Thursday, April 27, 2006

How Low Can You Go In TV Limbo?

"Pretty Damn Low, Apparently"
I don't know what it is, but whenever I don't feel well, I fall into this mezmerization and find myself watching the oddest things on television. I am seemingly so spellbound by the flickering tube, that I become robbed of the will to change the channel, and it always seems to freakishly land on PBS. The last time this happened to me I sat through a special on the life of John Denver, someone I cannot stomach in healthier situations. I kept watching while telling myself, "This is dreadful. I hate his voice...that doofus grin," yet there I sat locked in this sorcery.

Last night, it happened again. I had a minor medical procedure earlier this week, so I wasn't in the mood for hitting the 'hood last night. Sure enough, there I was, the public television station locked into place, watching a program called Show Cattle. I got to learn all about the lives of dairy farmers in Maine and how they show their cows at the Fryeburg Fair in heated competition where often Machiavellian moves are made against Bessie to better place the superior Daisy. The Supreme Champion trophy is some Holy Grail to them and as elusive as The Golden Fleece. I half expected to see some farmer out in the pasture, studying a patty like it was The Oracle.
"Udderly Fascinating," ~~Bossie
I am now educated in identifying an Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey or Shorthorn dairy cow. I know how they get groomed for showing at the fair, including shorn hoofies and mucho shampooing, cutting and brushing. One farm owner stated she spent more time fixing her cow's hair than her own, and I inwardly thought, "You said it lady, not me." I also became educated in the necessity of straight backs and vein definition (don't ask.) I feel like I am an expert on bovine makeovers, but do I really want to be?

Delicious, Refreshing...And Deadly
During the night, I couldn't sleep. I had some statements passed my way this week that gave me pause and made me wonder about the meaning behind the meaning behind the meaning. Not wanting to flounder around in that all night, I turned on the television again and now I had some A&E Bill Curtis production about a murder in Florida where a rare poison was put into a Coca Cola bottle to kill a neighbor. Is nothing sacred? Altering little cokes to ill gain? What was really great is that the A&E channel is promoting this series as "Sentenced to Death Week." I love it. Can't you imagine some overly morbid child addicted to this stuff, and the parent saying, "Billy? You'd better clean up your bedroom, or I'm not letting you stay up to watch "Sentenced to Death Week."
Speaking of death sentences, I also watched American Idol last night, something I never watch, and I found it repulsively fascinating to see these kids from God-knows-where, and they are all tv ready, which is to say, they may have been attending Polk County Community College a week ago, but by God now it's $400 haircuts and an eye that can follow the active camera wherever and whenever it is in their vicinity. It seems like we've become a nation ready for our moment. One day you are sitting in your cubicle, working on spreadsheets, and the next day you are having your day in the sun. With everyone engaged in such active preparation for when that day does come, it begs the question, "Who's repairing the washing machines?" I was talking to a friend about this today, and he shot back, "Guest Workers."
"I'm Ready For MY Closeup"

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Few Words About Sex

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Show Me Some Image
In Some Antique Book (1)

William Shakespeare 1564-1616

Yesterday was the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth (2) and rather than write about his life, or his work, I went to a bookcase and pulled down four books that have been in my life since my teens. Some bear value and in some, the only value is held in the memory.

