Monday, November 29, 2010

Last word on the Wedding—The Nuptial Bed

     Thanksgiving pie-baking chores sidetracked me, but now I have to share the last word (I promise) on Eleni and Emilio’s 10-10-10 wedding in Corfu Greece. 

     Because Eleni majored in folklore and mythology, she loves every tradition and honored the Greek pre-wedding ritual of having the ladies prepare the wedding bed two days before the ceremony.  This happened on Friday in a suite at the Corfu Palace Hotel where the women (especially the single ladies) gathered in one room to sing, drink and prepare the connubial bed, while in the other room and on the balcony, champagne and cocktails were enjoyed by those who aren’t into bed-making (although by tradition the first single lady who gets a pillowcase on the bed with be the next to marry).
Emilio threw himself into the groom’s role of storming into the room three times and tearing the bed apart, saying the preparations were unsatisfactory.

Then, satisfied with the fourth effort, he approved.

Next came the bouncing of children on the bed—if a boy is desired first, toss on a boy baby…you get the idea…but in Eleni’s case it was five children, both boys and girls, who happily bounced.

The ladies began throwing flower petals, rice, Jordan almonds (because they are both sweet and bitter, like life) and money, including some gold sovereigns from the bride’s family  (part of her dowry) onto the prepared bed.  Here’s Emilio’s mother, Carmen, throwing rice.

Finally Eleni and Emilio posed on the bed among their newly acquired wealth as everyone snapped photos.The bed remained decorated until their wedding night when they managed to spill everything onto the floor (not the money)  leaving the hotel maids a big mess to clean up.

The next night, Saturday, was the most “Mama Mia” moment, when Emilio and his family hosted a Welcome Dinner for everyone on the tiny island of Vidos, just a ten-minute boat ride from Corfu Town’s old harbor.

Everyone  boarded the couple’s  “Love Boat” which scuttled back and forth throughout the night, piloted by Captain Onoufrios.

Vidos Island was once  an army base for 200,000 Serbian soldiers, then a juvenile reform facility and is now a government-owned camping grounds which includes lovely beaches, one uninhabited mansion and a seaside  taverna named for its eccentric owner, Mr. Menios.

     One of the surreal things about the island is that rabbits and pheasants have proliferated  until they come by the hundreds to welcome visitors, because Menios feeds them at sunset every night.

 Three-year-old Sophia was entranced with feeding the rabbits. 

All of us loved the Greek musicians and singers supplied by Menios. 

After plenty of Menios's Pastitsada and Sofrito and homemade wine, dancing broke out of the taverna and extended down to the seashore until the group of 100 re-boarded the Love Boat and sailed back to the mainland to prepare for the big day: Sunday—and the two wedding ceremonies (Catholic and Greek Orthodox) to be followed by the reception at the Corfu Sailing Club.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A THANKSGIVING MIRACLE--(How NOT to mail that Christmas gift.)

My first mistake was that I was so eager to have Eleni and Emilio see the two wedding gifts I carried back from Greece for them that I decided to mail them to Miami from our home in North Grafton, MA.

They were two silver trays that I carried in my hand luggage.  One, about nine inches in diameter, was a sterling silver replica of a dish in the Benaki Museum in Athens, with medallions incised around the rim representing the twelve apostles. (The original was made in the mid 17th century in Transylvania.)

The other tray was ten inches square and had been engraved with  “E & E” (for Eleni and Emilio) and the date of their wedding—10.10.10.  It also had an inlaid  blue and white “mati” as protection against the Evil Eye   

So I found a box just the right size.  I wrapped the trays in bubble wrap and added a square cloth from Mexico embroidered with angels and the Virgin that I thought would look nice in their South Beach home.

But the box I found was a Tiffany box, so I wrapped it in brown paper so the name wouldn’t show.  That was my second mistake.

