Friday, July 20, 2018

Amalia and Harry Potter Travel Through Greece


 We are on our annual family summer trip to Greece.  “We” includes Nick and myself, also known as “Papou” and “Yiayia”, daughter Eleni and her husband Emilio Baltodano, and their two kids, Amalia, 6, and Nico, 3.

As always, we are visiting significant family destinations—Nick’s native village of Lia, the island of Corfu where we saw relatives, attended a wedding, and where, eight years ago, Eleni and Emilio were married in two ceremonies (Catholic and Orthodox).  This summer, as often happens, we also get to visit a previously unknown place in Greece, because Eleni is researching and writing a travel article about it.  Two years ago it was Milos, this year it’s Syros—an island of astonishing beauty and world-class restaurants with incredibly good locavore cuisine.

But for each of the six of us, this odyssey through Greece means something different.  For Eleni it’s an exhausting list of beaches, restaurants, historical sites and hotels to research.  For Emilio, it’s a search for the most challenging beaches, underwater caves, and sea life to explore with his snorkel.  For Papou and Yiayia it’s the delight of traveling with the grandchildren (even though keeping up with Nico requires an Olympic class sprinter to catch him before he throws himself off a cliff or into the pool) and also a continuous series of amazing meals, starring exotic seafood (sea urchin salad, squid cooked in its own ink).

But for Amalia, who became obsessed with Harry Potter a few weeks ago, and is doggedly reading her way through JK Rowling’s books about the young wizard, the trip through Greece is simply an opportunity to read in a series of scenic spots.  Her mother won’t let her watch the films based on each book until she’s read the book first. Meanwhile Eleni keeps trying to get Amalia to exercise her Greek language skills when meeting people, and to record her travels in her “Travel Journal for Kids.”

I’ve been photographing Amalia reading at various spots, so as to remind her where we went in the summer of 2018, in case she needs to write an essay about “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” when she begins second grade in the fall.

 Amalia finished book four, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” on the Emirates flight from Newark to Athens, the next flight to Ioannina, and the journey up the mountain to her grandfather’s village of Lia.  Above she’s delving into book five, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in the village house where we stay.  She’s ignoring the wall which contains some of my collection of antique “karangiosis” shadow puppets.  On the right, she is sitting on the terrace of our neighbors Dina and Andreas, oblivious to the view of mountains behind her. 
 Amalia plowed on while ignoring her ice cream at the village general store, then sitting in the courtyard of the village inn, in the company of her grandfather, her brother and the innkeeper Elias Daflos.  And when we drove down the mountain to the swimming hole of Krioneri, to wade in the shallow river, she plunged into wizardry instead. 
From the village, we drove to Igoumenitsa, then took a ferry to Corfu, but Amalia never stopped reading.  At our Air BnB apartment on the beach of Barbati Riviera, she made great progress while perched atop a sleeping Nico.  In the taverna at Barbati, she was nearing the end of book five.
 One day in Barbati we hired a boat, driven by Emilio, to explore beaches, caves and sites on Corfu’s coast.  Amalia was intently reading while we had lunch in a beautiful tavern at Agios Stephanos, but on the way back she actually stopped reading because she was getting seasick.
By the time we left Corfu to fly to Syros, book five was finished, but Amalia’s parents said they wouldn’t hand over book six, “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” until she had caught up her entries in the travel journal.  She also wanted to write some stories of her own.  On Tuesday, Amalia and her mom took a taxi to the top of the medieval town of Ano Syros and walked down.  Eleni explored while Amalia wrote.  In the photo at right you can see in the distance the town of Hermoupolis and the blue domed Church of St. Nicholas.

Later we went shopping in Hermoupolis and the grandkids sat on the step of a store while Amalia wrote:  “My name is Amalia.  My favorite things to do are to read Harry Potter and to watch scary movies and lovable grown-up movies.  My favorite colors are….”
All this industrious writing got Amalia the prize.  Her papi handed over  “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” while they were visiting Vaporia-- the section of the city that once was a center of shipbuilding.  (There’s even a cat café there to provide food and care for some of the island’s many stray cars.)  Amalia was quickly into the new book.  I wonder where she’ll be by the time it ends?

Her mother recently asked Amalia what was her favorite place in Greece so far on this trip.  Her reply, “A place where there’s nothing for you to point out to me.”

P.S.  Every time I try to tell her some tidbit of fact or fable inspired by our surroundings, Amalia says, “Yiayia, you’ve already told me that story 65,000 times.  Don’t tell it again.”  Then she’s back to Harry Potter.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Talking To Kids About Death

I just read a delightful essay in the current New Yorker by Rivka Galchen, called "Mum's the Word" which is about what she did when her four-year-old daughter began obsessively asking questions about death and dying.  This is a challenge that many parents and grandparents have to deal with.  It reminded me of an essay I posted on the Huffington Post and on this blog in November of 2015 when granddaughter Amalia was also four and started asking similar questions.  I called it "Can People in Heaven See Us Down Here?" and was inspired by Galchen's essay to repost it now.

 I thought that kids were about six years old when they started to grapple with the concept of death, but granddaughter Amalia has been obsessing about it since she turned four-- although she’s never had a close relative, or even a pet, pass away.  And it’s probably my fault.  On a visit to her home in Manhattan, I once said something like this:  “That book is by a man named Maurice Sendak.  He’s a very good artist and writes wonderful books, but he’s dead now.”

