Saturday, April 30, 2011

May Baskets & May Wreaths

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.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Guilt about the Royal Wedding and Motherhood

Daughter Eleni, who studied Folk Lore and Mythology  at Harvard, recently launched her blog “The Liminal Stage”. (As she explains: “Liminal stages are psychological thresholds, times of transition when we stand ‘betwixt and between’ one state and another. The biggies are birth, marriage, death.”)

 Yesterday she posted about the Royal Wedding under the title “Will Kate Middleton Eat My Daughter?” (She was riffing on the current best seller “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein.)  From the topic of the Royal Wedding, she segued into pregnancy and motherhood and how  guilt is an inevitable ingredient in these major liminal stages—especially in the United States, where everyone is so uptight about what a pregnant woman should or should not do.

 Eleni began her post with the story of how I apologized to her for not watching Diana and Charles’ wedding with her 30 years ago, and maybe that's why  I found her essay hilarious while at the same time very wise and insightful about what a guilt-ridden state is motherhood these days.
So I got her permission to reprint her post today on “A Rolling Crone”. 

Now you’ll know why we’re not getting up at five a.m. tomorrow to drink tea and eat scones together, although we both  hope—along with every other woman waiting to see The Dress, that Kate will find her marriage guilt- and worry-free, unburdened by all the expectations and complications that Princess Diana dragged down the aisle along with her 25-foot train three decades ago.

Will Kate Middleton Eat My Daughter?

April 27th, 2011

That Royal Wedding, July 29, 1981, Getty Images / Fox Photos / Hulton Archive (borrowed from an page on Princess Diana's wedding photos).
This morning my mother apologized. It’s a rare occurrence, but what was even more remarkable was the topic about which she felt guilty. “I was reading somewhere a woman remembering her mother waking her up to watch Princess Diana get married 30 years ago, and now the writer is going to wake up her own daughters to watch the Royal Wedding on Friday,” she reported. “And I felt sort of bad I didn’t wake you girls up.”
I told Joanie not to worry, that I actually thought it was a good move not to teach her five-year-old daughter (not to mention my then two-year-old sister) to fetishize a 19-year-old girl marrying a laconic older man who was in love with someone else.  I didn’t watch that royal wedding and I didn’t grow up expecting to marry a prince, ride around in Cinderella carriages and grace the covers of magazines.
In fact, in light of the current culture of princess parties, and Disney domination (its darker sides are discussed in Peggy Orenstein’s bestselling book Cinderella Ate My Daughterand the fact that I’m due to give birth to a baby girl on August 19th, I’ve decided to try to keep my daughter in the dark about Disney princesses for as long as possible. I don’t want her wearing clothing or diapers that advertise a film franchise if I can help it, and I’m guessing that I’ll still be in charge of what she wears until she’s about three.
Does that sound naïve? Defensive? Hypocritical, given the fact that the bandaids in our house already have Elmo on them, in anticipation of the baby’s birth?

Portrait of Amalia of Greece, by Joseph Karl Stieler
The truth is, I have no issue with princesses, real or fictional. The name we’ve picked for our daughter, Amalia, was the name of the first queen of Greece. (I’m not a Royalist, I just like the way the name sounds, that you can say it in Greek, English and Spanish—Amalia’s key cultures–and I have very positive associations with the name, as it also belongs to a dear friend of mine.)
Baby aside, and back to Kate Middleton, I’m taking advantage of a local spa’s Royal Wedding special—half price manicure/pedicures all day, plus they’re serving tea and crumpets! And I am excited to see what Kate wears—I hope it will put to rest the 15 year tyranny of the strapless wedding dress, and offer future brides more interesting options.
But the whole Royal Wedding brouhaha, and my mother’s guilt over opting out of the first one, has got me thinking about motherhood, and how a mom starts feeling guilt and fear before the baby is even born. Part of this is biological I think….I can’t read a People magazine without worrying about bringing a child into a world filled with tsunamis and wars and sex traffickers.
But I think part of the motherhood guilt is cultural, given the way American doctors tell us not to let anyone know we’re pregnant for the first trimester (if something were to go wrong, I’d be devastated either way, plus I’d want the support of my family and close friends–so whose feelings was I safeguarding by staying mum?).  In my first trimester I was painfully aware that something could go wrong at any moment—and then I realized that I will never again be free of that fear—at 96 I’ll be worrying about my 60–year–old baby.
Then, there’s the American culture of blame when it comes to every single thing you put in your mouth. In England, Kate Middleton will be glad to know, food safety is so good pregnant women get to eat sushi and smoked salmon and turkey, whereas here undercooked fish and smoked or cured fish or meats are strictly off limits. A Greek friend’s doctor told her she should drink a glass of red wine a day for the antioxidants, whereas here we’re not even supposed to have feta cheese, much less booze. I think all these US rules are overcautious, Puritanical and just plain wrong (for all our rules, the US has a higher infant mortality rate than most industrialized countries), but of course I’m following them—I couldn’t handle the guilt if I didn’t and something went awry.