I went to our neighborhood post office where the employees are eager to help with packing, taping, sending—sort of the opposite of any Manhattan post office, where you get shunted from one line to another and generally feel you’re under suspicion.

I asked the postal clerk to put priority mail tape all around the box so it wouldn’t open, and I insured the package for $500.  That was mistake number three.

I had written Eleni and Emilio’s address on one of my husband’s adhesive package labels, which was printed with his return address.  That was the worst mistake of all.

So far I’ve sent about a zillion priority mail envelopes and packages to Miami and they inevitably get there within two days.  I mailed the box of trays on Saturday Oct. 23. Expected delivery date printed on the receipt  was  Monday, Oct. 25.  At the same time, I sent a priority envelope full of mail and clippings.

You guessed it—the envelope of clippings got there on Monday.  The package insured for $500 did not. 

I tried to track the mailing receipt number on line and failed, but my post master learned that the package had reached Nashua, New Hampshire, where all the priority mail goes to be flown out by FedEx planes.  Then it disappeared.

There ensued daily visits to the post office (mine and Eleni’s) to speculate about where it went. You have to wait for 14 days beyond expected delivery to fill out all the necessary forms and send them to the USPS Domestic Claims Center in St. Louis Mo.

I filled out and mailed forms (so did our postmaster Joe) and searched on line for a photo of the Apostles dish.  My heart sank when I learned that it costs 520 Euros.  That’s $700!  I had only insured the box for $500.  And this was the smaller of the two trays.

Eleni in South Beach and I in North Grafton pestered our post offices.  I learned that I should NEVER wrap a package in brown paper, because it can be ripped off by a machine.  All mail without an address ends up in a very large warehouse in Atlanta, GA., and no, you can’t get their phone number or e-mail address.  You have to go through channels.

Eleni got the phone number of a helpful Consumer Affairs representative named  Donna,  who quizzed me about the  trays and how they were wrapped.

Then there was nothing we could do but wait and hope.  (If an unaddressed package in Atlanta is not identified in three months, it’s disposed of.) We couldn’t nag Atlanta, so Eleni baked a cake for Saint Fanourios, who helps you find things. 

She had written the recipe for the cake in her 2006 travel memoir “North of Ithaka”, but in the book she called it a  “Get-Me-A-Man Cake.”  Now she had her man, but wanted her silver trays.

She had to say a prayer as she baked and then get 12 people to eat a piece of it.  Emilio took it to work with him. Everybody liked the cake.

Then, on Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, there was a call from Atlanta.  The trays had been found!   Should they send them to Miami?

No, we said, because the newlyweds were flying to Grafton for the holiday. And today, the day after Thanksgiving, the box came, with all sort of official stamps  and insurance labels. Under their brown paper was my original brown paper (from a Trader Joe’s bag).  The address label had come off.  It had arrived in Miami “w/o address”.

It left our house on October 23 and one month and three days later, thanks to Saint Fanourios  (and the USPS folks in Atlanta), the trays found their way back.  It was a Thanksgiving miracle!

Just so you won’t make the same mistakes I did, I’m spelling out what I learned about mailing valuables.

1.    1. Insure for the right amount.  Do research to find out.
2.   2. DO NOT wrap anything in brown paper.  Put the address directly on the box.
3.    3. If it’s an address label—put clear tape over it, so it can’t be torn off or obscured by  snow.
4.    4. ALWAYS put a copy of the address information—sender and recipient’s address—INSIDE the box.
5.    5. Make sure the flaps on the box cannot possibly come open.
6.    6. And whatever you do, don’t lose your postage receipts.
7.    7. Priority mail only gets scanned when it’s sent and when it’s delivered—if that.  Maybe you want to send it registered?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Which Christmas Song Do You Hate Most?

Traditionally the day after Thanksgiving—also known as Black Friday –is the day when Christmas songs overwhelm the airwaves and blast through the P.A. system in every store, reminding the beleaguered customers that they have only 00 days to finished their Christmas shopping, which more efficient people completed during last January’s White Sales.