I could hear my daughter Eleni exclaiming from the next room, “Why would you say something like that?  You have no filter!”

It’s true. I was thinking the same thing myself, as Amalia asked, “Why is he dead?”

“Well he was very old,” I replied lamely.

“Like you?” she asked.

“Oh, much older than I am,” I lied.

I was also, according to Eleni, the person who introduced Amalia to the concept of heaven when she asked one day where my Mommy was and I replied “in heaven.”  The conversation ended there, but she must have been mulling it over.

On a more recent visit to New York, Amalia and her Mommy took me out to a restaurant for dinner on the last night before I left for home.  On the way to the restaurant Amalia suggested brightly, “Mommy, I’ve got a great idea!  We should take Yiayia out to dinner on her last night with us before she goes to heaven!”

Hilarity ensued, although I assured Amalia that it was an excellent idea, but I wasn’t planning on going to heaven just yet because I wanted to dance at her wedding first.

Maurice Sendak aside, Amalia has been distressing her mother for months by insisting that she doesn’t want to grow up.  She doesn’t even want to turn five.  She wants to stay four years old forever.

This is a very scary thing to hear, especially for a parent.  When Amalia says it to me, I counter by listing all the good things she’ll be able to do when she’s older that she can’t do now—ride a bike, drive a car, even get married and have her own children.

Recently, after my recitation of the good things that come with age, Amalia conceded that she would like to grow up after all, but that she never wanted to be “Old like you, so that people look at the veins in my hands.”

The veins on the back of my hands were bothering Amalia even before she could talk very well.  It must have been when she was around two and really into putting Disney character Band-aids on everyone and everything.  One day she pointed at my hands with concern, said “boo-boo!” and tried to put Band-aids on the backs of my hands.  I explained that it wasn’t a boo-boo, but just the way hands look when you’re old.

Amalia’s Mommy was wondering if she should talk to the child’s teachers, or a psychiatrist, about her obsession with death and old age, but I looked it up on line and discovered there are a lot of four-year-olds out there who don’t want to grow older and who ask disturbing questions about death.  I think they don’t want to grow older because their lives are so terrific right now and they sense that older people have to deal with unpleasant things like homework, exams, lack of money and social insecurities….and death.

Questions about death are disturbing to us because we’re wondering the same things our children are, and we don’t know the answers.  No one does.

As for the question above-- “Yiayia, can people in heaven see us down here?” --I told Amalia that nobody knows the answer to that question for sure, but I was convinced that when I was in heaven—and I didn’t plan on being there for a very long time, because I’m so determined to dance at her wedding—when I was in heaven looking down, I’d see all the great things that Amalia was going to accomplish as she grew up, and I’d be so proud of her.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Our Kitchen Thief in the Night--Part Two

In my previous post, I described our week-long war of nerves with the mysterious creature who visits  our kitchen table every night, picking out its favorites of the treats we leave, making them vanish, leaving anything he doesn't like, (popcorn and even a piece of cheese!) and then disappearing without leaving crumbs or droppings.

As I said in the last post, on Sunday night we left two "humane traps" which the animal had managed to burgle the night before, without triggering the open doors at each end of the plastic boxes to crash down and trap him inside.  We also left a bit of cookie on the floor near the back door.

On Monday morning,--yesterday--I came downstairs to discover that the animal had again snagged the cookie pieces in one trap without setting off the closing doors, but in the second one, he was caught!  And struggling to get out. He seemed to weigh nothing as the Big Eleni carried the trap to the farthest border of our property, near our neighbor's house.  I had my camera ready to catch his image, solving our kitchen mystery once and for all.

The moment Big Eleni set the trap on the ground, the creature exploded out of it, shooting into the underbrush so fast that we didn't know what we had just seen.  I insisted it was a small chipmunk, and Eleni insisted it was a mouse.  It's so frustrating that our thief got away without us getting a decent mug shot!

Dejectedly, I left in my car to drive to New York, where I am now.  Big Eleni threw away the trap the thing had been caught in but, I learned later,  just to see what would happen, she put the other small trap on the table with cookie pieces inside.  And this morning, she found that the cookies had vanished, without the trap being set off!  Had our thief found his way back into the kitchen from our neighbor's yard, or are we dealing with a whole gang of very clever rodents?

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Our Kitchen Thief Comes in the Night

It started a couple weeks ago. A small bowl of Hershey's Kisses was left on the kitchen table.  The next morning, all the Kisses were gone but their aluminum foil wrappers were strewn on the table, empty.

There were no mouse droppings and no crumbs.  Those chocolates had vanished!  Speaking as one who has had many dealings with house mice, I knew this was not normal mouse behavior.  My Nancy Drew side kicked in.  I was going to catch this animal red-handed.  We started on Sunday, May 13, leaving some cookie pieces on a napkin.  By morning all the cookie bits were gone, leaving no crumbs and no mouse droppings.  It was a neat heist. 

We (that's "Big Eleni" Nikolaides and me)  began musing about a chipmunk--there are dozens in our yard--or a bird (I had heard flapping noises one night)--or a ghost--some of our recently deceased relatives had really loved chocolates.