Pomegranate--a lucky fruit--from
But I remember years ago, an Indian friend’s mother told me she ate a certain fruit or spice during each of her pregnancies, to ensure that her first child be handsome, her second joyful, her third brilliant. And I can’t help but think that is such a healthier, more positive attitude for mothers and babies—believing that by carefully choosing what you eat you can give your child blessings before they even greet the world, rather than fearing that if you put the wrong hors d’oeuvres in your mouth you are dooming your child to a lifetime of failure.
Once the baby’s born there’s the culture of competition—the race to the smuggest, to see who can feed (or diaper) their child more organically, shoe their baby’s tiny toes with the smallest carbon footprint. Before that there are so many loaded conversations about birth itself…I’m the only person in my prenatal pilates class giving birth in a hospital, and I have to admit that fact makes me feel wimpy.
The mother of Amalia the elder (not the Greek queen, but my BFF) likes to say that being a mom means being a punching bag—it’s part of the job description. And while right now I feel that quite literally—Amalia II likes to kick my hand off my stomach if I rest it there while watching TV—she means it figuratively; whatever choices you make as a mom, some of them will disappoint or hurt your children, and they’re sure to blame you. Just look at the first two lines of this blog for an example.
In the end, all you can do, I guess, is try to make the sanest, most loving choices possible, and forgive yourself for the times you fall short. And try not to judge other moms for not seeing parenting exactly as you do.

My non-royal, but rather princess-y carriage
So Joanie, thanks for not raising me expecting to become Princess Diana; it turns out she had a pretty hard row to hoe, despite the lovely tiara. And even though at 19 I was busily pursuing my degree in Folklore and Mythology and blaming my mom for making me wait until I was 13 to get my ears pierced, although my younger sister got hers pierced the exact same day—what’s that about?—I’ve had plenty of princess moments in my day.  I did marry a prince among men, eventually.  And I rode to the first of our two wedding ceremonies in a horse-drawn carriage, because we wed on the island of Corfu and that’s how they roll.
As a commoner without a title (until she’s married), Kate Middleton will ride to Westminster Abbey in a Rolls Royce (although she gets to leave in a carriage). Nevertheless, I hope she is surrounded by just as much love and laughter on her wedding day as I was on mine. I hope the little girls who get up early to watch her wed never forget doing so, and that those who sleep right through it have pleasant dreams of futures that don’t depend on the man they will marry, even if those dreams involve them turning into mermaids or having mice and bluebirds or seven little dwarves sew them fabulous couture gowns—and even if those gowns are strapless. Maybe Kate will have a daughter less than a year after her wedding, too. And when our daughters grow up and blog about us—and they will—I hope they will be kind.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ophelia--A New York Deb and her Artwork

(The story behind the photo)

Collectors of antique photographs take special pride in finding an identified antique portrait, taken before 1900, and then unearthing something that belonged to the subject—for instance, inheriting great-grandmother’s portrait as well as the brooch she was wearing when the photo was taken.

Whenever I examine a cased image (housed in a small hard case that opens like a book and generally has a velvet  lining opposite the image) I always gently pry the image “sandwich” –  a daguerreotype or ambrotype protected by glass with a brass mat and a metal edge to hold it all together—and look behind the image.  That’s where you can find many treasures—names, dates, an obituary, love poem, maybe an advertising card for the photographer, or even a lock of the subject’s hair.

Through dumb luck I managed to find this portrait of a young lady with the unusual name of Ophelia Merle, taken in New York in the 1850’s by Jeremiah Gurney, the most celebrated photographer of the daguerreian era. Then I discovered and bought a drawing by the same young lady.

Gurney is my favorite daguerreotype artist, bar none.   He worked up the street (Broadway) from Matthew Brady, won more awards than anyone else and was considered the pre-eminent photographer in the United States throughout his long career.  He photographed New York’s high society and most of the eminent men of his day (and with his son scooped the other photographers to photograph Lincoln’s body after the assassination.)

In 2006 I was delighted to find on E-Bay this ¼ plate Gurney portrait of a young woman --identified as “Ophelia Merle” by a contemporary paper label pinned to the velvet.  The mat was stamped “J Gurney, 349 Broadway”. This was Gurney’s second studio, which he occupied from 1852 to 1858— nine rooms where New York’s most distinguished citizens came to have their portraits taken and to lounge around the palatial reception room, admiring the daguerreotypes on display.

The portrait of Ophelia illustrates the chair, the tablecloth and the exact pose that Gurney used for nearly all the women he photographed during this period. (He used different props and poses for men and children.) Every photographer labored to find the pose that would most gracefully display a woman’s face, body and hands.  The subject had to hold the pose for quite a few seconds, and many photographers used a head brace to make sure they didn’t move.  Children were often strapped into their chair and babies sometimes could not be kept still until the photographer had to throw a sheet over the mother and then place the tot in her lap for what I like to call a “hidden mother” portrait.  I doubt that Gurney every was reduced to such measures.