I've been trying to remember which of Shakespeare's plays I read first. I think it must have been Romeo and Juliet, or Julius Caesar. When I was fourteen, I purchased a copy of four of his comedies in a used bookstore for pennies, and I broke one rule that's been fairly consistent in my lifetime: I don't write in books. Not even my name. I decided this time, however, to use the glossary in the back of the book and write the meaning of the words next to the appropriate passages, so I would have a better understanding of what was being said in the text. The ultimate goal, I think, was to be more conversant in the antiquated language and eventually dispose of the book.What happened was this. I was growing restless attending church and all of the other religious programs that my parents had me in. By the time I hit my teen years, my friends and I joined our peer group in the church where we all sat perched high over the congregation in the very last rows of the balcony. The last seats butted up against the stained glass window. There, we were free from adult supervision, and I would imagine none of us was paying attention to the service.Even that got to be too much for me, so I found a way of sliding out, once the service had begun. I would go down a back stairway and work my way outside. The only trick was to have a watch on me and to make sure I was back in time before things were winding up. I took to walking over to a nearby school and sitting on a bench under a covered entranceway, even on the coldest days, reading this book and making my notations. I haven't looked at this book in a few years, and it's eerie to see my fourteen-year old handwriting and remember how much I wanted to be free from people having control over my life.
At some point this boy who was two years younger than me wised up to what I was doing, and one time he sat down next to me in church and asked if I would take him with me. I agreed, with the stipulation he keep his mouth shut and never let on that we were doing this. We never got caught. He was a handsome little boy and very popular in his age group. I had no previous contact with him, really, but then you know how it is at that age. A two year age gap might as well be twenty. He did, however, live two doors down from a friend of mine, so we had a casual acquaintanceship, and of such things are friendships born. Once he started going along on these escapes, the reading ended, and we would walk and talk about things on our mind. That stands out, too, and thinking about it in retrospect, it seems rather odd. We never had frivilous conversations. I have a definite memory of him really pouring his dreams out to me, which seems so strange now. Age difference. Gender difference. Strangers. Yet that's how it went.

"I think I thought I saw you try"

During the time I was playing church hooky, I was also having terrible fights with my parents, my mother in particular, about the fact that I didn't want to attend church anymore. Ultimately, within a year, I did stop attending, but it was a very difficult period in my life. My parents had active, multiple roles in the church, and it was not easy on them having this rebellious daughter who wasn't showing up in a very social setting around people who had known me since I was a baby. Despite the fights, the rebellion, the sneaking out, I still attended Sunday school, and I did all of my lessons for my classes. We met united, girls and boys, at the beginning of the school, and at it's closing, but the lessons were broken down into boys with male teachers and girls with female teachers. I liked the old-fashioned woman who taught us, and our lessons consisted of being given Bible passages to study, then writing short answers or essays in terms of what we made of them. Looking back, it strikes me as odd that I didn't just slack off in doing this, but I fulfilled the lessons each week, and I enjoyed the discussion in the classes.

We had a sister church, so I got to know teens in that church quite well. One Sunday in late spring my friend Jeannie, visiting from her church, was attending our Sunday school, and the Superintendent made a surprise announcement. There were going to be awards made to the boy and girl who had done the best job in studying the Bible during the past year. The boy's name was called, and it was someone you would have totally expected. A quiet boy. A studious boy. A deeply religious boy. (3) Then they called the winning girl's name. It was me. In a very quiet chapel, my friend Jeannie yelled out incredulously, "YOU have GOT to be kidding!" There was some tittering following that, as I got up to accept my award, which was a mustard seed bracelet (4).

When I returned to my seat, Jeannie was explaining away her shock. No need, really. I understood completely. I was the first girl to wear stockings and heels in our age group. I was the girl who climbed out onto the roof from Jeannie's bedroom window where, hidden by a tree, we would look through the leaves and the sky and talk about boys and our future. Her "kidding" comment meant only that it should have been Marguerite or Mary Ellen, the girls heading straight for the nunnery. Certainly not me.

A book of Shakespeare's sonnets made it's way into my possession when my mother's best friend pulled it from her bookcase, sat down and wrote a sweet inscription, because she knew that I loved Shakespeare. I've since purchased a more noble copy of his poems, but this one remains, solely because of the giver and its message.

"No amount of political freedom will satisfy the hungry masses" ~ Lenin

It's nothing more than a cheap imprint, with garish illustrations, but I can't imagine disposing of it. I always thought the drawings were vaguely "Russian Revolution," and the antithesis of Elizabethan, because of the blaring red, white and black graphic minimalist style. (5).
"When sometimes lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;"

When I graduated high school, another one of my mother's friends, an older woman, gave me a book that had been in her possession for some time. I wish I knew how she came to own it, but I don't.

It's a copy of Twelfth Night, and it belonged to Mary Packard who went to Warren High School (6) in 1913, the year that the book was published. The only real value this book would have now is it's age. In another six years, it will be 100 years old.