Hoping to gather clues about our visitor, on the night of May 14--Monday--I placed two chocolates kisses and some cookie bits in the center of a wide circle of flour.  By morning we discovered that the goodies were still there.  It seemed some animal had ventured in toward the treats but then turned back, scared off by the flour.  There was a tiny little hand print, which made me think "Chipmunk."

Big Eleni left some pieces of bread on the night of Weds. the 16th and the next morning, the bread was still there--one piece slightly nibbled.   Our visitor didn't like bread.

We crawled around the floor with flashlights, and examined the ceiling's edges but found no holes where the creature could get in.  Then Big Eleni found a hole on the outside of the kitchen's bay window and covered it with duct tape.  You can see it was in a spot that a small creature without wings would find hard to reach.  There was no corresponding hole on the inside.

That night we set out a virtual buffet for out kitchen thief--cookies, popcorn, almonds and one chocolate kiss.  You can see what we found in the morning: the creature had removed all the treats except for the popcorn.  Our visitor was a picky eater.  And still no crumbs or droppings.

It was time to bring in the big guns.  We put cookie pieces in two "humane traps" and a piece on one trap that has sticky guck so that when a mouse steps in it, he's stuck there.  The box-like traps are left open at both ends, with some food in the center, and when a mouse walks in, both end doors slam shut and the animal is trapped inside, until you carry it far away and release the thing to the wilds.  In the morning, we saw that the thief in the night had managed to remove one cookie piece from the box trap without making the doors come down (he must have reached in without stepping on the floor of the trap) and he (or she!) had also removed the treat from the sticky guck without stepping on it and getting stuck.

That was this morning.  What we had learned so far was that the wily thief was smarter than we are.

So tonight--Sunday night--we have put out the box traps once again, making sure the cookies were right in the middle of the box--not close enough to grab--and we've put a single piece of cookie on the floor near the back door, just in case the thief can get in under the door.

Tune in tomorrow to see if we've made any progress in catching--or even identifying--the creature who comes in the night, who is starting to seem like our pet or a member of the family.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Which Royal Tiara Will Meghan Choose?

We're getting down to the wire on the Royal Wedding that everyone's talking about.  There's so much curiosity and excitement swirling about the ceremony uniting Britain's Prince Harry and America's Meghan Markle that even I, a notorious layabed, will be up at 6 a.m. next Saturday to watch the ceremony.  (Today's New York Post printed recipes for scones to serve at your royal wedding breakfast party as well as the recipe for the Queen's favorite Chocolate Biscuit  Cake, and I'm very tempted to make it.)

One of the big questions about the ceremony is--not only what will the bridal gown look like, but also WHICH ROYAL TIARA will Meghan choose?  This inspired me to re-post some sections of two blog posts I wrote earlier this year, discussing the weddings of Queen Victoria, as well as Diana and Kate.  As you will see, Victoria was somewhat of a rebel, choosing a crown of orange blossoms instead of diamonds.  And Princess Diana, at the last moment, decided not to wear the tiara her future mother-in-law, the Queen, had loaned her, but instead to wear her own family's Spencer family crown.  Good thing we commoners don't have to make those tough decisions!

Can't wait till next Saturday when we learn about Meghan's tiara and dress, as well as the other big question:  how will Meghan's parents interact together, after all those years apart following a reportedly not-friendly divorce?
With Prince Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle set to climax in a wedding in St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19th and then Fergie’s daughter Princess Eugenie’s recent engagement to marry Jack Brooksbank in the same place in the Fall, royal brides seem to be much in the news lately.
Some of my antique wedding photos are of royal brides. One of them is this small carte de visite  (above) of Queen Victoria when she was a 19-year-old girl and ruler of Great Britain, marrying her first cousin, 20-year-old Prince Albert of Saxe Colburg and Gotha in Germany.
The carte-de-visite photograph is a process that was introduced in 1854 and became vastly popular until after the turn of the century.  the “CDV”s as they are called, were simply paper photographs mounted on a small piece of cardboard about the size of a calling card.  They were produced by the thousands and were very inexpensive and easy to make in multiples—unlike the previous processes. 
By the time of the Civil War in the U.S., just about everyone was collecting in albums the CDVs of their favorite actors, politicians, heroes, royals, entertainers, freaks (including Tom Thumb as well as Barnum’s other stars) and family and friends—both living and dead. Let’s face it, CDVs were our first selfies!
Queen Victoria and her family were among the most popular subjects for CDVs.  In 1860 John Maryall, an American working in England, published 60,000 sets of his Royal Family album of CDVs.   Victoria herself avidly collected the small photos and put them in albums. 
            Back to the CDV of Victoria and Albert as bride and groom.   I originally bought it because I was amused that someone acquired the CDV in the 1860’s and valued it so much that she cut a bit off the bottom and placed the photo in the kind of ornate frame and matte that was earlier used for cased images like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.
            I took the photo apart from the frame and matte (which is something I always do, because you can find all sorts of things behind the image if it’s in a case:  locks of hair, written identifications, dates, love letters, poems). 

