists and crafts people used models and mocks ups in their creative process. The scale model of The Owlery intrigued me, a little line drawing depicting each individual owl.

But the best part might be the stories and videos about the animal actors and their trainers. “Four talented Red Persian cats – Crackerjack, Oliver, Bo Bo, and Prince” – played Hermione’s mangy cat Crookshanks. The Animal Department attached little fur mats with hair clips to make them appear more unkempt. (Lord Wolsey might have played Crookshanks – without effort he inhabits the part.)

Near the Dursley house on an outdoor street set, we sampled “butter beer” beside the real night bus. I bought a Gryffindor House scarf for my painter friend’s grandson for his seventh birthday (and was rewarded later by a video of him, wearing Potter glasses and gown, twirling with wand in hand as though to take off).

Having walked and gawked till exhausted, we each fell asleep on our night bus going back to London.

All that creativity – Rowling’s words, the actors, the behind the scenes people – magic.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

In January, just before I left for Alaska, I stopped by my clever friend’s house to deliver cooked vegetables from stock making to her chickens. She pointed across a little lane from her garden to a single snowdrop blooming in the shelter of a hedge.

On the airplane I kept thinking of that snowdrop as I read nearly all of Marta McDowell’s “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales.” McDowell’s focus is on Beatrix as a gardener. (Although more proper in form, it’s hard to call her Potter, McDowell acknowledges the same problem in her introduction).

It’s a gardening book about a long life of creativity, a perfect companion to Linda Lear’s comprehensive “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature,” and a book to buy as a real book. The beautifully designed volume combines text with Beatrix’s watercolors, drawings, and illustrated letters, along with photographs from those days and these, and maps.

McDowell describes Beatrix’s childhood in London, exploring city gardens, and summers spent in the countryside, where her passion for drawing and the natural world began. In the second section of the book, McDowell writes in the present tense using Beatrix as protagonist, giving immediacy to her description of the months of the gardening seasons.

She writes about the time, just two months after her beloved Norman Warne died, when Beatrix bought Hilltop Farm, near Sawrey in the Lake District, and began to build her own garden – a cottage garden “combining traditional materials, informal dense plantings, and a mixture of ornamental and edible plants.” (Beatrix once wrote: “There’s nothing like open air soothing present anxiety and memories of past sadness.”)

McDowell’s third section tells of the pleasure to be had now in a visit to the Lake District. You can visit Hilltop Farm, set in pastoral English countryside – much of it protected by the efforts of Beatrix Potter. (One might say, “saved by Peter Rabbit.”) Even after reading Lear’s book and watching the movie “Miss Potter,” it hadn’t registered how many painting backdrops – gardens, villages, and streets – were actual places, and some still exist.

The descriptions of the Lake District garden year sound much like the Pacific Northwest, “storage apples going out as rhubarb comes in,” then our same progression begins – “snowdrops, primula, pansies, aquilegia, foxglove, clematis.”

And it starts in January. The evening we returned home, our headlights lit up the courtyard garden, and I could see standing in short spikes – though not blooming yet – patches of snowdrops.

Cards for Sale

You might recognize these images:

Summer cards

Or these fruits:

Fruit cards

Or Frances:

Frances cards

from illustrations that accompanied a post here on “Her spirits rose….” And now they are blank cards, available on my website (www.katygilmore.com). They come in groups of five different images for $22.50, which includes shipping. (More images on the website.)

I’ve only had a few of each group printed – this is an experiment – but I wanted you loyal readers to know just in case!

Barn Owls and Bats

Just at dusk, during that sweet September time of hot weather, clear skies, and calm sea, my husband and I sat outside on the front deck as the sunset’s red streak stretched the whole horizon from the Pacific out of sight to nearby islands, growing more, then less intense as light faded.

The bats began their nocturnal patrols, swooping near to us, banking right or left, and zooming off. Tiny, silent fighter jets – engrossed in searching for prey (bats eat a third of their body weight in insects each night) – over the garden, over the lawn and bluff.

One evening (while everyone was still here for the Labor Day visit) – Lady Baby abed and the evening’s movie not commenced – Mrs. Hughes and I sat for a moment on the deck speaking of bats and the barn owl that visited earlier in the summer.