Domestic Science Class, 1913

The true fascination in this volume, for me, is that Mary has written on almost every page: popular sayings of her day, gossip with her girfriends, and silly poems. Mary's friend Kate also wrote in this book, and on one page it says, "Are you going to the recital tomorrow night?" "Yes I am. Kenny asked me this morn." There is also, "Ain't got nothin', Never had nothin', Don't want nothin', 'Cept you!," and "You're my style, kid. You've got such a talkin' way wit you." Throughout the book, again and again, appears "Just a loving glance. Give our love a chance," which obviously was some popular lyric or saying of the time.

She also has written out a lot of phrases with the word "devil," in them like, "Oh! You little devil," or "Cutest little devil," "Would you like to be the devil's wife?," or "Dancing at the devil's ball." Mary wrote a little poem toward the back of the book which reads, "That's the cutest little devil you've ever saw, and she has the biggest little crow, which she stuffs with coconut balls, until she almost falls," signed "The Devil." (7) Those Iowans certainly had a fascination with this. It half makes you wonder if they were out there in the corn fields studying crop circles.

High School, 1913

Mary's friend Kate wrote out a poem which is now black ink faded to brown which reads, "The whale swallowed Jonah, Jonah began to scratch, The whale threw Jonah in a sweet potato patch. "Eat 'taters, Jonah." The word "kid" shows up a lot, as well. "Cutest kid," "Row your own boat kid," "Roll away, kid and spit it out," and to sum it up with these two crazy kids, they've written "If you want to see some dancing, go to the Devil's Ball. But mind you don't get a fall."--"The Kid."

Mary is gone. The woman who gave me the book is gone. I wish some day when I am gone that somehow this book would again make it's way into the hands of a high school girl. An improbability, I know, but a thought. On the very last page, Mary Packard has written a list of thirteen commandments. She also misspelled the word and had to add in an extra "m."

The Thirteen Commandments

1) Those who sit on tacks will surely rise.
2) Try anything once.
3) Look neither to your right or left, but straight ahead of you when you are walking down the street.
4) Always leave your manners at home in your pockets.
5) Never try to get out of anything by beating around the bush.
6) When in cold drink stands, don't wink at the boys you see there.
7) Carry an intelligent look about you, where 'ere you go.
8) Never act like a fool.
9) Wash your feet daily.
10) Never try to row somebody's else's boat.
11) Don't be anyone's flunky.
12) Pick up your feet when you walk.
13) Don't go walking before you get out of bed.

The last book I pulled down from the bookcase was a book I bought in an antiquarian shop when I was about 18 or 19 years old. It was a hot summer day and early in the morning, and it was everything a used bookstore should be: musty, books dripping off shelves, a cat, and narrow aisles with dim lighting. The book was tucked into a shelf full of "lesser worth" items, and the first thing to catch my eye was the beautifully marbled cover.

The book was missing it's lining on the spine, but the interior pages were solid, though faded. Called Shakspere's Works, it includes the plays of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. The real shocker came when I opened the book. There, on the opposing title page, was a copperplate quality photograph of Edwin Booth as Hamlet. John Wilkes Booth's more famous brother. Equally eerie, the book was published in 1867, two years after Lincoln's assassination.

John, Edwin and Junius Booth
The Booths were a family of actors, starting with father, Junius. Junius fled a wife and children in England and came to America with his mistress, and then he proceeded to produce a family with her. Edwin was always considered the most gifted actor of the family, far more well known than brother John, and it's a testament to his popularity, that audiences continued to see him in plays, following his brother's actions. You can see how the copy of his photograph has faded onto the rice paper covering it to protect it, so you get the ghostly repeat image of Hamlet, so to speak: another ghost in a play full of ghosts.

"Alas, poor ghost!" ~~ Hamlet

In later years, Edwin formed The Players Club (8) in New York in 1888, and it still stands to this day at 16 Gramercy Park. Inside the club is a famous portrait of Edwin Booth, painted by John Singer Sargent. In 1893, Edwin died at the club, and he is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Player or Playaz?