         By now you have realized, as I did when I took the thing apart—this is not a photograph!   It’s taken from an engraving of the royal pair. And the artist, whoever he is, made them look a teensy bit better than they did in real life.  And there’s one more thing wrong with the image—Victoria did not wear a real crown on her wedding day, but instead chose a simple crown of orange blossoms.  She also had bunches of orange blossoms attached to her gown. Wearing not a diamond crown but a headpiece of orange blossoms was a revolutionary step for Victoria to make at her wedding, as was wearing all white. 

         FYI, because I know you’re going to ask, Kate Middleton did wear a sort of crown at her wedding in April of 2011; a diamond halo-style coronet, which someone said was  “as understated as a headband of diamonds can be.”  It was an heirloom made by Cartier in 1936 and originally bought by King George VI for his wife—the Queen Mother.  It was loaned to Kate by Queen Elizabeth and includes 739 brilliant diamonds and 149 batons.
(The next paragraph was wrong, as I soon found out!)
          Princes Diana, at her wedding on July 29, 1981, wore a much more visible and dramatic crown—the Lover’s Knot tiara, which was made in 1914 using diamonds and pearls from the royal family’s collection.  It was given to Diana by Queen Elizabeth II as a wedding present. Kate has inherited it and has worn it on several occasions.
Royal Brides, Part II
         Last week I posted about Queen Victoria’s revolutionary wedding dress, which broke with tradition in 1840 by being white and featuring, not a diamond crown, but simply a wreath of orange blossoms in her hair. I also included two photos and comments about the crowns worn by modern royal brides Princess Diana and Kate Middleton.  I posted a photo of Diana and wrote:  Princess Diana, at her wedding on July 29, 1981, wore a much more visible and dramatic crown—the Lover’s Knot tiara, which was made in 1914 using diamonds and pearls from the royal family’s collection.”
            Turns out I was completely wrong.  As my sharp-eyed daughter Eleni pointed out, that was not a photo of Diana in the Lovers Knot tiara at her wedding, although it did become her favorite crown and the Queen did loan it to her for the wedding.  But at the last minute Diana decided to get married in the Spencer Family crown, shown here.
         According to People Magazine, “Like all good royal pieces, the Spencer Tiara is actually made up of other pieces of jewelry... The current version – which is constructed with diamonds shaped into tulips and stars surrounded by attractive scrolls – was probably finalized sometime in the ’30s. It has become a popular wedding tiara for the Spencer family: Diana’s sisters – Lady Sarah and Jane, Baroness Fellowes – both wore the sparkler for their wedding days and Victoria Lockwood, who was the first wife of Diana’s brother Charles, the current Earl of Spencer, wore it when she married into the famed aristocratic family in 1989 (when little Prince Harry served as a pageboy). However, Diana’s mother, Frances, did not wear the tiara when she married into the Spencer family in 1954.”
(If you want to read my two "royal brides" posts in their entirety, here are the links:

Sunday, May 6, 2018

World Laughter Day and the Birth of the Smiley Face

Because today is World Laughter Day and we all could use a little help cheering up,  I'm re-posting the story of Harvey Ball, the artist from Worcester, MA who created the original Smiley Face fifty five years ago and never made more than $45 from his creation.  Then, in 1999, disturbed by the crass commercialization of the Smiley, Harvey created World Smile Day--the first Friday in October every year--to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  So like World Smile Day in October, today--the first Sunday in May-- is a good day to do a random act of kindness as Harvey put it--improving the world "one smile at a time."

When three of Harvey Ball’s comrades were killed by a wayward shell as they stood next to him in Okinawa during World War II, he did not ponder if fate had saved him for a greater destiny.  Harvey, a tall, lanky, laconic Yankee from Worcester, Massachusetts, was not much given to introspection, socializing, talking, or even smiling.  But when he died in 2001 at the age of 79, Harvey had figured out his purpose in life.  As he told  People Magazine in 1998, “I taught the whole world how to smile.”

Harvey Ball, born and raised in Worcester, was the creator of the Smiley Face--that round yellow image that now beams out from Wal-Mart ads, Joe Boxer shorts and internet icons.  When, in December of 1963, he picked up a black pen and a yellow piece of paper and drew the world’s first Smiley Face, Harvey, a self-employed commercial artist, was working on an assignment from a Worcester insurance company suffering from employee discontent after a merger.  They wanted a campaign and buttons to raise company morale. They ordered 100 yellow Smiley Face buttons and then, when those disappeared almost over night, they ordered 10,000 more.

Harvey later figured out that his compensation for creating the Smiley Face button for the Worcester Mutual Insurance Company added up to about $45.   When the lawyers for the company tried to copyright the image eight years later, they learned that it was impossible, because the image, reproduced 50 million times in the year 1971 alone, was in the public domain.  By the mid-seventies, according to the curators of the Worcester Historical Museum, the image had fallen out of favor.

But Smiley made a significant comeback in the late 1980’s when interest in acid and other psychedelic drugs became a major cultural phenomenon. The icon was embraced by trendy downtown club kids.  Those who grew up in the 1970’s—today’s most desirable consumer demographic —view the image with nostalgia. (Some of them also think it was created by Forrest Gump, the fictional movie character.)  When votes were taken by the U.S. Post Office for icons to represent the decade of the 1970’s, the most popular image by far was Smiley, whose stamp was issued in 1999.

