Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Reagan's White House Ghost Story (and Others')

It's become a Halloween tradition for the Rolling Crone to re-post the story told to me by President Reagan of his own encounters with White House ghosts and other haunting happenings experienced there through the ages.  Wonder if the Trumps have encountered any of these ghouls as yet?

Ever since the White House was first occupied in 1800, there have been rumors of hauntings, but I got this story direct from the President. No, not President Obama (or The Donald). I first heard about the White House ghosts directly from the lips of Ronald Reagan.

It was March 18, 1986, and my husband Nick and I had been invited to a state dinner in honor of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The State Dining room was filled with gold candlesticks, gold vermeil flatware and vermeil bowls filled with red and white tulips. I had the great privilege of being seated at the President’s table along with Chicago Bears’ running back Walter Payton; the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife Mila Mulroney; the president of the Mobil Corporation; Donna Marella Agnelli, wife of the chairman of Fiat; Burl Osborne, the editor of the Dallas Morning News, and Pat Buckley, wife of William Buckley.

The President, a brilliant storyteller, entertained the table throughout the meal and the story I remember best was about his encounters with the White House ghostly spirits. Here is how I wrote it later in an article about the dinner for the Ladies’ Home Journal: “According to the President, Rex, the King Charles Cavalier spaniel who had recently replaced Lucky as First Dog, had twice barked frantically in the Lincoln Bedroom and then backed out and refused to set foot over the threshold. And another evening, while the Reagans were watching TV in their room, Rex stood up on his hind legs, pointed his nose at the ceiling and began barking at something invisible overhead. To their amazement, the dog walked around the room, barking at the ceiling.

'I started thinking about it,' the President continued, 'And I began to wonder if the dog was responding to an electric signal too high-pitched for human ears, perhaps beamed toward the White House by a foreign embassy. I asked my staff to look into it.'

The President laughed and said, 'I might as well tell you the rest. A member of our family [he meant his daughter Maureen] and her husband always stay in the Lincoln Bedroom when they visit the White House. Some time ago the husband woke up and saw a transparent figure standing at the bedroom window looking out. Then it turned and disappeared. His wife teased him mercilessly about it for a month. Then, when they were here recently, she woke up one morning and saw the same figure standing at the window looking out. She could see the trees right through it. Again it turned and disappeared."

After that White House dinner, I did some research and discovered that half a dozen presidents and as many first ladies have reported ghostly happenings in the White House. It’s not just the ghost of Lincoln that they see, although he tops the hit parade. He caused Winston Churchill, who was coming out of the bathroom naked but for a cigar when he encountered Lincoln, to refuse to sleep there again. And Abe so startled Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands that she fell into a dead faint when she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find Lincoln standing there.

I also learned that the Lincoln bedroom was not a bedroom when Lincoln was President—it was his Cabinet Room where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s well known that Abraham Lincoln and his wife held séances in the White House, attempting to contact the spirit of their son Willie, who died there and who has been seen walking the halls.

The ghost of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, appeared often in the Rose Garden, which she planted. There is even reportedly a Demon Cat in the White House basement that is rarely seen. When it does appear, it is foretelling a national disaster. While the Demon Cat may at first look like a harmless kitten, it grows in size and evil the closer one gets. A White House guard saw it a week before the stock market crash of 1929 and it was also reportedly seen before Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

Abigail Adams’ ghost has been seen hanging laundry in the East Room—she appeared frequently during the Taft administration and as late as 2002 and is often accompanied by the smell of laundry soap.

Lincoln himself told his wife he dreamt of his own assassination three days before it actually happened. Calvin Coolidge’s wife reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost standing at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back gazing out the window (just as Reagan’s daughter saw a figure in a similar pose.) Franklin Roosevelt’s valet ran screaming from the White House after seeing Lincoln’s ghost . Eleanor Roosevelt, Ladybird Johnson and Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan all sensed Lincoln’s presence near the fireplace in the Lincoln Bedroom.