I have many other works of Shakespeare, varying in value. I've purchased his books while I was in other countries. I currently have several books about him on my "must read' list including Hamlet's Purgatory and Sex and Society in Shakespeare's London. I suppose I'll always be reading Shakespeare, or about Shakespeare, throughout my life. It's been 442 years since Shakespeare was born. I don't know why, but last night I couldn't shake the idea that he would be a rapper if he were alive today. Instead of an Elizabethan Glossary, I'd be going online and hitting the Urban Dictionary. (9).


(1) Don't you just love it? I've footnoted my blog title. It's from Shakespeare's Sonnet LIX:

"Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same,
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise."

(2) William Shakespeare was born in April of 1564. There is no specific date of birth because at that time the only date of importance was the date of baptism, though infants often were baptized when they were three days old. Shakespeare's baptismal date was April 26, 1564.

(3) The sad thing is this boy died about two or three years later of leukemia, and the family had more tragedy in the wings. There were four children total: three boys and a girl. The boy who won the prize died first at age 16, his other brother next in line to him in age died in his early twenties, then his sister died a year or two later. The only surviving child is currently running a mission school in New Guinea.

(4) From the King James Version of the Bible: Mark 4: 30-32

"And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown upon the earth, is less than all seeds that be in the earth: but when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it."

(5) Lenin created the first truly modern propaganda machine, and its most colorful, dramatic and original form was the poster. The colors most frequently used were red, black and white. Although posters were produced in Russia before the Revolution, they were overshadowed by the remarkable propaganda posters of the Soviets.

(6) There is a Warren High School in Lacona, Iowa. This may be the school, because the woman who gave me the book was originally from Iowa. Then again, Mary Packard may have gone to a Warren High School long since pulled down and the lot currently sporting a Wal-Mart.

(7) I checked up on this. Irving Berlin wrote a song on January 8, 1913 called "At the Devil's Ball." The lyrics are:

(First Verse)
I had a dream last night
That filled me full of fright
I dreamt that I was with the Devil below
In his great big fiery hall
Where the Devil was giving a ball
I checked my coat and hat
And started gazing at
The merry crowd that came to witness the show
And I must confess to you
There were many there I knew

At the Devil's Ball
At the Devil's Ball
I saw the cute Missus Devil, so pretty and fat
Dress'd in a beautiful fireman's hat
Ephraham the Leader Man, who led the band last fall
He play'd the music at the Devil's Ball
In the Devil's hall

(Second Verse)
The Devil's Pa and Ma
Were standing at the bar
Conversing with the little fellow who first
Put the pain in champagne wine
He was pouring it out in a stein
I bought a round of ice
For ev'rybody twice
It wasn't long before I ordered a fan
And before the break of dawn
I put my overcoat in pawn

(8) No relation to


Saturday, April 22, 2006

Overheard In D.C.

Overheard in D.C......

" my hair stylist was obviously distracted, and he left the dye on my eyebrows, but I didn't know it, so I was wandering around all day with this...gel on my face, and it wasn't until I got into Lord and Taylor looking at handbags, and I wiped my forehead and this....stuff came off...then I realized I had been walking around with these overpainted gooey eyebrows in every store I had been in that day."

Her story went into more depth than that, as she explained to her friend the lengths she went to later that night to lighten her brows from being so dark. Then she abruptly turned to me, a total stranger, and said, "What do you think? Are they balanced? Did I get it all?"

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Thread Runs Through It

Periodically, I've written about quirky things that catch my eye, when I'm out and about in the city: odd statuary in people's yards, funky stores and neon. One thing I always have my eye peeled for are neon signs where they have taken the time to invest in creating this object that promotes something offbeat, or it's in another language (something I'm seeing more and more of these days,) but my personal favorite is when I find typographical or grammatical errors in glaring glass. in "Oopss."
The last time I posted about this, it threw some of my readers, because it was double-take neon: you had to stop and think for a second about what was wrong. And now we have this:

"We Do Not Woo Woos Thread, But Shiva We Gots"

Last night I found a piece of neon that matched several criteria. Beyond the error of that "s," it struck me as odd (and amusing,) that someone would be putting these words into flashing hot pink, and then there is the whole concept of threading as a means of hair removal--something still not seen that widely in the U.S.