Brothers Murray and Bernard Spain of Philadelphia added the phrase “Have a Happy Day” and took in a reported one million dollars in sales of Smiley products in the first six months of 1971 alone.  In 1998, French Businessman Franklin Loufrani claimed that HE had created the image in 1971, and he proceeded to trademark the face in 80 countries.  When faced with Harvey Ball’s earlier creation, Loufrani replied with a Gallic shrug:  “I  don’t care if he designed the Smiley face.  We promote, we own, we market.” 

Riled up by “the France guy” as he put it,  Harvey in 1999 created World Smile Day—the first Friday in October-- to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  And he trademarked it. Harvey said, World Smile Day® is open to every person on the planet.  No matter what color they are, or who they might pray to, no matter what country they live in.  World Smile Day® simply asks each person to live the day with a generous heart, do one kind act, to help one person smile.  Acts of kindness and smiles are contagious."

Every reporter who interviewed Harvey Ball asked him the same question: was he angry that he never made more than $45 from the creation that could have made him very, very rich?  To every reporter he patiently gave pretty much the same reply: “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time.  I’m not ticked off about it.  I don’t mind getting up in the morning and going to work. They ask me why I’m not upset.  I just get satisfaction from it being so widely used and that it has given so many people pleasure.”

Even though he didn’t want to profit from it, Harvey Ball did want recognition for creating the image whose smile has been called more famous than the Mona Lisa’s.   He said  “Smiley is one of the greatest pieces of art ever created, as simple as it is.  It’s got a very, very positive message. Anybody can use it and reproduce it and it reaches everybody regardless of language, religion, nationality, all those things--as compared to some of the art you get today which you haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re looking at…I’m glad Smiley came from Worcester.  The city should make more of it.  Because no other city has this.”

After Harvey died in 2001 in Worcester, his son, Charles, said : “He was proud and pleased to have served his country and raise a family…He died with no apologies and no regrets.  His moral compass stayed on northh and never wavered."

And he left us the legacy of a smile.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Remembering May Baskets and May Wreaths

(I see violets popping up in the yard, reminding me of the fun of making and sharing May baskets--a spring ritual that seems to have faded away with my childhood.  I'm posting my annual essay about May baskets and May wreaths below, and last year, a reporter from the Milwaukee Sentinel, Anna Thomas Bates, interviewed me about my long-ago memories of the custom.  She posted an article in the paper with a wonderful photograph of a little girl in 1947 hanging a basket on a door knob and looking very much like I did back then, with my braids and plaid jumper.  Here's a link to her article:

Some sixty years ago, when I was a little girl in (first) Milwaukee, Wisconsin and then in Edina, Minnesota, on the first of  May we would make May baskets out of construction paper and fill them with  whatever flowers we could find in the garden or growing wild. We would hang the baskets on the doorknobs of neighbors—especially old people—ring the door bell, then run away with great hilarity and peek out as the elderly person found the little bouquets on their door.

Thirty-some years ago, when we moved  to Grafton, MA, I continued the same tradition with my three kids, but then they grew up and moved away.  Just today I looked out at all the flowers popping up in our yard and reflected that all the old people in our neighborhood had died.  In fact, I realized, the only old people left were my husband and myself, so I picked a small May Day bouquet for us out of what’s growing—white violets and purple violets, cherry blossoms, forsythia, wild grape hyacinth--  and here it is.

 In 1977, when the children were all small (the youngest was one month old) we moved from New York City to a suburb of Athens, Greece, courtesy of The New York Times, which had made my husband a foreign correspondent there.  In Greece, even today, whether in the country or the city, on May 1 you make a May wreath of the flowers in the garden.  Roses are in full bloom by then in Greece, along with all sorts of wild flowers. You hang the May wreath on your door.  It dies and dries and withers until, on June 24th, St. John the Baptist’s Birthday, the dried May wreath is thrown into a bonfire.  The boys of the town leap over the flames first. In the end everyone leaps over the fading fire saying things like  “I leave the bad year  behind in order to enter a better year.”

Here is daughter Eleni in 1980 wearing the wreath that was about to go on the door. Next to her is her sister Marina.

 In Greece, even today, you’ll find May wreaths hanging on the front doors of homes and businesses, although I don’t know if anyone still throws them into a St John’s fire.  In Massachusetts, the tulips and forsythia are out, the bleeding hearts are starting to bloom, and soon the lilacs will open, filling the air with their beauty and perfume.  But today I gathered a small bouquet of May flowers and remembered the years gone by.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Interpreting Our Ancestors' Early Photographs--1. The Scandinavians

I first posted this in January of 2015, discussing some vintage photographs of my Swedish and Norwegian ancestors--my father's side. I ended by saying that I would write another essay-- one dealing with my mother's Swiss-French side of the family, which settled in Tennessee long before the Civil War.  Never did get around to writing that post, but I'd better do it soon, because I'm hoping to put all my posts about antique photos and how to understand them into a book that will be called "Sepia Secrets/ The Story Behind the Photograph".

I’m a passionate collector of antique photographs—especially daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography, which were introduced to the world by Louis Daguerre in France in August of 1839. 