This year, it seems that Halloween was the starting pistol for Christmas songs—most of which make me grit my teeth and lunge for the radio dial in the car or search earnestly for an exit if I’m in, say, a Walmart.

Any song featuring chestnuts roasting, chipmunks singing, snowmen melting, reindeer glowing, Mommy kissing Santa Claus or Bing Crosby wearing a Santa hat bring out this flight-or-fight reaction in me.

I just looked up on Google the “100  Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time” compiled by WCBS FM.  The first eight, not surprisingly, all send my blood pressure soaring:

Here they are:

1.   White Christmas
2.   The Chipmunk Song
3.   Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
4.   I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
5.   Jingle Bell Rock
6.   The Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting….”
7.   Snoopy’s Christmas (actually I’ve never heard this one—thankfully)
8.   Here Comes Santa Claus

Number nine—Little Drummer Boy—I actually don’t mind.  I think that’s because it’s reggae?  My favorite commercial Christmas song is also reggae: “Mary’s Boy Child  Jesus Christ.”

This brings me to an aside—Have you seen the You Tube video of the cranky little boy baby who is fussing as his dad straps him into a car seat but is immediately calmed into a grinning, grooving, happy child by the first notes of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier?” If you haven't seen it, look it up—it’s strange but funny.

I’ve noticed that reggae music has the same effect on me—I can almost feel it lower my blood pressure.  Maybe there’s some scientific basis to how the reggae beat calms one down.  Maybe science should investigate.

While I really hate the commercial Christmas songs that seem to multiply ever year  (how about “All I want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth” and “Grandma got Run Over by a Reindeer”?), I really love the traditional religious Christmas carols and am happy that the Greek Orthodox church we attend (Saint Spyridon Cathedral in Worcester) features English-language carols at the holidays, especially in the Christmas Eve children’s pageant,  which is a must-see in our family.  (We’re always betting on whether or not some of the smallest children, dressed as sheep, will bolt from the manger, abandoning the shepherds and heading for home and Mommy.)

I’m sad that most schools are not allowed to use religious carols during holiday programs any more.  Back in the day, when I was in school, we sang carols during our holiday program and even learned them in our foreign language classes. I can still sing “Angels We have Heard on High” in French and “Jingle Bells” in Latin. (“Tinnitus, tinnitus, semper tinnitus’)  In fact ,our Latin teacher, the late, lamented Richard Scanlan,  translated all sorts of things for us, creating games and projects that made his Latin classes the most popular at  Edina Morningside High School.)

I wish there were some way we could bring religious Christmas Carols back into the schools—maybe by teaching the kids  songs to celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanza in various languages at the same time?  And I wish we could somehow outlaw commercial Christmas  songs in the stores, especially those featuring chipmunks, reindeer and Bing Crosby, until Black Friday at the earliest.

Poll: What Christmas song do you hate the most?  Which is your favorite?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Child Beggars in India

(I wrote this post in January of 2009 when I was just back from an unforgettable trip to India and my blog  "A Rolling Crone" was just beginning.  It proved to be the most widely read of my posts ever and also rather controversial, as I will explain in a note at the end.  As President Obama returns from his trip to India and Indonesia, I am republishing it here to up-date it.)

Everyone who has not yet seen the film “Slumdog Millionaire” should do so at once. It’s an unrealistic fairy tale with an unlikely feel-good ending, but it graphically illustrates the lives of the countless millions of India’s children who live on the street with only one concern: “How will I manage to find enough to eat today so that I’ll be alive tomorrow?”

Everywhere you go in India you will find beggars. This is particularly true in the large cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Mumbai is a city of 18 MILLION people and HALF of those people are homeless. That means that they live on the streets or in shacks made of tin or cardboard. A night-time drive from the airport in Delhi to Agra gave insights into these hovels and the families who consider home to be a piece of the median strip of the highway. It took an hour just to drive out of the city on a road that was jammed with rickshaws, camels, sacred cows and many, many beggars.

