Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Remembering -- and love --Tack

      There is an impressionistic quality to Pearl ("Tack") Tackett Cannon's watercolor landscapes.  Light and shadow meet and merge; the outlines of houses, barns, and trees are a little wavery, and roads and paths suddenly fade away, leaving us in places that feel haunted by things we can't put a name to, let alone see.  A few deft brushstrokes suggest trees twisting, dancing in the wind...snow scuttling across a field...or water moving, its moonstone shades shifting.  The sky's grays, blues, and mauves are softly blurred, reflected onto the snow.
      It's all part of what Tack called "the arrangement of things" -- the way that patterns of line and color, light and shadow catch and hold your eye. "You'll be running along,"  she told me once, "and there'll be a scene."  Tack was a trained artist, but she never messed with fancy terms when simple ones would do.
      I met Tack when I was a child.  Back then, I simply thought of her as the nicest person in my mother's rug-hooking group.   I knew she painted -- Mom had one of her paintings hanging over the sofa in the living room -- but at 11, I didn't give it much thought.
     We lost touch with Tack for awhile.   Years later, as a young reporter for the local weekly, I was casting about for feature ideas, and Tack suddenly came to mind.  My mother remembered hearing where she'd moved to:  I called her, and next thing I knew, we were visiting with Tack in the mother-in-law's apartment off her daughter's house.
     She was a good interviewee and could conjure up word-pictures almost as vivid as the landscapes she painted.  At 86, she had experienced a wealth of history:  she told us about the first motor-car she and her family had ever seen ("Look, John!"  her mother had exclaimed to Tack's father.  "There's one of those things!") or the time her teacher had dismissed class early so that they could see the primitive plane that had landed near their one-room schoolhouse.
     At some point during that first visit, she led us down to the cellar studio she shared with her daughter, a high-school art teacher.  One watercolor -- an unfrozen brook cutting past some trees in a snowy clearing -- called to me strongly.  I bought it for the grand sum of $25.
     A few weeks later, the interview ran.  The following Saturday, Tack called me.  "You did an a-one job," she said in that soft Southwestern drawl of hers.  "I want you to have the picture as a gift."
     We began visiting on a regular basis.  She'd tell me about growing up in Grapevine, Texas  and the powerful need she'd had to draw, even as a small child.  "When I was little,"  she explained, "we had no good paper to draw on -- only rough paper and hard lead pencils you couldn't draw with."  So she drew on anything that she could lay her artistic little paws on -- the blank end pages of books or even the fine sand of the wash that ran through her father's alfalfa patch.
     As she grew older, Tack did chores for the minister's wife in exchange for art lessons.  "Some of her stuff was just copied," Tack recalled, "but she knew how to mix colors....[so] I did her laundry [in order] to learn."  She managed to pick up a few more lessons by winning a drawing contest in the local paper.  Finally, one of her still lifes earned her an art scholarship at Baylor College for Women right before World War I.  A supportive teacher arranged for Tack to sell her smaller paintings to other students for badly needed cash, and she washed dishes for room and board.
      She shared these and other stories with me during our visits.  She quickly became one of my best interviewees, and I worked in features about her whenever I could.  I even broached the possiblity of a book, only to learn that  Tack's granddaughter had already spoken to her about doing that very same thing.  The matter seemed pretty much closed.
      That spring, however, I received the following note from Tack:
      Dear Tammy -- Are you still interested in "the book"?  If so, let me know -- Lisa is so busy -- that she can't do it!  Right away, any way.
      So -- give me a call and we will talk about it -- love -- Tack.
So we talked about it.  A lot.  Something in me knew I wasn't ready to write that book yet; but I took plenty of notes and even tape-recorded some of our conversations for the day that I would be.
    And, of course, there were the paintings.  Tack never exhibited them, but she was always working on something.  She sold me paintings for ridiculously low prices, even giving me one or two that she laughingly dismissed as "throwaway sketches."  But, then, she was like that about her work, frequently bartering it for whatever small favors friends did for her.  Money and publicity didn't matter to her, I learned -- only the art.
    And I was learning something else during those visits:  the stories and paintings mattered less and less to me than Tack herself did.  She had worked hard, she had suffered -- her only son had been killed in World War II --and yet she'd come through it all with her spirit intact, no pun intended.  She became an oasis, an understanding presence in those days when I was going to college and working two newspaper gigs in my attempt to earn my stripes as a writer.
    "You have it in you, too,"  she murmured once, studying a quick sketch I'd done.  Somehow I don't think she was talking as much about the sketch -- my drawing skills are cartoon--ish and minimal -- as she was about that creative spark burning in both of us.
      She understood other things equally well.  When my father died suddenly from a stroke, she sent me a note that simply saidRemembering -- and love -- Tack.  As always, she'd gone straight to the heart of the matter.
      Tack is long gone, of course.  In one sense, that is.  In another, she is always with me:  her paintings hang in almost every room of my house, and that presence of hers lingers with me, as do her stories and what she taught me about art.  I haven't written that book we talked about -- yet -- but she still remains one of my best interviewees.    