As soon as I bought this image from a woman in Florida, I googled the unusual name and discovered that someone else on E-Bay was selling a pencil drawing by one Ophelia Merle.  He called it “England 1849, Romantic Castle View, Woman Artist”. He wrote that he had earlier sold “another drawing from this artist, that one dated 1849”.

So I bought it.  For under fifty dollars!

Since then I’ve learned more about Ophelia Merle. She was clearly not a beauty, but she was well-placed in New York’s social hierarchy, with French-speaking parents and ancestors from Switzerland. Her full name in New York’s “Who’s Who” was  “Ophelia Merle d’Aubigné.”  She was born on Sept. 28, 1835, married in 1862 to Lyman Beecher Carhart of Peekskill, New York, gave birth to two children (also listed in  “Who’s Who in New York City & State”), and she died on July 7, 1893 at the age of 57.   

If Ophelia did create this drawing in 1849, she was only 14 at the time. Clearly she was older when Gurney photographed her (in the studio he used from 1852 to 1858).  At that point she was a young lady being introduced to society, and having a Gurney portrait wouldn’t hurt her chances of finding a suitable match.  She was married to the young man from Peekskill, N. Y.  in  1862, when she was 27.

In those days, young women from the best families were educated in music, art, languages and etiquette.  Ophelia seems to have been an especially skilled artist, and was probably traveling (with her father Guillaume?) to visit relatives, including her uncle, the Rev. Jean H. of Geneva, Switzerland, when she saw and drew this pastoral scene.

I suspect Ophelia would be pleased to know that today, more than 150 years after she made it, her drawing and her Gurney portrait are together again.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Red Eggs for Easter

Yesterday was Good Friday and once again we trooped off to pick up our slaughtered Easter Lamb from Bahnan's Market on Pleasant Street in Worcester, where they celebrate Easter every year in four languages.  Once again, I got queasy in the ice-cold room where the lambs were hanging and had to escape to the fresh air outside.

Today, early,  we rushed off to church without a bite of food, eager to end our fast with communion.  Then we made our annual pilgrimage to the Pancake House where we wallowed in treats forbidden during the past weeks of Lent (but no meat--yet!).  Now we're dressing for the late-night Easter service which culminates with the church in complete darkness until, at the stroke of midnight, Father Dean announces "Christ is risen" and the light from his candle spreads throughout our congregation and then through the city and through all the world as we make our way home, protecting the flame, and begin to eat  mayeritsa soup and crack our red eggs in competition to see whose is strongest, repeating each time,  the great good news:  "Christ is risen!"  "He is risen indeed!

(If you would like to read a delightfully humorous, lyrical and personal description of the rituals of Orthodox Holy Week as written by daughter Eleni, click on her latest post on her new blog "The Liminal Stage, below." ) 

Below is the saga of our Greek Easter as I reported it last year in a post called "Easter in Four Languages."   The story this year was pretty much the same.  That's one of the great things about ritual, tradition and holidays.

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them)

Today is Good Friday and in a Greek household that means we can’t eat dairy or meat (that’s been going on for 40 days) and also today 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 today the Big Eleni, who lives with us and is the best cook in the world, has all sorts of “fasting” Good Friday food ready – Halvah, stuffed grape leaves, rice-stuffed tomatoes, taramasalata (made from fish roe) and some sort of artichoke/spinach/ hummus concoction. And boiled shrimp.

Today was also the annual dramatic journey into Worcester to collect the lamb which we had ordered far ahead from Bahnan’s Market on 344 Pleasant Street. As you can see from the first sign above, the people at Bahnan’s are ready to sell you your Easter needs in four languages: English, Greek, Turkish and Arabic.

(And they now 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 was 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. And this was in the morning, before church let out. I imagine by afternoon the line was out the door.

I didn’t last long in the refrigerated room, because of the cold and the proximity of all those lamb corpses, some of which looked the size of a small horse. (Our lamb was very small—I believe 27 pounds.)

I had to escape before the butcher started sawing, I couldn't take it, 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 ten) out of town on Holy Saturday to prevent them seeing the general bloodshed as the baby goats were slaughtered and the 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 this early.

(By the way, this is a rare year when Orthodox Easter and everyone else’s Easter are on the same day. Usually we Greeks are later because Orthodox Easter has to be after Passover. It’s complicated.)

In the photos above you see the Big Eleni shopping for Greek cheese at Bahnan’s. We already have our large round Tsoureki bread with the red egg in the middle. And on Holy Thursday, as always, we dyed dozens of eggs red for the Saturday-night egg-cracking duel 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.

Tomorrow—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 made by the Big Eleni out of the lambs intestines.

(Actually, she doesn’t put in the intestines because she knows that our kids would never eat it. In fact one is a vegetarian. And after my visit to the market today, I understand perfectly.)