That Troublesome Burka Bikini Line

I had heard about the use of thread to remove hair for some time before I actually experienced it. There came a day, however, when I sought out the work of a company that offered more comprehensive services, and I finally went through the process. I met a woman who was not only masterful at waxing, using the traditional hot wax and muslin strips, but she also had expertise in threading. Because this was an establishment run by Iranians, and perhaps because of what I was seeking, the first question out of her mouth was, "Do you have a boyfriend from Saudi Arabia?" The question puzzled me, but later was clarified by her explanation.

I was told that in many Muslim cultures, or Middle Eastern countries, young girls are taught how to use threading as a means of hair removal, and that this training begins around the age of twelve. It is part of their self-grooming. The practice varies from culture to culture, but for many, the removal of all body hair, prior to a wedding, is a common thing. Once married, this grooming continues. It was explained to me that this is in part for hygiene, in part from religious beliefs, and in part for the pleasure of the man...and the woman. I was also told that some men maintain this practice and that it is di rigeur for many Muslims. Threading is called khite in Arabic, by the way, and fatlah in Egyptian.

"Take That Fatlah And Put It
Where The Sun Doesn't Shine"

Hair removal using thread is achieved this way: taking a long strand of thread, the practitioner holds one end of the cotton thread in her teeth and the other in her left hand. The middle of the thread is looped through the index and middle fingers of the right hand. The person threading then uses the loop to trap a series of unwanted hairs and pull them from the skin. The follicle often comes out with the hair shaft, ensuring a longer time between services where you will need to do this again. If you can envision a yoyo string and that twangy, twisted, bouncing tension it has, the effect is similar. The most common practice involving threading is the shaping of eyebrows, in this country, but I've also seen it done following a traditional waxing, to pick up stray hairs for total grooming.

I was baffled as to how I could go from Abraham Lincoln to woo woo waxing. I was talking to two male friends about this, and they went off. Of course. Men. Laughing. "The Great Emancipator and Emancipation of the Woo Woo." "From Bearded Presidents to Waxed Woo Woo's." "Hair Choices: The Great Divide." "Bush Country." NEVER ask men about this. They both wanted me to use this to close out on the subject:

It's Important To Follow
The Grade Of The Grass

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Under the Lilacs: The Women
In Abraham Lincoln's Life

I've been thinking about Abraham Lincoln a lot lately, having just finished more books about his life as well as the anniversary of his death just past. All of my life I've been reading about this man. We had several biographies about Lincoln in our family home that I read as a child, and throughout the years I would periodically hear of a new book, or seek out something that had been recommended, to further my education about him. (1) Last year I read a book entitled American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael W. Kauffman that gave me greater insight into Booth's motives behind his crime as well as his time spent in flight. Amazingly, a great many of Booth's stopping points along that route are still in existence and can be witnessed today. (2) This year I read Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson, and one fact I picked up from that book was how long the group of men stood in the middle of the street outside of Ford's Theatre, bearing a dying Lincoln, trying to decide where to take him. (3) It was while I was reading Manhunt that I found two more books of interest in the bibliography: Twenty Days by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. which is the largest collection of photographs in book form about Lincoln's life, (4) and Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers, Jr., a book highly recommended by the author of Manhunt.

Sarah Lincoln
Putting down the last book, I thought back on this thread of women who wove through Lincoln's life and their influence on him. Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died when he was nine years old. His sister was eleven. The very next year, his father remarried a widowed woman, Sarah Bush Johnston, and she joined the Lincoln family with her three children from her previous marriage. When Sarah arrived at the cabin, the Lincoln children took to her immediately, so history says, and I wonder just how emotionally starved those children were, prior to her arrival. (5) Even though she couldn't sign her own name, she brought three books with her into the marriage: Webster's Speller, Robinson Crusoe and The Arabian Nights. Abe already owned Pilgrim's Progress and Aesop's Fables. It is well known that Lincoln would walk many miles to obtain a book, borrowing from every neighbor within walking distance. I marvel than in an agrarian age in our country, when children were born to work alongside their parents on the land, that this uneducated woman had the foresight to convince Abraham's father that his son's reading time not be disturbed, nor that he be forced wholly into physical labor. She is quoted as saying of the little boy, "His mind and mine, what little I had, seemed to run together, moving in the same channel." When Abraham's cousin, Dennis Hanks, rode out to the cabin to tell Sarah the dreadful news of Lincoln's death, he is reported to have told her, "Abe's dead," to which she replied, "Yes, I know, Denny. I knowed they'd kill him. I ben waiting for it." (6)