In this day of “selfies” and smart-phone videos that share images of just about everything via the internet as soon as it happens, it’s hard to imagine the sensation caused by the first photographs—scientifically accurate portraits “written by the sun”.  A daguerreotype is an image produced on a silver-coated copper plate, which uses iodine and mercury to develop it.  For early daguerreotypes, you had to sit very still for many minutes, not smile or blink (your head often in a brace) and the fumes produced in the developing often made the photographer ill.  Even the touch of a feather on the sensitized silver plate would scar the image, so daguerreotypes had to be protected under glass and housed in a case that opens and closes like a book.

My favorite thing to do is to research the story behind an antique image—who (or what) is the subject?  When was the image taken?  What is the photographer trying to tell us?   While daguerreotype photography spread quickly around the world, (and nowhere was it more popular than in the United States), most people in the 1840’s and 1850’s, except for the famous or wealthy, would have only one image taken of themselves in their lifetime.  Often this would be a photo of a serious couple, seated side by side, soon after their wedding.  The photo was a sort of solemn, official record that they were married.  And if a child died, as so often happened, or an old grandfather who had fought in the Revolutionary War passed away, the daguerreotype photographer was quickly called to “save the shadow ere the substance fade”, as the photographers’ ads often put it. 

But the photographer could only do his job on a sunny day.  Usually the studio would be on a top floor of a walk-up under a skylight to capture the best light—because there were no electric lights.

While I have often researched and written essays about antique and historic photographs—(see the list of titles at right)—I have rarely written about my own family’s vintage photos, although I have them hanging on several walls of my house and look at them every day. I’m going to tell the stories behind some of my  antique photographs, so that you can get clues as to what to look for in your family photos from the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.  And I’m going to do it in two parts—first the stories of my father’s family; all of them Swedes and Norwegians, and then my mother’s family who were Swiss-French on the maternal side and Scotch-Irish on the other.

Here is a photograph of the family and house and possessions of Jorgen J. Odegaard, the man with the furry hat and bushy beard on the right.  He was born in 1856 in Norway and immigrated to the United States where he married another Norwegian immigrant, Oline Kaurstad in 1870. They first settled in Iowa, but with no money and no work, they headed for Minnesota (as did many Scandinavians) in search of free land in Santiago Township.  They settled near a swamp.

My father told me that Jorgen had the first pair of matched horses in the county.  You can see them tied up on the left.  In photographs of this era (1880’s) an itinerant photographer would come by, with his camera mounted on a tripod, knock on your door, and if you wanted a photograph, the family would be arranged in front of the house, with the most valued possessions in view.  This photo with the rare pair of horses is like a photo of a man leaning on his brand new sports car.  From the same period is a photo I have of the farmhouse I now live in.  The whole family and farm hands are standing in front of the barn and house with the prize bull tethered front and center and the ladies in their frilly hats and long dresses standing in front of the horse-drawn buggy.

The little girl in the white pinafore or apron above was Jorgen’s oldest child and my grandmother—Ida Odegard (the second “a” in Odegaard fell out somewhere). The baby in his mother’s arms is John who, I discovered on Google, “married in 1905 and then operated the first Ford agency in the area in 1912.  He offered free driving lessons with every sale, as no one knew how to operate motor vehicles.  He often accepted livestock, buggies and other items in lieu of cash.”

This photo of Jorgen’s family is not an original— it’s a simple photocopy which has no value as a photograph, but to me it’s priceless.

Compare it to this photo of the same family around 20 years later. This photo is an original and printed at the bottom is “Residence of J. O. Odegard, Santiago, Sherburne Co. Minnesota, June 7 1902”.  The little girl in the white pinafore in the previous photo is now the married lady sitting in a chair in a white dress, her hand touching her first of four sons—my uncle John Paulson.  She had married my grandfather, Par Paulson, who is seated at the far right. Her parents, Jorgen and Oline, who’s 45 in this photo, had nine children in all and the little girl toddler between her parents is a sibling to her married sister Ida. So the toddler on the left is the aunt to the toddler on the right—and she is the same age as her nephew. I’ve been told that the house in this photo is the same as the small shack in the first photo, but it has now been expanded to house the growing family (nine children!), adding a second floor and two chimneys and lots of space.

The wonderful names of Jorgen’s children are:  Ida, John, Mathilda, Edwin, Julius, Oscar, Olga, Alma, and Odin.

At the top of this post is a wedding photograph of my grandmother Ida Odegard, marrying my grandfather, Par Paulson, around 1899.  I have always thought that large floral bush on her head looked fairly ridiculous but I showed it to a friend from Norway and she told me that it is a traditional “Blomster Krans”.

The wedding photograph is a cabinet card –a photograph mounted on heavy cardboard-- which has been embossed in ornate silver script  “E. S. Hill, St. Cloud, Minn”. Cabinet cards, 4 inches by 5 ½ inches, were very popular from 1870 to about 1900. Photos of actors, politicians, freaks and famous people in this format were sold and collected in albums.