Frommer’s Guide to India in the “Mumbai” section deals with the problem of beggars: ”Families of beggars will twist and weave their way around the cars at traffic lights, hopping and even crawling to your window with displays of open wounds, diseased sores, crushed limbs, and starving babies, their hollow eyes imploring you for a few life-saving rupees…. In the worst of these tales of horror, children are maimed to up the ante by making them appear more pathetic. The choice is stark: Either lower the window and risk having a sea of unwelcome faces descend on you, or stare ahead and ignore them. To salve your conscience tip generously those who have made it onto the first rung of employment”

In India you quickly steel yourself to the crowds of children who are grabbing your arm, knocking on the window of your car, thrusting flowers into your pockets, repeating endlessly the only words of English they know: “Hello Madame, food, hungry, money, please, eat…”

If you give any of them money or even move toward your pocket or purse, their number suddenly increases tenfold and you cannot move for all the hands clutching at you.

In Mumbai, just outside our hotel, when we walked onto the shopping street of Colava Causeway, lined with stores on the right and street sellers’ booths on the left, all shouting their wares, there were two families of children who were particularly aggressive, following us for blocks, especially a girl of about 11 who kept thrusting flowers onto me anywhere they would stick, and her little brother who seemed to have no adult watching him as he skittered in front of us. I was so annoyed by them constantly clutching at me, but then one night, returning home about 11:30, I saw the family sound asleep on the sidewalk, the children curled into the prone body of their mother, and I felt guilt-stricken. The next day, before I left, I managed to give the girl a hundred rupees without anyone else noticing, and instead of unleashing a crowd on me, she grabbed it, grinned and ran. (It was worth only about $2.00 but that was probably a good day’s income to her.)

The beautiful and sad little girl from Jodhpur in the photo above, who was dressed and painted to look like a Hindu goddess, has a good gimmick, because the Hindu religion emphasizes giving money and food to holy persons as well as to sacred cows. On every street you can see poor Indians putting necklaces of flowers on the ubiquitous cows and feeding them. They also share their food with the bearded sadhus (holy men) dressed only in saffron loin cloths. These holy men live entirely on charity, renouncing all their worldly goods. Feeding them, like feeding the cows, is good karma for the Indians.

The little girls along the Ganges who sell small candles nestled in leaf-bowls are not strictly beggars – they’re actually young entrepreneurs, because everyone who comes to the Ganges wants to sail these candles into the river as an offering (as we did.) At night the boys in their rowboats row the pilgrims and tourists into large log-jams of boats gathered to watch the priests do their twilight fire worshipping on shore and the children selling floral chains, candles and pots of tea scramble agilely from one boat to another.

The children in India who manage to learn decent English are miles ahead of the ones who don’t—because they can move themselves and their families out of poverty and a life on the streets. All the tourists we saw – Japanese, Russian, Italian, Australian – use English as the lingua franca.

We hired Mark, a young man about 18—when we encountered him in Varanasi in a craft store that caters to tourists. His business card said he drove a rowboat and because his English was good, we booked him (at the usual rate of 150 rupees per person per hour) for a dawn trip down the Ganges the next morning.

As Mark paddled through the fog and darkness while the river woke up and the faithful began to bathe themselves and their cattle and their laundry, I asked him if the little girls who sold the candles went to school. He said all but one of them did – her parents couldn’t afford the 300 rupees ($6.00) per month that school cost. He also said that he personally was paying for one child to go to school. I learned that Mark was supporting his entire family of two parents and seven children with his three jobs (rowboat guide, craft store salesman and factory worker.) His father, formerly a carpenter, had TB. His mother had to stay home and care for his six younger siblings.

The biggest surprise was that Mark told us he, himself, despite his impressive business cards, could not read or write. “But how did you learn such good English?” we asked.