Ann Rutledge's Grammar Book

Lincoln's first love, Ann Rutledge, was short lived, as she died of typhoid fever at age 22. There was a deathbed farewell, and her passing left Abraham feeing suicidal. There isn't much known of her life, but what memories existed were positive. A quote from Ann's sister Nancy states, "I can never forget how sad and broken-hearted Lincoln looked when he came out of the room from the last interview with Annie. No one knows what was said at that meeting, for they were alone together." There are no drawings or photographs of Ann, but the cover of the grammar text used by both Lincoln and Ann survives, with her signature at the top. The book is in the Library of Congress.

The Young Groom, 1848

When Lincoln and Mary Todd met and forged a relationship, it was not easy-going, nor would it be throughout their lifetime. My own feeling is that is was a love match, but one of those where one of the pairing is much revered and loved, while the other is a cipher and people in their circle wonder how such a union exists because of the disparities in character. (7)

The Young Mrs. Lincoln, 1848

One of those mysteries where we wonder what each fulfills in the other to create such a match. Mary was jealous of the mourned Ann, but then she was jealous of many women who crossed Lincoln's path.

The Lincoln's Marriage Certificate

One who would have escaped her wrath was little Grace Bedell who wrote Lincoln when she was eleven years old. Grace is remembered, of course, for planting the idea of Lincoln's growing a beard. Here is her letter to Lincoln:

"Hon A B Lincoln... Dear Sir My father has just got home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin's. I am a little girl only 11 years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have got 4 brother's and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband's to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it very pretty. I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter to Grace Bedell Westfield Chatauque County New York.
I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye. Grace Bedell

We also have Lincoln's response to Miss Bedell:

Miss Grace Bedell My dear little Miss Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received--I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters--I have three sons--one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age--They, with their mother, constitute my whole family--As to whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now? Your very sincere well wisher A. Lincoln

Here is a picture of Grace at fourteen, three years after she wrote Lincoln: (8)

Grace Bedell, Age Fourteen

Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone were not the Lincoln's first choice to accompany them to Ford's Theatre that night. In fact, they were rather far down on the list, as many declined before them. (9) The first request had gone out to General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia. (10) There has been much speculation over time what would have occurred if Grant had been present with Lincoln that night. Some assert that Grant would have been attended to by a military guard that would not have allowed Booth to enter the box. This is hardly accurate, as Grant had been with Lincoln on other occasions to the theatre where there was no guard present. The excuse the Grant's made to the Lincoln's was that after putting in a day of work, Grant and his wife wished to catch a train so they might visit their children in New Jersey. Some historians find it a pat excuse, harking back to an incident that occurred in late March between Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Lincoln.

Julia Grant

On March 23rd, Lincoln visited Grant at his military base at City Point, Virginia. His wife accompanied him, and they travelled on a steamer called the River Queen, aptly named, I think, given the imperious nature of Mary Lincoln. Upon arriving at the base, Mary and Julia were to travel by horse drawn ambulance provided by the Army while the men rode ahead on horseback. When the women arrived, they saw the wife of General Charles Griffin riding alongside the President. Mrs. Lincoln became extremely upset and was visibly shaken, and it is reported that she felt Mrs. Griffin's presence with the President a serious breach of protocol. She was so angry, she tried climbing out of the ambulance and had to be restrained for fear she would jump into the deep mud surrounding the vehicle.