I’d love to find out if the Obamas ever encountered any ghostly knockings, or if their dog Beau suffered the same alarming anxiety attacks as Reagan’s dog Rex. Today, as the portals between this world and the other world swing open, I suspect the White House will be hosting a ghostly gala of the illustrious dead.  I wonder, if Trump wandered down to the basement, would he encounter the Demon Cat?

(If you have any  personal paranormal experiences to report, let me know about them at: )

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Update on Colette--Paris's Most Scandalous Woman

Yesterday I saw the new film "Colette", directed by Wash Westmoreland and starring Keira Knightley as Colette.  I absolutely loved it!  It was thrilling to see the various adventures and scandals of France's most famous female author--whom I wrote about in a January post, based on five antique French postcards in my collection--brought to vivid life on screen, presenting scenes of decadent Parisian life and fashion circa 1900.   I was knocked out by the accuracy of historical detail in the settings and fashions--including the theatrical scenes in the antique photos below.  But my blog post, republished here, recorded even more of Colette's scandals than the film.  That ends when Colette, having gained notoriety as an actress in the music hall, undertakes to write novels under her own name.  But the film doesn't tell that Colette in 1912 married  the editor of the newspaper Le Matin and had a daughter with him a year later, but  that marriage ended when he learned she was having an affair with her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand, child of his first marriage.  Colette was 51.

When I first bought this set of five French postcards dating from fin de siècle Paris, I didn’t realize that one of the actors in this melodrama, named Colette Willys, was in fact the Colette--who wrote such books as “Gigi”, “Chéri”, and the saucy series of “Claudine” novels.   She was the single-named author (full name Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette), who was called the most important woman writer in France and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
These postcards are advertising an over-the-top melodrama called “La Chair” (“The Flesh”), which was the hit of Paris in 1907, and was presented throughout France for four years and 250 performances.   As is stated on the cards, the actors were Christine Kerf (dressed as a man), Georges Wague and Colette Willy.  The photographs were taken by a photographer named Walery, and the performance was a pantomime, with no dialogue, but music by A. Chantrier.

 The reason the play was such a huge hit in Paris, selling out every night, was due to a “wardrobe malfunction” more famous than Janet Jackson’s at the Super Bowl.  In every performance, the actor playing Colette’s lover, as he tried to stab her, would tear her blouse so that one breast (the left), would be exposed.  (Surely this must be the origin of the term “bodice ripper”?)  Throughout France, Colette’ breast was celebrated in newspaper cartoons, poems, post cards that became pin-ups, and gossip.  Eighteen-year-old Maurice Chevalier, an unknown actor at the time, said that Colette’s breasts were “cups of alabaster.”
Here’s the plot of the play:  Hokartz, a smuggler (Georges Wague) discovers his beautiful wife Yulka (Colette) has been unfaithful to him with a handsome officer  (Christine Kerf).  He lunges at his wife with a dagger and tears open her dress.  Overwhelmed by her beauty, he then kills himself instead.  

I’m sorry my five postcards don’t include the one showing Colette’s breast, but I’ll add that photo –taken from the internet—at the end of this post.