I hope wherever you are celebrating Easter or Passover -- in any language – you are enjoying warm spring weather. Here in Massachusetts it has finally stopped raining and will be a beautiful weekend. Kalo Pascha!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nicolas Cage & the LaLaurie Curse Revisited

(I'm reprinting below a blog post that I originally wrote on November 19,2009.  Last week, when I read about actor Nicolas Cage's latest run-in with the law in New Orleans--because of his drunken misbehavior involving, among other things, real estate-- I thought that maybe the LaLaurie House  Curse was still hounding him.  Today I read that he has sold another piece of real estate--a vast mansion in Rhode Island--taking a loss of more than nine MILLION dollars.  Poor Nicolas Cage!

Last week's drama began  when he got  into a public brawl with his wife, Alice Kim, while standing outside a house in the French Quarter.  He insisted that they go in because he believed it was their (current) house on Dumaine Street, but she insisted it was the wrong house. Cage ended up taking out his anger on her, some nearby vehicles and arriving cops.

Turns out the building in question was not the notorious LaLaurie House described below.  But when it comes to real estate, Cage does seem to be laboring under a curse.

As to the LaLaurie house--which has brought misfortune to everyone who ever owned or lived in it--a friend of mine who was in NOLA recently said that it is being restored and fixed up to be  a "Haunted Hotel." It's not clear whether or not Nicolas Cage ever spent a night in the LaLaurie House when he owned it, but I can tell you I would never have the nerve to stay in the LaLaurie Haunted Hotel!) 

Published on Nov. 19, 2009
I was not going to write another word about true haunted house stories, but then my good friend Kay who lives in NOLA gave me a heads up that one of the two mansions that Nicolas Cage has lost to foreclosure in New Orleans was the notorious LaLaurie House in the French Quarter. I did a little research and wrote up this fascinating story and sent it on to the New York Post's Page Six and the info was cited in Page Six's lead item:"I Warned Nic Cage to cool it".

I had known for years the stomach-turning details of the terrible events in the LaLaurie House back in the 1800's and I thought it was interesting that the media--which wrote about Cage's financial and legal disasters last week -- did not mention the evil karma that has dogged the owners of this "most haunted" house since the horribly mutilated victims were discovered in 1834.

Nic Cage himself was well aware of the story and has mentioned it often, including on the Letterman show. He has said that no one in his family has ever had the nerve to spend the night in the house but that he planned to. He also has rejected the requests of a number of "ghost hunters" to check out the house because he feels it would be "exploiting" the ghosts.

Anyway--here's my write up on the story. Tomorrow I'll turn to happier subjects.

Nicolas Cage’s Foreclosed Mansion is New Orleans’ Most Haunted House

On Friday, Nov. 13th it was announced that actor Nicolas Cage had lost his two historically significant New Orleans mansions to foreclosure.

In April 2007 Cage paid $3,450,000 for the notorious LaLaurie house at 1140 Royal Street in the French Quarter. It was built in 1832 for Dr. Louis LaLaurie and his sadistic wife Delphine who , it turned out, was horribly torturing slaves in gruesome ways and keeping their broken and dismembered bodies chained and caged in the attic. The outbreak of fire in 1834 led to the discovery of her torture chamber. The family fled and were never charged. Since then, the ghost stories about the building have multiplied, making it a highly popular tourist stop. The mansion has served as a high school, a music conservatory, a bar, a furniture store, and empty tenement and an apartment building. Almost every inhabitant moved out within months or suffered tragedy and death. At one point it was “The Haunted Saloon”. It’s not clear if Cage ever lived in the building.

Last week the spooky French Empire mansion was acquired by the Birmingham, Ala.-based Regions Bank for $2.3 million.

The bank also acquired Cage’s mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans at 2523 Prytania Street . Cage had purchased it for $3,450,000 in June of 2005. The bank got it for 2.2 million. It was previously owned by novelist Anne Rice and originally was a Catholic Chapel.

Presumably the Garden District chapel, if haunted, houses benevolent ghosts, while the infamous LaLaurie house in the French Quarter would more likely produce hellish demons—like the ones described by pre-Cage inhabitants.

Hopefully no evil spirits haunt the 1830’s French Quarter mansion of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at 521 Governor Nicholls street, less than two blocks away.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Somebody’s Playing My Trump Card

Two weeks ago, when I was invited to Mar-a-Lago, the former Trump home, now a super-expensive private club, I couldn’t resist photographing the portrait above of Donald Trump—a dramatically glamorized vision of The Donald that gives us a glimpse of how he sees himself.

The next day, April 4, I included the photo of the Trump oil painting in a blog post  I wrote called “Lunch at Mar-a-Lago with The Donald.

Then I forgot about the whole thing until this Saturday, as the April moon turned full, and I learned that my photo of the self-glorifying Trump portrait had become the kitsch seen ‘round the world.

On April 13, Andrew Sullivan, the king of political bloggers, posted my photo of the painting under the title  A Power-Mad Egomaniac Ctd.” On his “Daily Dish” on ‘s site.