I told her about the huge ruckus on an August night that made us aware of owls – screechings from forest and bluff, piercing, repeated, a little scary, and very loud. You think screech owl because that’s what it sounds like or Barred owl because they are plentiful and troublesome in this area, but those owls have classic hoots like Lady Baby’s “hoo hoo.” Our noisy visitors were barn owls.

That screechfest lasted just one night, but for two weeks a lone barn owl screeched from a tree on the bluff every night.

I identified our visitor’s voice on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s owl page (here) as the “territorial scream and advertising call” of a barn owl. We grew accustomed to the nightly visitation and the raspy rhythmic cry, over and over from 1 a.m. till 4 a.m.

Once when it landed low down in a tree , we shined a flashlight, revealing the unmistakable white, heart-shaped face above a tawny body. (Now that I’ve read and really enjoyed Stacey O’Brien’s “Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl,” and know more about the sensitivity of owls, I’m not proud of this.)

Barn owls live mostly on mice, and it’s said that when perched in a tree they can hear the heartbeat of a mouse. Our lawn and the bluff teem with plenty of trembling little hearts. (Some days I lament that things are slightly out of control here in the garden, but I love that we have insects and field mice – food for bats and barn owls.)

That evening while Mrs. Hughes and I lingered, a sudden movement caught our eye in the near dark – a pale shape settled on a tree branch – white face, silent – the barn owl back. Maybe bidding farewell, for whatever inspired the night-after-night calling is long over for this year.

And so is summer.

A Grand Time

The other morning on our walk, I recalled the three generations of sea otters we’d seen at the Seattle Aquarium before heading to the airport to drop off Lady Baby and her parents. I commented to my good-natured husband that I enjoyed seeing that grandmother, mother, and child.

(He said: “Oh that toddler in the restaurant – he fell asleep in the grandma’s arms!” And I did love watching that grandmother, too, as she ate her yam fries and salad slowly, right over top of the snoozer while the mom enjoyed her lunch.)

At the aquarium baby, mother, and grandmother sea otters live together in one huge tank. I stood with Mrs. Hughes and Lady Baby and watched our parallels in the tank. They non-stop groomed the baby, fed the baby, played with the baby – flipping over and over and floating in that irresistibly cute way of sea otters, paws on chest, dismantling and enjoying and sharing shrimp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the privilege of grandparentdom. How thankful I am to have lived this long to watch my children grow up and know the joy of this new generation.

Lady Baby and I had wonderful times on this visit, wonderful times doing pretty much nothing – slowly. We took two hours to walk down the little road to feed carrots to Ivan the horse and Paddy the donkey, and then we sat on the grass by their paddock and put dandelion blossoms on the fence rail (in the hopes that Paddy might eat them later).

Walking home we stopped at the Buffalito. The day before we’d shown Lady Baby the Buffalito – without a lot of seeming interest. But this time, she took off her shoes, climbed on the bed, gazed out the window, looked to see another small “moose” (you’d say deer), and then sank back against the pillows and smiled. We sat on the tiny porch to put on our shoes, Lady Baby walked a few steps, then turned back to sit longer on the porch.

OK, we’ll sit a while longer. That’s the grandparent privilege. We didn’t have anywhere to be, only needed to be together, listening to chickadees and squirrels (a very busy weekend for them – fir cones are everywhere under big Doug firs, waiting to be gathered and stored), and talking together of all the farm animals we’d seen. Did you see a “neigh neigh?” A “cock-a-doodle-do?” (“Yeaah!”)

And talking about family, Lady Baby “in the bosom of her family” loves to name us all. Her aunt is “toon,” her uncle became “too too” or “unc,” her grandfather “papa,” and I am still “Kay-tee!” With hard initial consonants and an exclamation mark or two at the end.

Her most enchanting word now is “pease” for please, and it’s magic. Everyone tries hard to understand what’s needed when the request comes in the form of an engaging “pease” – sometimes clear, as in “up, pease” or “walk, pease,” and sometimes just a very elongated “peaaase” with hand gestures.