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Message

     Their love of dogs had always been a strong bond between Ollie and Arvilla Allaire.  "My mom and I were extremely close,"  Ollie says of her late mother, "and we've always had dogs."  That closeness is an almost tangible thing, even now:  talking of Arvilla, she has a tendency to slip into the present perfect tense, almost as though the former's just a room away.  "She has always been an animal lover.  So that was a big thing for the two of us.  I can never remember a time in my life when there wasn't a dog in our household or more than one....None of these dogs did we ever go looking for:  they always found us."
     Viking came to them courtesy of Mamie, an old family friend who was selling the inn she'd been running up in Chester, MA.  When Ollie and her mom came up to help with the move, Mamie showed them a litter of puppies belonging to the folks who'd bought the inn.  Each had been spoken for except for the pint-sized Viking.
    "Mamie had fallen in love with him,"  Ollie remembers, "and said, 'I don't know who's going to take care of him now that I'm leaving.'  And my mother says, 'Well, I don't think we're going to leave him.'  So she picked him up, and he was just a little ball of fur."
       Viking settled into his new home in Westfield, MA easily, becoming extremely attached to both Arvilla and Mamie.  About the time he turned three, however, Ollie and her mom noticed that he'd frequently fall over while he was running around in the backyard...almost as though he was having a seizure.  The vet checked him out and explained that because Viking "was such a hyperactive dog, he would eat so fast, then go outside and want to throw it up.  But as it started to come up, it would cut off his wind, and he'd pass out."  Once his throat relaxed enough for food to go down, however, Viking would literally be up and running.
       Arvilla took charge of the situation, heading out to the yard whenever she spied the dog acting up.  She'd catch him and "kinda rub him underneath his stomach and say, 'C'mon, Vik, you know you can do this.  Mom's right here -- I'm going to help you through this.'  And, sure enough, she did, and he wouldn't pass out.  She'd get him to deal with whatever, and. finally, it became a little less and a little less.  But he still did it."
      Then Arvilla died of cancer in January 1984.  "Vik, you can't do this anymore," Ollie told the dog.  "I'm not Mom, and I can't do the same thing for you that she did."
        Viking started losing weight.  Special foods and formulas didn't help:  soon he was losing three to five pounds  a week and making the trip to the veterinary clinic almost as many times in that same week.  Finally, her vet said, "I don't see it often, but I think this guy's dying of a broken heart."  He told Ollie that she needed to seriously think about having the dog put down "because at this point, you're not doing him any justice to keep him."
        So Ollie had Viking euthanized.  Mamie, by this time, was living in a senior-citizen complex in Westfield.  She had, Ollie knew, frequently dreamed about people who had died and had, in fact, had a few dreams about Arvilla since her passing.  They hadn't been particularly significant dreams -- just ones that had left her with a strong sense of her best friend's presence upon waking.
       But the dream that came to Mamie after Viking's death was strikingly different, Ollie says, adding by way of explanation, "When Mamie had lived at our house, Viking used to go in and wake her up sometimes by putting his head on her bed.  Just the hot air from his nose and his breath would wake her up, and she'd reach over and pet him and say, 'Good morning, Vik.  Yes, I'm awake, and I'll get up.'  Then he'd trot out of her room."
       On this particular night, Mamie told Ollie, "I dreamt that Viking was next to the bed.  I kinda looked down, and there was his little head looking up at me,  When I did what I normally do -- reached to pet him -- I swore I felt fur, and I immediately woke up."  And there was Viking, sitting by the bed. 
       Mamie turned toward the doorway and saw Arvilla.  "She never said a thing to Mamie,"  Ollie continues.  "She just looked at Mamie and smiled, then said to Viking, "O. K., Vik, it's time to go.'  Viking trotted over to my mom, and that was it.  They were gone."
        "I couldn't believe it," Mamie told Ollie afterwards.  "But I know I saw those two as plain as I'm talking to you right now."
       Mamie never dreamt of Arvilla again. But to this day, Ollie doesn't question the story.  "Maybe it was a sign that he was with her, and they were both fine, and that was it.  They gave us the message."