But Sullivan, who reportedly gets 300,000 or more visitors to his blog in a month, wrote that he had received the photo from a nameless reader who commented:

Many years ago, I attended a social event at Donald Trump's Mad King Ludwig digs, Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach. (Trump rents it out to anyone with enough cash.) Donald wasn't there (I think this was during the Ivana divorce, so he was a bit distracted). But he was there in ... oils. Right off the main bar, there's a huge portrait of Trump. Thought you'd get a kick out of seeing how he sees himself.  I swear I am not making this up.
This anonymous reader was stealing my photograph—and even my reference to Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, and claiming it as his own photo taken “many years ago”!
While media throughout the universe picked up Sullivan’s post, I still was blissfully unaware until, on Saturday night, I received an e-mail from another  well-known political blogger,  Michael Shaw, who had somehow traced  the photograph to my blog “A Rolling Crone.”  As he pointed out, even the reflection of my flash in the photograph was identical to the “many years ago” photo from Andrew Sullivan’s reader.

And Michael Shaw wrote a post revealing my authorship titled “Donald Framed” on his blog BagNewsNotes.  Here it is:

In the post Shaw, who devotes “BagNews” to visual politics and the analysis of news images, wrote :
A few days ago, Andrew Sullivan posted this photo from an unidentified reader who claimed to have snapped this at Donald Trump’s old Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago estate.  As far as I can tell, the photo was actually lifted and cropped from a blog called A Rolling Crone. The blog …is run by a retired journalist by the name of Joan Gage who offered a post on April 4, 2011, Lunch at Mar-a-Lago with The Donald, which happens to be full of wonderful pictures of the place, including said one above.  (I have written to Joan, by the way, to see if she minds my using the photo since it’s now everywhere.) In the meantime, It’s quite a rendition of the man (quite in the sense of kitsch) as he hypes a potential GOP candidacy for the crass purpose of resuscitating his crass TV show.
By the way, I don’t think the corner is unfinished ala Washington’s portrait.  I think it’s just the flash. The effect, though, doesn’t go badly with that sky and the sense of heavenly power, potential storm and rays from a deity.
I was surprised and impressed that Michael Shaw had tracked me down as the originator of the photograph and published the fact.  My humble blog, which is “about travel, art, photography and life after sixty,” is tiny compared to the blogs of Andrew Sullivan and Michael Shaw.  So far I’ve never gotten any closer to politics as a subject than writing about Michelle Obama’s arms and her one-time lapse in grammar.  (I sent that blog to her office and now receive mailings from the White House  about twice a month, asking my opinion on issues.  I’m sure  a gazillion other folks get the same mailings asking for their opinions, but I’m glad she didn’t take offense at my gentle criticism.)

As my friend and teacher Andy Fish wrote me about the Trump imbroglio, “The internet is kind of like the wild west as far as copyright ownership goes.” 

I’m still feeling my way around this blog-writing thing and it doesn’t feel good to be ripped off and have one’s words or images stolen without credit, but on the other hand,  it was gratifying that Michael Shaw discovered the theft and gave me credit for the photo.  It was exciting, and for a weekend, it was fun to be rubbing elbows with those big-time political bloggers out there in the blogosphere.

(Here’s my favorite comment to the portrait-- posted by "Glen" on Shaw’s blogpost:

“Is this the portrait they display in the attic?  They got the order wrong.”)

Saturday, April 16, 2011


(The Story Behind the Photograph)

The girl in this faded carte de visite (CDV)  photograph was born in 1847, so she would have been 14 when the Civil War began and 18 when it ended.  Her name was  Eliza Buffat (later married to August Jules Truan, who was a seven-year-old boy when he arrived in the U.S. with his parents from Switzerland on the same boat as Eliza’s family.) She was my mother’s maternal grandmother—my great-grandmother. 

Eliza was the child of two Swiss-French immigrants who arrived in the United States on July 4th 1849 with their four children, including two-year-old Eliza. Five more children would be born to this family, who settled in Tennessee—a state dangerously divided in its loyalty to the North and South by the time the war broke out.

Here are her parents Pierre Francois Buffat—a miller and farmer—with his hand firmly on his Bible,  and Sylvie Tauxe Buffat. I believe these images are modern photographs of daguerreotypes.

Seventy years ago, when my mother, Martha Dobson Paulson, was pregnant with me, she typed up all the family history and memoirs she could find.  Using lots of carbon paper, she made copies for her two children as well as her eight siblings. (Keeping track of history was a lot harder before the days of computers, Xerox machines and the internet.)

Among the memoirs included in the two spiral-bound volumes was a long one by a Calvinist paternal ancestor from Tennessee who was taken at gunpoint into the Southern army after his brother left to fight for the North.  He was captured and put in prison in Chicago, where most of his companions-in-arms died. While that long memoir sounds dramatic, (although it is filled with religious meditations about how Divine Providence kept sparing him because  he read his Bible every day) I prefer the 11-page memoir written by Eliza Buffat for her grandchildren, recalling the life of a teenaged girl in Tennessee (“Northeast of Knoxville”) during those turbulent years.  Because Tuesday marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, I thought I would revisit my great-grandmother's memories.