At the aquarium gift shop, we found a little backpack with a furry sea otter forming the pouch. When I offered it, Lady Baby reached out, smiled, and accepting help, donned the otter.

Then she strode off – calling to Mama and Dada to follow – back north to Alaska!

Basking

A faithful reader, and sometimes critic, recently commented to my husband that I seemed to be losing interest in the blog – just flowers! But that was summer – company, a trip to Oregon to a beautiful wedding, and getting ready for The Workroom – now I’m back.

And September’s here, summer ready to be “folded up and put in a drawer” as Virginia Woolf wrote, but I keep remembering moments of basking in the long, sunny days of August – wishing I’d done some myself – and admiring the baskers.

A good-sized, not green but brown, tree frog (more than an inch, less than two) – sporting that unmistakable black eye stripe – spent many summer days moving just enough to stay in the sun as it filtered through the cherry tree’s canopy and warmed a black wrought-iron table in the garden.

I never saw it catch an insect, but bees and wasps zoomed over its head all day long, wasps devouring the last of the cherries, bees busying about the nepeta. It never seemed disturbed by comings or goings in the vicinity; I could watch its breathing – rapid, like panting – making its thin skin tremble.

Oh those hot, sunny days! One afternoon heading to the car, I spotted a little snake with a lovely orange stripe basking in a sunny patch just at the car door. It eyed me with the hostility of a creature enjoying an about-to-be interrupted comfort. I tried to step over and climb in the car – but it slithered into the salal. On the bluff I disturbed another in a sunspot in the thicket around a big Doug fir – my shadow sent it into the salal with an elegant glide.

But Frances is the champion basker here – she’s a total indicator of temperature. She basks outside, and when the wind comes up on the bluff in the afternoon, she lounges in west sun on the floor upstairs.

Other days she rolls on the heated-up concrete pavers, drapes herself on wooden chairs, or lolls in grass with sun on her black side. If you touch her, her fur is warm, hot even. Cats are so much smarter than bustling-about humans.

Luckily September – at least in Washington – is not too late to get a little time in a warm spot – I hope you do!

Downtown Abbey in September

On this visit to Downtown Abbey we celebrated our wedding anniversary and Mr. Carson’s birthday. Then he left for his brother’s bachelor party – a hike in the Sierras – a guy tradition no matter the already changed bachelor status.

The Alaska end of September weather seemed familiar – cold, with darkness creeping in. We even woke to snow one morning, flakes filling the street lamplight and accumulating on cars and lawn. It didn’t last – by mid-day the sun shone and the mountains wore “termination dust.”

Lady Baby and I took walks with her stroller to the park. She’s bundled in a fleece suit now and wearing her new pumpkin hat. With bottom drawstring tightened up totally, one of Mr. Carson’s jackets slips over her legs like a small sleeping bag – the hood and arms cozy up and around her making her wind and waterproof. We had great walks – often with Lady Cora.

Lady Baby knows what it is to be alone in a room now. If you are nine-months old and sitting happily on the living room floor, surrounded by intriguing plastic objects that nest and clunk, and nearby is your mom or dad or other familiar big person – the world is good. If that person leaves, to stir the soup or get a cup of tea, a small fret crosses Lady Baby’s face, followed by specific vocalizations. It’s easy to put yourself in her position – just barely mobile and very small.

It seems to make evolutionary sense for a baby to develop separation anxiety at this “cusp of moving” time – it must have kept caregivers nearby and prevented many a baby from a crawl toward the fire or the cave’s entrance.

Lady Megan’s passing colored the week, will color life. She’s been such an important dog, so sweet of face and disposition. I am thankful for her last summer of lying on the back porch to bake in the sun. To write here about her is to recognize her loss for Mrs. Hughes – they had such a life together before anybody thought of Downtown Abbey or its denizens.

I read Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” on this trip, and she reminded me of the painful truth about loss: “There was no one clear point of loss. It happened over and over again in a thousand small ways and the only truth there was to learn was there was no getting used to it.”

I will miss Lady Megan. I am sorry she is gone, and thankful Mrs. Hughes gave her such a good life full of love.