 Having Colette’s lover played by an actress in drag was as critical to the success of “La Chair” as the bare breast.  Just months before the opening of this pantomime, Colette appeared in another musical drama at the Moulin Rouge, in which she passionately kissed the aristocratic Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, known as “Missy”, who was her lesbian lover in real life, and was wearing mannish clothes.  (The premise of that performance was that an ancient Egyptian mummy comes to life, sheds her bandages, dances for and then kisses the archeologist who found her.) That kiss caused a riot among the audience and the police shut the production down immediately.
 Lesbianism among upper-class Parisian ladies was much discussed and decried in the newspapers of the day, and Colette’s own erotic interest in women was well known.  The success of “La Chair” was a personal triumph for Colette because, for the first time, she became self-supporting.  Her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as “Willy”, was a 14-years-older author and publisher in Paris, and a notorious libertine.  He encouraged his young wife to write a novel about her schoolgirl days and eventually published it with his own name as the author--“Claudine at School.”   That book and three more naughty “Claudine” novels became instant best sellers, but the real author never profited from them.
Willy would lock Colette into her study for four hours and not let her out until she had written enough pages toward the next Claudine book. (Like Colette, Claudine began as a 15-year-old girl from a small town in Burgundy who got in trouble at school and indulged in lesbian affairs.)  When Willy and Colette separated, they continued to see each other, but Colette constantly had problems with money and poor health, until the success of “La Chair”.
Despite her interest in women, Colette never lacked for male lovers throughout her long life. By June 1910, Colette’s divorce from Willy was final, and she was acting in another melodrama featuring nudity-- “Sisters of Salome”. In 1912 she married the editor of the prestigious newspaper Le Matin, Henry de Jouvenal.  She had a daughter with him in 1913.  The marriage allowed her to concentrate on her writing career and she produced two well-received novels Chéri in 1920 and Le  Blé en Herbe in 1923.  Both dealt with the subject of an older woman falling in love with a much younger man.
Like most of her novels, these books were drawn from Colette’s own experience. The marriage to Jouvenal fell apart when he discovered that his wife was having an affair with her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand, child of his first marriage. They divorced in 1924. Colette was 51. The following year she married her final husband, Maurice Goudeket, who was 16 years her junior. By then she was considered France’s greatest woman writer. 
Colette’s husband Maurice was a Jew, and he was arrested by the Gestapo in December of 1941. Thanks to the efforts of Colette and the French wife of the German ambassador, he was released a few months later, but the couple lived in Paris in fear of his being re-arrested throughout the war.  In 1944 Colette published her most famous book, “Gigi”, about a 16-year-old Parisian girl who is being trained as a courtesan but decides to get married instead.
 Colette died on Aug. 3, 1954, at the age of 81.  She was refused a religious funeral by the Catholic Church, but was given a State Funeral—the first French woman to be so honored. She was enrolled in the Legion d’honneur and buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery.  

Monday, October 8, 2018

Was Columbus Really Greek?

I see that Trump stirred up a lot of controversy on the internet today with his praise for Columbus as a hero.  So I thought I'd add to the fuss by reprinting my post from four years ago that suggests that Columbus was in fact a Greek, from the island of Chios.

 "Reception of Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella"

I realize I may sound like Gus, the dad in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" who chauvinistically insists that everything originally came from Greece and Greek culture, but a number of historians do believe that Christopher Columbus was not Italian but came from the Greek island of Chios, specifically the mastic-growing village of Pirgi.   (Only on Chios will you find the mastic tree, which produces a resin that has made the people rich since the 14th century. ) 
"Santa Maria--Flag Ship of Columbus"
When I visited Pirgi on the island of Chios, I learned that many families  there still have the last name "Columbus".   All the buildings in Pirgi, even churches and banks, are decorated with a unique kind of geometric patterns made by scraping away the top lawyer of white plaster to reveal the darker color beneath.

 This decoration is called  ksista (“scraped” in Greek) or, in Italian, scrafitti. It is believed to have originated in Genoa and spread to Chios when the island was under Genovese rule—from 1346-1566-- but it’s still done today in Pirgi.

"The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador October 12th 1492"

Here are some of the reasons that historians like Ruth G. Durlacher-Wolper, who wrote "Christophoros Columbus: A Byzantine Prince from Chios, Greece", believe that the discoverer of the Americas was a Greek from Chios.

"Triumphal Procession at Barcelona in Honor of Columbus"
--He was said to come from Genoa, but the island of Chios was under Genovese rule from 1346 to1566, so it was part of the Republic of Genoa during Columbus's time.
--Columbus kept his journals in Latin and Greek--not Italian, which he didn't even speak well.
--He signed his named "Christopher" with the Greek letter X .
--He made notes in Greek in the margins of his favorite book--Imago Mundi, by Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly.
--He referred to himself as "Columbus of the Red Earth" and also wrote about mastic gum. Chios is noted for its red soil in the south of the island, which is the only place where mastic grows. 
--The name "Columbus" is carved over many doors in the villages of Pirgi  and a priest with that name traces his family on the island back more than 600 years.
Whatever the truth may be about Columbus's origins, I wanted to illustrate this Columbus Day blog post with some of the many scenes on a bed coverlet that I have hanging on a wall  near my computer.  It was sewn in redwork (also called "turkeywork") by a woman with the initials "E M" in 1892 to celebrate the tetracentennial of Columbus's landing. Whenever I look at it, I wonder at the many hours it must have taken her to complete this tribute.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Amalia’s Mermaid Birthday Parties