“Every little incident was an exciting one for my sensitive nature,” she began. ”I had been in my young days exempt from the confinement of the school room on account of sickly infancy and youth and I had been raised to an outdoor life…When the war broke out my habits and taste were still in line with sunshine and carelessness…

“The first I remember of war talk was about the winter of ’60 to ’61. My parents had been reading the newspaper one evening and exchanging thoughts when my Mother exclaimed “Le pauvre Sud” [The poor South] in a very sympathetic voice….About Dec. of ’61…my brother Gus had gone to a neighbor and from there enlisted in the Conf. Army.  One Sunday we were coming back from Sunday School when at the head of the lane…we saw coming up the road the first body of soldiers, only one company of infantry.  The sight thrilled us with enthusiasm for many a day….How we would devour news from the front.  Our enthusiasm was like the mercury.  When good news it would go up—it was oftener up at first; but toward the end, it would be very low.  We girls were so strongly prejudiced against the Federals, we never wore dresses that had blue figures….Uncle Alfred was exempted because he was a miller till about 1863, then no one was exempted; not even ministers. All from 18 to 50 had to go.

“Some of our neighbors who were Unionists had guards to protect them from marauding bands and my father thought as he had taken the oath  [to uphold the Union? JPG] he was entitled to protection and asked for one which was granted and two soldiers were stationed at the mill…One Sunday evening one band of about 15 marauders came at our house to pillage  They wanted meat and we brought them what we could spare, but they were not satisfied and wanted to search the house.  At a sign from my father, we all took refuge in our front room and locked the door.  They came to it, ordered us to open. Uncle Alfred told them we had a protection from the Government and they were liable to be punished.  We had not gotten our guards yet, but Kinzels had, and when they began to pound on the door, my father thought of Kinzels’ guard and turning to me said, “Eliza, prends la corne et appelle.” (Take the horn and call [for help]. )

“I rushed to the attic window and blew a loud call.  We were not suspecting such a quick answer to our distress call.  These men were wicked and proved true that “the wicked will flee when no man pursue.”  They…ran to their horses and when at about 100 yards from the house fired a volley on it but hit no one.  This stratagem succeeded so well that the next time we did the same with the same success, only this time my father and I followed the retreating gang, not thinking of danger.  When halfway to the barn, the gang was at the head of Kinzels’ lane, we saw them halt and fire.  Even then I was not thinking of danger till my father called my attention to the whizzing of balls thick around us….Such was the reign of terror we lied through till near the close of the strife.”

When the dreaded Yankees in the form of General James Longstreet and his men besieged Knoxville at the end of November, the family and their farm were surrounded by troops but the soldiers did “not take a thing except to burn our fences.”  “Then Longstreet retreated to VA for nearly one week and the army passed in order; not as in a hurried retreat.” 

One evening, according to Eliza, a group of high officers including, she thought , Longstreet himself took over their house for a “consultation (to which we did not take part.)”  While the officers were in the house  “a man of mixed uniform came in and put a bold face to the situation and was closely questioned by the officers….After the army was all gone, a neighbor found on a tree, about one mile from us, what must have been the fate of a spy.”

When Longstreet retreated and Confederate soldiers moved in to the farm, according to Eliza,  “Their conduct was always marked with courteousness and appreciation.”  The children of the family played games, pulled tricks and chatted daily with their favorites among the officers and soldiers.  A Captain Parker gave Eliza a little doll he had found on a skirmishing field—it was dressed in Yankee blue. “We became attached to some of those officers and generally invited them for breakfast” which nearly led to one man’s being court-martialed for leaving his post.

When more Yankees in the form of  “General Gillem’s  men, and the 113 KY” moved on toward Virginia, an officer of high rank demanded that  Eliza’s brother Alfred “show him the way to Bean Station…It was a ridiculous request to think of 10,000 men starting and having no leader.”  Alfred pleaded that he did not know the way until the officer drew his pistol. “He answered not a word till about 14 miles from home they turned him loose and he turned his horse homeward through woods he knew not, but God watched over him.”

Next came the 118th Ohio regiment to take over their house and farm until they were driven back by the Confederates. Sometimes the family found their property in the line of fire between the two forces.  At one point, Eliza’s father heard gunfire and told her to bring the family’s last horse –a mare--into the barn for its safety, but the horse had sore feet, couldn’t walk  and Eliza “fancied I could hear bullets whizzing like bees,” so she left “Bichette” to her fate.   The mare survived.

Shortly after, her father became ill and told Eliza and her brother to find a doctor who was visiting in the area.  It was bitter cold.  “We found two poor horses that we rode 4 miles on frozen roads… When we approached the house we saw a big placard nailed to a tree on which was in big letters ‘Small Pox.’ We did not stop at the sight but were admitted by the fire, where the doctor was sitting, having several big pusticles [sic] visible on his face.”

