Posted by: Maryann McCullough | April 30, 2012

Story for May 2012







I was eleven years old when I decided I wanted to be like Mrs. Tilden when I grew up. She was different from the other women in our small neighborhood. Most of them had homes overflowing with little children while Mrs. Tilden had a studio.

Being the only big kid on our block meant that finding friends required a little more footwork. But there was one woman who lived at the end of our street who made me feel special—like a friend does.

Mrs. Tilden always wore pumps and her silver-streaked hair had a Grace Kelly look about it– always swept up, never a hair out of place. I would see her in her yard, garden shears in hand and wearing a big garden hat. She would cut flowers from her garden and place them in a flat basket to be arranged later for the large vase on her entry hall table. I’d thought only movie stars and rich Southern ladies did that kind of thing.

But, for me, the best thing was that studio. Not a den or a sewing room, but her own studio! Her “special place” had replaced their garage with its former solid walls now window-rich. I remember her white wicker desk where she sat and wrote her poetry and taller wooden table which held whatever sculpture she was working on at the time. Painting was her primary passion so several easels held paintings in various stages of completion. Today the smell of oil paint will take me back to my childhood visits to her studio.

The first time I was invited inside I knew I wanted the lifestyle of a creative person. I was not an artist, nor a fledgling writer. I just knew I wanted to be the kind of woman whose life required a studio.

I was able to spend time in that studio –first as a model for Mrs. Tilden and some other painters whom she invited to her studio on occasion. What fun to be paid to sit still!  That beat my usual employment as babysitter by a mile! She cautioned me not to let my feelings be hurt because some of her fellow artists “weren’t very good” and their portraits of me might disappoint. My Uncle Eddie told me I could no longer be Miss America because I had been paid to model. I thought that was funny but the idea made me feel special at the same time.

Mrs. Tilden also hired me to help when she had a formal tea for her friends. Her maid, a pretty young black woman and I poured tea and served those tiny little sandwiches and passed plates of petit fours. It may have been a job but I felt like I was a guest at an elegant party.

My older friend even taught me to paint – smock, easel, oil paints, horsehair brushes – the real deal! My “Bird on a Branch” wasn’t very good. It never made it to a wall in our family’s home. But Mrs. Tilden took time to teach me. For a moment in my young life I was an artist.

All tolled, I probably spent less than 48 hours in the company of this mentor and  friend from my childhood as we moved from that neighborhood the following year. But those were some really memorable hours for me.

As I am writing and savoring her memory, I am wondering if she knew she was making a difference in my young life. I wish time travel could bring her back. I would invite her to our home and serve her tea (likely iced tea, in Phoenix) on our patio and then I would take her into my “special room.”  She would see some of my published stories, now framed and adorning one wall. She could open the large wooden cabinet and see my collection of dog-eared sketch books and the stacked plastic boxes containing my paints – one box for watercolors, one for acrylics, and of course, one for oils. She would see the stand holding all my paint brushes with their tips properly pointing upward.

She would know then. I wouldn’t even have to express my gratitude. She would know she had made a difference.



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