The next day, another incident occurred when the attractive wife of General Ord was riding next to Lincoln, and riding with the men while they reviewed the troops. Mary Lincoln was reported to have arrive at the scene that day and say, "What does that woman mean by riding by the side of the President?" When Julia Grant tried to calm her, she turned on Julia and began accusing her and her husband of coveting the White House and wanting to replace the Lincolns. "I suppose you think you will get in the White House yourself?," she is quoted as saying. Julia, on the other hand, was making excuses for Mrs. Lincoln to the others saying that she must be fatigued from all of the travel and the unpleasant, jolting ride that they had experienced. Mrs. Lincoln wasn't through with Julia, however. On seeing the two women arrive, Mrs. Ord rode over to the ambulance to join them. Mary flew into a rage, accusing Mrs. Ord of trying to surplant her and saying that the troops would think she was the President's wife. From what history reports, Mrs. Lincoln let fly and called Mrs. Ord "vile names in the presence of a crowd of officers." There was another incident reported where Mrs. Grant sat down on a piling near a river pier in weariness, and Mrs. Lincoln lashed out at her and her inappropriate behavior of daring to sit in the presence of the President's wife. And so, the Grant's declined to visit Ford Theatre that night. (11)

Laura Keene

I often wonder at the choice the Lincoln's made, as a political family, to attend a comedic play on the religious observance of Good Friday. Laura Keene was the star, that night, and the play was An American Cousin. I never knew this, until recently, but immediately following Lincoln's being shot, Laura forced her way into the box where he lay and asked permission to hold his bleeding head so she might "calm him." Later, she acted her greatest performance perhaps, when she started touring around on display in her bloodied silk dress, reenacting that night. This is such an unsavory piece of history: the ego forcing it's way into that box, the playing out of the dramatic moment in her little tableau of administering angel, and then the rather sanguinary display she made of herself following his death, taking it to the road. (12) A piece of that gown still exists:

After Lincoln's death, he was prepared for display, and display...and display. Following his funeral in Washington, he was taken by train up the Eastern seaboard to the major cities, then out West to Springfield, Illinois, and each city created massive tributes of mourning to their lost President. There was also an increasing sense of competitiveness in who would have the largest parade, the longest viewing lines, the biggest catafalque. Along on the journey was Lincoln's decease son, Willie, who was removed from his resting place at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, so that he might be buried with his father and his previous deceased brother in Illinois.

Lincoln Funeral Procession, Chicago

Often Lincoln's hearses were flanked by young girls in white as they made their way down the city streets. I have found a rather poor quality photograph of the young women of Chicago fulfilling this role.

I read something this week that will stick with me a long time, I think. The funerals were occurring throughout late April into early May, and at that time of year, the lilac bushes were in bloom, as they are now. People were snapping off branches to throw under the hearse wheels as they passed through town. According to historical interviewing, there were many, when asked to remember something about the time when Lincoln had died were reported as saying, "I never smell lilacs without thinking of that day." (13) (14)

Barefootnote (15)

(1) We even had a historical fiction written about Mary Todd Lincoln, portraying her in a sensitive light, so that I grew up having mixed feelings about her relationship with her husband, not necessarily seeing her (as my brother put it) "a total nut job."

(2) I highly recommend American Brutus of all of the books I've read in the past two years, as it gives a great deal more insight into the roaming and scheming of Booth in the years prior to the assassination. Loyalist or egotist. Much to consider.

(3) They stood quite a while out in that mud lumped street holding Lincoln while they debated where to take him. The tavern next door? Hardly the place for a President to die, and on Good Friday, to boot.

(4) The collection of photographs that are used in this book were gathered over the years by the authors' father and grandfather, Frederick Hill Merserve, and what a lifetime's labor of love it must have been to amass such images. The book is well worth seeking as you will find things you've probably never seen before including an incredible accounting of all of the funerals held in the cities along the travel route from Washington to Springfield, Illinois. They don't hold back, either, on reporting the craziness and competition that was going on to best each other in their displays.

(5) Sarah Lincoln had to have been a woman of phenomenal character and strength to join her new husband in the wilderness, and the untended children awaiting her. Almost immediately, she had him making improvements to benefit his family: adding a wood floor to the cabin, fixing a leaking roof that dumped snow over the children's beds, creating vegetable gardens. Up until the time he left for Washington, Lincoln would ride out on horseback some 70 miles to visit with Sarah on a regular basis. I found it a very interesting tidbit that Mary Lincoln never accompanied him to get to know this woman who was such a huge supporter in the development of her husband.