Ever since her sixth birthday party last August (theme:  Fairyland), Amalia has been planning for her seventh birthday party, which she decided would be a mermaid party.  Her Mommy spent months on the internet, tracking down treasures like mermaid necklaces and mermaid spoons and personalized mermaid goody bags and a mermaid outfit for each guest.  When Amalia’s mermaid costume came in the mail, she couldn’t wait to try it on.  And she looked so happy!
Amalia insisted on having the party in August (her birthday’s actually on August 26) even though many of her friends were still out of town on Sunday, August 16, when six girls arrived, along with parents and a couple of siblings.  Most of them put on their mermaid outfits at once, and then they got a complete “mermaid makeover” with face painting by Amalia and Nico’s artistic nanny, Jennie, (who will be leaving in October, when she has her own baby.)  After the makeover, the girls decorated mermaid mirrors with shells, played mermaid Bingo and “Pin the Tail on the Mermaid”, and had their Polaroid photos taken in the photo booth to record the day.
There were snacks on the table—sandwiches and cookies shaped like shells, seahorses and mermaid tails, veggies, including a hummus and carrot octopus, and, finally, it was time for the cake, which Mommy and Amalia had made the night before.  (Amalia made the mermaid on the cake all by herself!)  The mermaid piñata with blue hair was the centerpiece until it was time to unload her treats by pulling on ribbons (so much nicer than beating them out of her with a stick!)
The New York birthday party ended, just like last year, with the young mermaids throwing Yiayia Joanie out of Amalia’s bedroom so they could open the presents and goodie bags in private.
And then it was time for Amalia’s Massachusetts birthday party in Grafton, attended by her extended family.   On August 26, Amalia woke to a breakfast of cupcakes topped with a candle.  Because she had spent the entire summer obsessively reading all the Harry Potter books, she was wearing a nightgown based on Harry and Hermione’s Hogwarts school uniform.  Then her aunt Frosso and family gave Amalia her favorite birthday gift of all—a Sorting Hat, just like Harry had at Hogwarts, which sits on your head and selects which house you are destined for: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, or Ravenclaw.  The hat talks and its mouth moves, and Amalia got chosen for Gryffindor, just like Harry Potter.
Then the rest of us had our chance at the sorting hat, as it analyzed our nature.  Yiayia Joanie got Ravenclaw—(for students who are arrogant and intelligent.)
Soon Amalia and Nico were down by the pool, waiting for people to arrive.  Amalia checked out the Emoji piñata.
People came and splashed and swam like mermaids and ate pizza and Greek salad.  The Emoji piñata was destroyed.  Then it was time for the Mermaid cake and ice cream.  The cake came from my favorite bakery—Yummy Mummy in Westboro.   Amalia had given the baker and designer a detailed memo on what color the frosting should be—yellow and purple hair, blue for the waves, etc.
Amalia blew out the mermaid tail candle and insisted on cutting the cake herself.

The celebrating went on all afternoon, but before it was over, we assembled to take this photograph of us.   It will be a bittersweet memory, because we don’t know when we will all be together again.  Marina and Jeff (at left) were headed back to San Francisco. Eleni, Emilio and their kids, at right (with Amalia clutching her beloved book) headed back to New York. And Frosso and her family, including husband Sy, little Stone and Baby Eleni, as well as her mom, the Big Eleni, are moving to Sarasota, Florida!

Meanwhile, Amalia is already planning her next year’s birthday party.  Will it be a Harry Potter theme?  Stay tuned!

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.