“From tourists in the store” he replied. If Mark had the leisure to go to school and become literate, he would probably become the Donald Trump of Varanasi.

I would like to find a philanthropy through which I could sponsor one or two children in India at six dollars a month to attend school rather than begging in the streets. (I already sponsor children through Plan but that goes to the community in Nepal not to the children themselves.) I’ve been googling, trying to find such a philanthropy with access to Indian children, but without any luck so far, so if you have any suggestions, write me at

It’s really appalling that a country like India, which is now enjoying a huge boom in industry and technical know-how; a country that has a very wealthy class evident in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, cannot manage to provide free schooling for the millions of Indian children who live on the streets.

(Nearly two years later I still would appreciate suggestions for a philanthropy that can help me  directly support schooling for children in India.  In many cases it's difficult to be sure the money donated actually goes to the children.

 One reader of the original blog post has repeatedly posted the same criticism of my article, that says in part: "england simply sucked on indias blood no literacy nothing all other factors are repurcussions to the first add to it politics and corruption and u get child beggary whatever this might be.  one very morally inhumane thing is tourist taking pictures of indian beggars to make a mockery . if u can help .help ...if u cant atleast dont spread hopelessness".  

In my defense, I'd like to tell him --(somehow I suspect it's a "him")-- that last year, when two friends of mine went to Varanasi, I sent with them multiple copies of the "Ganges girls" photos above to give to the girls along with money, because I suspected the girls owned no photos of themselves.  Whenever I'm photographing children in poor countries, I don't do it to mock them, I do it to celebrate their spunk and beauty--and I try to make sure that they receive copies of the photos. In every case, as with the Ganges girls, the photographs were received with great joy.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Wedding Prequel Part 1. Ali Pasha and Pomegranates

(Please click on the photos to make them larger.)

Daughter Eleni studied folklore and mythology in college and she has always loved ritual, tradition and folklore, so she inevitably included them in her plans for her wedding to Emilio on October 10. (After all, it was an Indian astrologer who led her to the decision—before she even met Emilio—that she would be married on 10/10/10.)

Last month I wrote in detail about the wedding day itself, with its two wedding ceremonies (Catholic and Greek Orthodox) and such traditional details as the throwing of the wedding bread, the singing of wedding songs as the bride dresses, parading through Corfu town accompanied by musicians and dancers in local costume.

But the wedding traditions and rituals began long before October 10. On October third, 14 of us—family and friends who were immediately dubbed “Team Odyssey”-—met in Athens, toured the city and then flew on the fifth to Ioannina, the provincial capital of Epiros—my husband Nick’s native province.

Ioannina, a beautifully unspoiled city on the shore of an enormous lake, still has its walled Turkish city, little changed since the days when Lord Byron visited the local tyrant Ali Pasha, who housed his harem of 300 women and his vast army of Janissary soldiers inside the city walls. (If a woman in his harem displeased him, he would have her tied in a bag weighted with stones and thrown into the deep lake. It’s said that the mists rising from the lake in the morning are the ghosts of the drowned maidens.)

The plan was to drive the next day up the mountains on the winding road to Nick’s village of Lia where we would have a pre-wedding party in the Village Inn (The Xenona).

Eleni spent ten months of 2002 living in the village by herself, rebuilding the family house which lay in ruins ever since the murder of her grandmother by a firing squad of Communist guerrillas during the Greek civil war. She used that year of research and building for her travel memoir “North of Ithaka”, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2005. By the time she left, she had become so beloved by the villagers --most of whom are now elderly-- that she wanted to introduce Emilio and his family to the village and share the celebration with them all.

In Ioannina it rained, poured and thundered non-stop but we went anyway to visit the mosques in the Turkish city—now turned into museums since the Turkish occupiers were driven out in 1913. The wrought-iron cage you see above is the tomb where Ali Pasha’s headless body is buried. He was assassinated by men sent by the Sultan because the despot was getting too powerful and rebellious. His head --and his (Greek) favorite wife, who connived to let the assassins in-- were sent to the Sultan in Constantinople as proof that the tyrant was really dead.