The ailing doctor gave the children a prescription for their father and the next morning, in a snowstorm,  “Brother Emile and I started to walk into town to get medicine.  I had on a ‘split bonnet’, a warm linsey dress and a thin green and black checked cape….I unknowingly dropped my cape and went perhaps two miles before I found out.”  The children evaded soldiers on guard, made it to a drug store, and when they started back in the snow, Eliza found her cape, to her great relief.

“During all those dark days we’d keep a supply of provisions concealed.  My father made a sham wall to the attic and we’d hang old clothes around to hide all joints.  Also we’d take some large sums of money and papers to hide [buried outside].  Twice my father took me to share with him where he was putting some.”

 “Girls and women had to work like men,” Eliza writes. "We did not cut wood.  But my tendencies were to work with horses. … My father yielded to my great wish to let me plow.  With my little brother Emile, we raised the two ’63 and ’64 crops.  Plowed for wheat, corn and potatoes and sugar cane.  We’d use only shovel plows, but managed to do fair work.

“All the time that troops occupied Knoxville, their favorite place to camp was on top of the hill east of the old Scotts Mill. ...At Scott’s Mill they were near a large spring.  We’d have to go through their camp on the way in and out of town, but were seldom spoken to by anyone.”

“The Northern soldiers, real soldiers, did not do much harm,” Eliza related,   “but the loose people following armies are dreaded. They had mercenary men who lived on what they could steal.”

She ends her letter to her grandsons, “If ever you are called to fill a place in our Government be faithful and work for PEACE. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.'  Grandmother Truan."

Then she added a P.S.:  “Pennies were not used to make change till after the war. The last of Confederate times, we’d pay $10.00 for a calico dress and $20.00 for a sack of flour.” [These were outrageous prices  because the average working man made about a dollar a day.]

And that was the end of my Great-Grandmother''s recollections of a teen-age girl who wasn't afraid to confront  Smallpox, enemy bullets, a shovel plow and attacking gangs of thieves  when she was a young teenager in Tennessee.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What Is Kathy Lagoli and Why Is She Stalking Bloggers?

On April 6 at 12:08 p.m.  I received an e-mail in my spam folder with the subject line: “Re: Grafton Inn Ambrotype.”

It came from someone named Kathy Lagoli with the e-mail address: and the message was just one line:  “Would you be available to discuss this on the phone? Kathy”

At the same time she was sending this to me, she (it?) was also sending the same message to approximately a trillion other bloggers, and in each case the subject line referred to some subject they had written about in their blog.

I would have realized this immediately if I had the sense to investigate and type  the name “Kathy Lagoli” into Google.  Try it and you will find page after page of entries with titles like this: “Do Not Open An E-Mail from Kathy Lagoli”, “Kathy Lagoli SCAM!” and  “Kathy Lagoli has Been Here Too.”  All were written beginning April 6.

It seems that all of these astute bloggers smelled a rat and checked her out before replying.  Many of them then changed the password on their blog and even their phone number if they had revealed it.

But I—a rolling crone who is not very astute about such things, wrote her right back BEFORE I checked Google.  Her subject line referred to an antique photograph—an ambrotype—that I wrote about in my blog in January of 2010—it’s a photograph of the Inn on our New England village green that is still in business, and it may be one of the oldest photographs of our village ever taken.

I thought that maybe Kathy was a neighbor who wanted to use the ambrotype for some historical commemorative event—(My same blog post appeared in our local paper.)  Or  I thought maybe she was a collector who wanted to offer me a small fortune to sell the ambrotype.

So here’s what I replied at 10:22 p.m. on April 6—full of personal information that I should have kept to myself—

“Hi Kathy,
You can call me at XXX-XXX-XXXX tomorrow (Thursday).  I’ll be in and out all day because I just got back from Florida and am leaving for New York on Friday, so it’s sort of hit or miss as to when I’ll be in.  But if I’m out and you leave a number I’ll call you back.

Joan (Gage)”

I know you’re thinking that I’ve just fallen off the cabbage truck,  and you’d be right--I’m a friendly person from Minnesota and we’re not very suspicious of strangers.  That’s why they call it “Minnesota nice.”

Then AFTER hitting “send”, I looked at Google and realized I had put myself, my computer and my family in grave danger.  Would some evil apparition out of “Nightmare on Elm Street” come round and break into my house while I was away on the weekend?  Would my Mac powerbook explode in my face? Should I change my password?

I knew from reading all the warnings that if Kathy didn’t get a reply, she would send another e-mail later in the day that read “Hello, Hey I didn’t hear back from you. Are you still in business?”

Oddly enough, despite my effluent, chatty answer to her, I got the above e-mail (still in my spam folder) at 5 p.m. on April 7.  Naturally I didn’t reply.