I knew my grandmother Ida well—she let me gather the eggs from her hen house and, after she beheaded a chicken every Sunday for dinner, we would de-feather it together.  I didn’t know until I was older that Ida was a very strong-minded and independent woman who shocked her family by marrying Par Paulson, a Swede instead of a Norwegian!, and then divorcing him after they had four sons. She moved with her college-age sons to Minneapolis where she opened a boarding house and became known for her apple pie. Then she married another Swede, John Erickson, who, like her first husband, was a mail carrier.  I adored John Erickson, my step-grandfather,  who taught me to shoot his rifle across the Mississippi River.  I only met my real grandfather, Par Paulson, once.  He was totally deaf.  To "talk" to him you had to write on a blackboard with chalk.

Here is my grandmother Ida holding a blonde cherub with sausage curls, a white dress and a bow in its hair.  That child is my father, Robert Odegard Paulson, born April 3, 1905.  It may seem shocking that he’s been dressed and groomed like a little girl, but back in the day, little boys and girls were dressed alike until about five or six years old. If you want some clues as to how to tell the boys and girls apart in vintage photographs check out the post I did called "Tots with Antique Toys--Boy or Girl?"

This photograph is printed on a nine-inch round tin plate embellished with beautiful flowers.  I’ve seen other, similar photos on tin, dating around the turn of the century, but I don’t know what they’re called.  (They’re not proper tintypes or ferrotypes—that’s another thing entirely.)  In tiny letters under the left corner of the photo is written “copyrighted 1908 by Crover MFG.”  My father would have been three years old in 1908.

In my next blog post I’ll share the stories and photos of my mother’s French-speaking ancestors, some pre-dating the civil war.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Children of Damascus--Again

 I visited Damascus twelve years ago--one of the holiest and most historic cities in the world, during an excursion from a cruise ship.  Entering the Umayyad Mosque, I was worried I'd find anti-American feelings, but all I found was families worshiping, playing, enjoying the day, and asking me to take photographs of their children.  They were completely welcoming and friendly and proud of their children.  I first posted the words and photos below on August 22, 2013 in mourning for the people I had met that day.  Now it's happened again--children suffocated with poison gas, lying in the street, foaming at the mouth, in a city just outside of Damascus.  I pray that someone, somehow, can make this stop and save the surviving children of Syria.

The beautiful babies and children, wrapped in their white shrouds, laid in a row in the street in front of a mosque, while a voice on a loudspeaker asks people to come forward and identify the bodies.  They seem to be sleeping, but they were choked to death with poison gas.  Their lives had barely begun when they were cut short...After seeing those photos in every newspaper today, it's impossible to think about, or write about, anything else.

I keep remembering the day, seven years ago, when I entered the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, worried by the anti-American slogans I'd seen in the marketplace, and found nothing but welcoming faces,  families playing and worshipping and just hanging out together peacefully.  And the proud parents who asked me to take photographs of them with their children--even though there was no way I could send them the photos.  And in the courtyard outside, the gaggle of young women who insisted on posing for me.  The little boy playing with his miniature car, and the little girl in a pink "Barbie" outfit.
I wonder where they are today--in a refugee camp or wrapped in a white shroud, lying in the street?

Remembering the children, I'm re-posting again the photos I took when their country was not enveloped in war.
                                              Scenes from Damascus

The first and only time I saw Damascus --March 3, 2006--I was fascinated with the capital and vowed to go back. The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus is a mind-boggling mixture of Roman ruins, living Bible history and Muslim mosques.

I came as part of a group of about ten on a shore excursion from a small cruise ship.  Our guide took us to the old center of the city to see the Umayyad Mosque—one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world, and the fourth-holiest place in Islam.

 We walked through the covered bazaar to get there, but most of the shops were closed because it was a Friday.  I was getting a little nervous because I was told that the banners hanging overhead were full of anti-American rhetoric.

 Here is a photograph that shows the mixture of Roman ruins and one of the three minarets of the Mosque-- all in the same place.

 Before entering, the women in the group had to put on “special clothes”—a very unappealing heavy gray djellaba (Well, that’s what they call it in Morocco.)  I’m the one on the left in the sun glasses below.  You can see that the man in the red shirt didn’t have to change into more solemn clothing.

 The Umayyad Mosque is unbelievably large and rich in its mosaics and tiles and gilded decorations.  Everything that looks gold is gold, we learned.   In the time of its full glory, the mosque had the largest golden mosaic in the world.

 We entered the immense outer courtyard and found the families inside just hanging out-- children playing, old men sleeping, people washing their hands before prayers.

 Everyone regarded us with friendly curiosity, despite the anti-American slogans in the marketplace.  This man asked me to take a photo of him and his three children.

 Then we entered the vast covered prayer hall, and again, everything was casual.  A small white chapel with green windows is in the center, reportedly holding the head of John the Baptist. In the fourth century, after it housed a Roman temple to Jupiter, this site held a church to John the Baptist and was an important pilgrimage destination for Christians in the Byzantine era. Then the building was shared by Muslim and Christians alike.  But when the present mosque was built between 706 and 715, the church was demolished.

 But now, at the little chapel with the green windows, I was surprised to see Muslims praying and slipping money into it, presumably to honor John the Baptist.  (And one of the minarets in the Umayyad Mosque is called the  Minaret of Jesus because of a Muslim tradition that, on the day of judgment, this is where Jesus will appear.)