We got ready to drive up the mountain to the village of Lia when we learned that the heavy rains had made the road impassable, but after some hours of waiting, bulldozers cleared the way and we began the twisty, vertiginous journey.

The Innkeeper, Elias Daflos, and his wife, Litsa, had prepared a feast for 85 people—everyone in the village plus Team Odyssey. Local musicians played the wailing Epirotic melodies and the foreigners among us got their first intensive lesson in Greek dancing. Above you see Team Odyssey at the table, and the dancing led by the village priest, Father Prokopi.

The next day, the weather had improved and we led a tour of the village landmarks, including the house of Eleni’s grandmother (Eleni Gatzoyiannis), which had been rebuilt and furnished to look exactly as it did when her grandmother lived there. Below are some of our group, sitting in the more modern Haidis house, which was originally built by Nick's grandfather, Kitso Haidis—and then rebuilt after the Germans burned it in 1944. On the wall over daughter Marina’s head are some of the Karagiosis shadow puppets—another ancient Greek tradition.

After our tour, we set about harvesting pomegranates from the trees of a generous villager, Lefteris Bollis and his wife Ourania—and in the process we all got soaked by the rain-laden branches. Eleni wanted to use pomegranates-- a traditional symbol of good luck and prosperity—as part of the table decorations at the wedding, and we had promised the florist in Corfu that we would bring more than a hundred fresh-picked pomegranates with us when we arrived.

Even though it was still morning, Lefteris and his wife insisted that we all come into their home to toast the wedding with their home-brewed tsipouro—the local moonshine with a staggering alcohol content.

Loading our cars with the pomegranates, we bid goodbye to the villagers and set out for the harbor of Igoumenitsa and the ferryboat that would carry us to the island of Corfu, where we would celebrate the approaching nuptials with more traditions and rituals, including the preparation of the wedding bed. But I’ll tell you about that in my next blog post.

(I put that photo of me and Eleni, just before the wedding, at the beginning of this post because so many friends asked for it.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

True Ghost Stories III -My Final Word (I Hope)

What are ghosts exactly and how do you know if you’ve got one?

As I mentioned last week—I have a collection of 101 letters from people describing ghosts they have encountered in their homes. These letters came to me 25 years ago when I was working for Country Living Magazine and we asked for reports on hauntings. But because the subject proved so controversial with readers of the magazine—especially Christian fundamentalists—the editors told me to write a brief and up-beat article and not go into any frightening detail.

But I’ve saved the letters all these years because I thought they were an invaluable source of information about: What is a ghost? And except for one letter, they all seemed to come from responsible and sane people, who included a police officer, a librarian, a minister, a psychiatrist and a host of other evidently reliable correspondents.

Last year-- on Halloween day-- my local paper (Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette) reported on a nearby haunted house, where the owners invited a team of “paranormal investigators” to study their home while the family was away. They set up cameras connected to DVD recorders and digital audio recordings to capture “electronic voice phenomena”. Aside from some mysterious voices and the unexplained turning off of the recorder, and film showing two paper lanterns that revolved in opposite directions, these ghost hunters found nothing much, but I was interested that they later said, there are two types of hauntings — “intelligent hauntings” in which purposeful actions are observed—like rearranging the china cabinet—and “residual hauntings,” which pick up and relay random events, such as a radio broadcast from the 1930’s.

I had already worked out for myself, from reading my 101 letters, that “hauntings”, “ghosts” or “paranormal activity” (as in the blockbuster film) can represent many different kinds of phenomena.