On April 8 at 1:32 p.m. I got another message from Kathy, this one with a different subject line:  December—a Rolling Crone: December 2010”. Her one line message this time:  “Hello, is it still availible?” [sic]

Now I ‘m not totally naïve—I don’t reply to messages that are marked “Urgent”, “Dearest One”, “Can I trust you?” and “You have won the Lottery”.   And I’m suspicious of people who can’t spell or who write in  pigeon English.  But I wasn’t clever enough to check on Kathy before the damage was done.

I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering what exactly this mysterious correspondent wants from me. I do realize it’s a robot machine sending these e-mails, just phishing—but I can’t figure out what this phisher is going to do with my phone number and e-mail address.  At no point has she (It) asked me for any money or more personal information.  I don’t have the energy to change my phone number.  Some of Kathy’s victims have written that their cell phones went on the fritz shortly after they gave her their number.  Is it a curse? An evil techno-eating virus?

Then, on Saturday April 9 at 8:46 p.m. I got a last (I hope) e-mail from Kathy—this one went straight to my in-box, not to the Spam.

Here’s what it said:

“Sorry I think I have the wrong email.


She has been an interesting and persistent correspondent, but I’m hoping that,  from now on, Kathy Lagoli is out of my life.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Lunch at Mar-a-Lago with The Donald

Palm Beach, I’ve noticed, is like Disney World for grown-ups—everything is bigger, better, cleaner, fancier (and more expensive) than in the real world. 
The latest example came yesterday (Sunday) when we were invited to lunch at the Mar-a-Logo Club by a friend who is a member.  (The cost, I’m told, is $150,000 initiation fee and $75,000 each year after that.)
I didn’t even know that Donald Trump had turned his palatial (think Versailles) private home into a private club in April of 1995.  His presence is still everywhere—from the plaque at the door to the name and crest on the paper hand towels (I stole one) in the gold-encrusted bathrooms and on the welcome mat, to a portrait that is apparently meant to portray The Donald at a younger age in sports clothes.

Everywhere you turn there are golden cherubs, marble statues, parrot and monkey motifs and antique Spanish tiles.  Flowers? Chandeliers? Fountains? Swimming pools? Don’t ask.

 The Mar-a-Lago Estate was built to the specifications of Marjorie Merriweather Post (then Mrs. E. F. Hutton)and completed in 1927. (The name is Latin for “Sea-to-Lake”—it has water views both front and back.)  Three boatloads of Dorian stone were brought from Genoa, Italy. There were 114 rooms in the original villa.  According to a “short history” of the place, “It was Mrs. Post’s plan to bring together many Old -World Features of the Spanish, Venetian and Portuguese styles.”
In January of 1969 the estate was named a “National Historic Site”.  After Mrs. Post died in 1973, she left the place to the federal government for use as a diplomatic/presidential retreat.  It was pretty costly to maintain--so in 1985, it was sold to Donald Trump who used it as a private residence for ten years  (and married his third wife, Melania, there in 2005).  Even his first wife, Ivana, used it for her ill-starred wedding to an Italian 24 years her junior in 2008. 
In April of 1995, it became the Mar-a-Lago Club.

According to the “brief history” available at the desk, Trump has “since built a magnificent swimming pool, an award-winning beauty salon, a world-class spa, one grass and five red-clay championship tennis courts and a remarkable croquet court.…Completed in 2005 is the all-new Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom—the interior is in a Louis XIV  gold and crystal finish that is one of the finest spaces of its kind in the country.”

We joined our friends for lunch in the outdoor patio (where I ordered lobster quesadillas) and they told us that Jennifer Hudson was on the premises, resting after her recent performance on American Idol, and Joan Rivers had just checked out.
With the Trump name plastered everywhere, it sort of seemed natural that The Donald himself breezed in as we were eating. Wearing a baseball hat and casual clothes, he greeted the several tables of diners, making sure everyone was happy.  I asked about the décor, having been stymied by the mix of Spanish tiles and the Arabic-looking plasterwork.  Was it Moroccan? I asked and he agreed—Moroccan it was!  (At that point neither he nor I had read in the “brief history” that it’s actually “Spanish, Venetian, and Portuguese” all mixed together into a decadent , dazzling, over-the-top mish-mash that would send Mad King Ludwig into a jealous funk. There popped into my memory a French phrase which doesn’t really have an English equivalent.  It was all a bit “de trop.”)

Later in the afternoon we saw Trump depart, along with Melania and her parents, their young son and an older girl who was evidently Tiffany, the daughter he had with second wife Marla Maples.
Throughout the estate, which we explored post-lunch, poking into rooms and peeking behind doors, we kept encountering antique tiles with a Latin motto: “Plus Ultra”, which translates as “Beyond the Ultimate.” This is Mar-a-Lago’s slogan.  As we left, past the gilded cupids and the large brass lions at the gate , I was reminded of another ancient classical slogan carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:   “Midhen Agan”—“Nothing in excess”.