After we admired the golden mosaics in the interior, we moved on to a smaller outdoor courtyard with fountains where families were enjoying the fine weather. 

 These young women came over and asked me to photograph them, and of course I did, although we had no language in common and I had no way of sending the photos back to them.

This little boy was playing with his miniature car on the cover of a well.

And I was amused to see that the little girl with these black-clad women was dressed in a pink  outfit covered with the word "Barbie".

Now, when I read the reports nearly every day of massacres, suicide bombs, streets lined with the dead in Syria, including in Damascus—thousands killed so far and so many of them children—I remember the families I saw in the Mosque, all so hopeful and proud of their children, and I pray that the current bloodshed can be stopped before it claims any more innocent lives.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Greek Easter--The Drama Begins

I first posted this in April of 2010, when Orthodox Easter and Catholic Easter happened to fall on the same day.  This year Greek Easter is celebrated a week later than Catholic Easter.  Why? Because Orthodox Easter has to happen after Passover.  So we usually get to buy our Easter goodies at half price.  But not the paschal lamb.  I've already ordered our lamb from Bahnan's, described below.   This blog post seems to be becoming an annual tradition, so I'd like to start today to wish Happy Easter  to all and to our Greek friends, Kahlo Pascha!

Next Friday is Good Friday on the Orthodox calendar and in a Greek household that means we can’t eat dairy or meat (that’s been going on for 40 days) and also we can’t eat oil, so on Good Fridays we usually end up surviving on things like plain baked potatoes and peanut butter on crackers.

But the Big Eleni, who lives with us and is the best cook in the world, has all sorts of “fasting” food ready for Holy Week, which starts on April 2 with "Clean Monday".  She's cooking up Halvah, stuffed grape leaves, rice-stuffed tomatoes, taramasalata (made from fish roe) and some sort of artichoke/spinach/ hummus concoction. And boiled shrimp.

Next Thursday, April 5, will also mark the annual dramatic journey into Worcester to collect the lamb which we ordered from Bahnan’s Market on 344 Pleasant Street. As you can see from the first sign below, the people at Bahnan’s are ready to sell you your Easter needs in four languages: English, Greek, Turkish and Arabic.

And they  have a café where, according to local Greeks, you can get the only authentic gyros for miles around.

Shopping at Bahnan’s is like a visit to the United Nations, but on Easter week it’s like several festivals rolled into one.

There is usually a considerable line of people waiting to get into the refrigerated back room to receive the lamb they had ordered and have it cut up to their specifications.   By Friday afternoon the line will be out the door.

I don’t last long in the refrigerated room, because of the cold and the proximity of all those lamb corpses, some of which look the size of a small horse. (Our lamb will be very small—20 to 25 pounds.)

I usually escape before the butcher starts sawing,  but this process is still easier than some early Easters in Nick’s northern Greek village, when the adorable baby goats were tied to each house’s front door knob and my offspring loved petting them. Then I had to drag the children, (all three under age ten) out of town on Holy Saturday to prevent them seeing the general bloodshed as the baby goats were slaughtered and blood ran in the street.

In the village on Easter Sunday you see spits outside every house, each one tended by the patriarch who is drinking homemade moonshine called Raki and having a good time. We sometimes do the lamb on the spit outside in Grafton, but not when Easter comes with weather this cold.

In the photos above you see the Big Eleni shopping for Greek cheese at Bahnan’s. She's about to make our large round Tsoureki bread with the red egg in the middle. And on Holy Thursday, as always, we will dye dozens of eggs red for the Saturday-night egg-cracking duel, after we all return from the midnight church service,  when you challenge everyone – saying “Christ is risen” “Indeed he is risen”. Crack! And whoever’s egg comes out the winner gets the other guy’s egg.

On Holy Saturday, we will all go to church very early and without consuming as much as a drop of water beforehand. We line up to take communion and then are free for the first time in seven weeks to eat dairy (not meat. Not yet. But we are free to rush to the Pancake House where we traditionally stuff ourselves with high-calorie breakfast treats that have been forbidden for weeks.)

Then it’s back to church again at midnight.—for the dramatic Midnight Mass on Saturday night when the church is plunged into darkness and the priest comes out at the exact stroke of midnight with a single candle and announces ‘Christ is risen!” Then the flame passes from his candle to everyone else’s and the church fills with light as we sing the Resurrection hymn: “Christos anesti!” We try to keep our candles lit as we drive home to break the Lenten fast by cracking eggs and eating the delicate dill-and-egg-lemon soup called "mayeritsa" made by the Big Eleni out of the lamb's intestines.

(Actually, she doesn’t put in the intestines, because she knows that our kids would never eat it. In fact two are vegetarians. And after my visits to pick up the lamb, I understand perfectly.)

I hope wherever you are celebrating Easter or Passover -- in any language – you are enjoying spring weather. Here in Massachusetts, they're predicting snow in two days on everybody else's Easter.  So when the Greek Easter Bunny comes around on Sunday April 8, he will probably have to hide the Easter eggs inside instead of outside this year.  But the azaleas and the forsythia, as well as the crocuses, will be in bloom by then, so whether you're celebrating Passover or Easter this weekend or Orthodox Easter next Sunday, let me wish you  "Kalo Pascha!"  (And don't put away the snow shovels yet!)