Instant Replay Traumas--I believe that one kind of “haunting” is the re-enactment of some traumatic event that happened in that place long ago. It’s periodically re-projected—like an instant replay in a football game. One example of this was the reader from Fogelsville, PA who reported that every now and then in the middle of the night, they hear a horse trotting up, the locked kitchen door flies open and woman screams “Oh no!” (This reader has seen five separate ghosts in her house including a Civil War soldier “hanging” in their barn.”) I believe that these ghosts all qualify as “residual hauntings” and that they represent no danger to the living. The woman from Pennsylvania ended her letter: “Holidays are the most active seasons. Whether the ghosts like it or not, we’re staying.”

Lost earthbound spirits-- On TV programs like Medium, the ghosts encountered are usually people who don’t realize that they’re dead and they have to be coached to go on to the next world, or move toward the light or whatever is the next stage. Among the ghosts described in my letters, most of these lost souls were children and a few were elderly people who remained in the room where they had spent their last years of life. These old people, who don’t know they should move on, tend to get very angry at newcomers who have invaded their space. They get most irritated when renovations, restoration or re-decorating happens. One woman in Virginia used to encounter the voice and tricks of an elderly lady who once lived in the attic—where the reader would hang her laundry on rainy days. The “ghost” could often be heard rocking in her rocking chair . She opened doors and took a door off its hinges and leaned it against the wall , One day, in exasperation, she cried “Oh, just get out of here!” In many cases, according to the letters, angry lost spirits were helped to move on by a helpful priest, minister, exorcist or psychic.

More pitiful were the ten child ghosts who truly seemed lost and confused and often interacted with the living children of a household. (I learned that animals and small children are almost always more likely to see and interact with ghosts than adults. Often the small children don’t realize the spirits are ghosts and ask “Why won’t the little girl come back and play with me?” and “Why is that little boy playing with my trains?”) One reader from Wilbraham MA, called on ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren who contacted a “9-year-old earthbound boy who apparently died in the farmhouse in 1898, named Alfie. He told them he was concerned over his dog Dodo, and when he died his father was away from home in the army. Every year on July 16—the day he died—there would be a flurry of ghostly activity.” Visitors have reported seeing the little boy looking out the window of a front bedroom and waving good-bye.

From the letters I’ve read, I believe these earthbound child ghosts are unlikely to cause any harm to the inhabitants of a house, although they sometimes smash china and play havoc with electrical appliances—they have also been known to cover sleeping children with blankets and to close windows in a sudden rainstorm. Lucy Ensworth of Louisburg, Kansas who died in 1863 at the age of 12, has done both the pranks and the helpful gestures, stealing things and putting them back, and causing a visiting granddaughter to say, “It’s hard to sleep with that lady walking around—she’s sort of a big girl.”

In two cases ghosts have seemed to known and react to a sickness in the family: A reader in Sandston, VA wrote they have a woman ghost “seen only twice, both times in the fall when someone in the family had been hospitalized.” A man in New Berlin, Wisconsin wrote “As a pastor I’m not supposed to believe in ghosts, but I do.” He described the experiences of friends who live in a country barn house with a poltergeist. Ferns would spin and chairs would rearrange and a cousin who scoffed at reports of a ghost had a fork fly off the table and prick his cheek. “When Jennie’s mother fell down the stairs, her arm was held so that she didn’t plunge headlong, but slid down. On her arm were bruise marks of four fingers and a thumb.” They had a three-year-old daughter who had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia during an emergency appendix operation. The night Jenny died, her bedroom pictures on the wall—mattress, etc—were hurled all over her room. After that, there were no more messages from the ghost.

Animal ghosts—I believe that spirits often return to the place where they lived before moving on—this makes more sense than ghosts in a graveyard hanging around their remains. Many readers described animal ghosts, especially cats, walking on the bed—sometimes their own deceased pets or an unknown pet. I know when my own dog died at the age of 11 years (I was away at college), my mother, who had never liked the dog that well anyway, kept seeing it out of the corner of her eye in the kitchen. A reader in Willoughy, Ohio, described her terrier named Bonnie who would run up the stairs, her nails clicking. One night, several weeks after Bonnie was put to sleep, she was awakened by the familiar sound. “Bonnie just dropped in to let me know that, wherever she was, she hadn’t forgotten about me and our many cozy nights together.”

Evil and dangerous ghosts—Most of the writers said that they view their ghost as a kindly, rather than malevolent presence. Eleven of the 101 correspondents specifically said they consider the spirit a friend. But eight people said they felt their ghost was an evil presence, and a few described the kind of dangerous evil spirit of the type made famous in The Amityville Horror (a true story) —the kind of ghost that would make you immediately put the house on the market at any price.

In each case the spirit was specifically attacking a child in the family. A couple in Surprise, New York described a ghost named Sarah who started out being helpful—caught the woman when she fell down stairs, covered the babies with blankets, put old hand-stitched baby clothes in an empty trunk. But “She hates our oldest son Eric. She threw his bed around the room one night with my husband and myself on it. We have now moved him to a bedroom downstairs. One night she choked him as he was walking in the hallway. He had red handprints around his neck…whenever she comes, our room gets ice cold and a terrible wind comes up. There is a tin-lined closet in the hall where she lives. One night we locked her in with a chair propped up against the door and taped the entire door shut with masking tape. About three a.m. a crash woke us up. The chair was flung downstairs, and the tape wadded up in a ball.”

Instead of moving out the next day, “We were at our wits end and so finally we put a bottle of holy water in our bedroom. She has been back twice since then in the last two years, but both times comes and goes very quickly. We love the house and have now finished restoring it.”

Two more writers described some sort of “monster ghost” that would terrify and torment a child in the family, sometimes trying to bite him—and both used crucifixes and holy water to protect the child and keep the ghost out of the room (in one case it was still looking in through the window.)

I’m very tempted—now that these letters are 25 years old—to write back to the addresses of a few of the most interesting haunted houses to see if the ghosts still are active there. But that might be asking for trouble.

To sum it up—I think most of the paranormal activity described in the letters was NOT dangerous to the homeowners, nor was it directed at them. And in most cases I don’t think there was an actual ghost interacting with the living, but in some cases (of “intelligent response”) there was, sometimes from children or old people still haunting the place they lived. And these spirits (which are sometimes poltergeists) are particularly agitated by re-decorating, construction, moving furniture or illness in the family.

I was amazed at how many readers mentioned: odors and aromas (pipe tobacco, a horrible stench, perfume) and a pocket of freezing air when the ghost was near. And electrical appliances acting up! Clearly, whatever ghosts are, they embody some sort of electrical energy. Fourteen readers reported spirits that played havoc with electric lights and appliances, monkeying with water faucets and setting off doorbells, phones, stoves, radios, TVs—even after they were disconnected.

Here’s a reader from Brevard, North Carolina: “Constantly bizarre happenings: we would find all the lights ablaze, an empty dishwasher swishing away, doors opened or closed. The old turkey platter hanging on the wall was smashed in the center of the room, although the nail and wire hanger were intact. Shower water goes on and off, a vaporous form comes through the bathroom door. Smoke detectors go off constantly. As I write this the lights in the office have gone off and on twice.”

(And that was before computers—wonder if ghosts can type?)

So that’s my last word on what I learned in the Country Living letters--, although I’d love to hear anyone else’s theories on “What is a ghost?” I live in a house that dates back to (at least the oldest section) 1722. Daniel Rand, the first white child baptized in Shrewsbury, MA (in 1722) lived to be 80 years old and is buried nearby. We have his tombstone on our porch.

I’m happy to say that I personally have not encountered any paranormal happenings in this house—although others have—and I’d like to keep it that way. Hopefully the spirits of all the families who have lived here for the past three centuries (and I know all their names and stories) can continue to coexist peacefully, without any paranormal activity or things that go bump in the night.