(6) Dennis Hanks, Lincoln's cousin, knew him from birth. Dennis was ten when Lincoln was born, and his memory of the birth is, "I tuk and run the hull two miles to see my new cousin. Nancy was lying thar in a pole bed, luking purdy happy. You bet I was tickled to death. Babies wasn't as plentiful as blackberries in the woods o' Kentucky."

(7) For every argument you can find against Mary Lincoln, you can equally find another one to counter it. She came from an educated family, politically involved, and she may well have been an impetus in his moving forward in politics. She could also be a political liability with her rich tastes, queenly manner and unleashed temper. Their last day together, after he had finished his work, the Lincoln's went for a carriage ride out into the countryside, and apparently it was a happy memory for Mary as they laughed and speculated about their future together. Historians haven't been kind to her. My feeling is, who ever really knows what goes on behind closed doors between a husband and a wife?

(8) Grace married at seventeen and moved to Delphos, Kansas where she raised children, lived a full life and died at age 88. Her original letter to Lincoln is part of the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library in Michigan. Lincoln's response to her is owned by a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

(9) There is further sadness tied to Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone. They ultimately did marry, moved to Germany and raised a family. Years later, Henry murdered Clara and was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane where he died.

(10) Julia was a woman of gentle demeanor and in dealing with Mrs. Lincoln, a possessor of diplomatic skills. She also had crossed eyes which, it is said, Grant dissuaded her from correcting as he "adored her just as she is."

(11) They may well have had a legitimate desire to see their children that weekend. There may have been another discussion going on at home when the news of Lincoln's request arrived. It's an amusing speculation to picture them rifling through Grant's desk, trying to find that train schedule they just know he has somewhere.

(12) I accept this as human nature. Ford's Theatre was left in shreds that night. People were ripping off and running away with anything they could get their hands on. The red paper was pulled from the walls, furniture was smashed, items of Lincoln's clothing stolen, all to become future reliquaries on some Victorian mantle. It is moments like this, and they still occur, when I realize we have not come very far in the course of civilization.

(13) Lilacs grow in Washington, but only with a lot of fussing over them. We have a lot of humidity, and they tend to suffer from mildew and blight issues that they don't encounter in the New England states, where they flourish. I've tried many times to keep lilac bushes going, without much success. When I am in New England in the spring, I treasure the many lilacs that I see. They do have the most wonderful scent and delicate blossoms.

(14) I had blog readers JCD and Cuff both bring up the Walt Whitman poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd," from Leaves of Grass. It is a lengthy poem that begins:

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky of night,
I mourn'd--and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash'd palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle.....and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.

Whitman goes on for many more lines about his love of this country, and Lincoln (not named) and the Civil War and war's comrades compared to lilacs and he closes with these lines:

Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wonderous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the lilac tall, and it's blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders in my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep
For the dead I loved so well;
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands--and this for his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim."

Thank you again JCD and Cuff for bringing this up in your comments. The poem can be found on this Leaves of Grass website. It is Poem 192: Whitman, Walt. 1900. Leaves of Grass

(15) A barefoot Lincoln is not that farfetched. He had a terrible time being fitted for boots, with his narrow foot and size 14 (by today's standards) shoes. Often, he was seen in the White House, much to his wife's dismay, wearing old slippers or, on occasion, barefoot. The Lincoln's spoke about where they might like to live after he left office. She most definitely wanted to live in Chicago, near the water. He thought about returning to Springfield, but it is said what he really wanted to do was to move to California. I like that thought: Lincoln having lived across the land, ending his days with his feet in the sand and surf, staring out at the ocean.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What Would Jesus Chew?

I've been so bogged down with life and my current problems, I had lost track of the fact that Easter is this weekend. I remember checking the calendar back in February or March to note the date, but it wasn't until someone reminded me today, that I found out it was actually coming up this weekend. I had wanted to dye some eggs and hide them so the city rats could have an Easter egg hunt. Let's be realistic. Aren't they going to find them before the kiddies? And no PEEPS™! Washington Cube: Kickin' Wit Da Peeps.

One Easter while I still worked on the Hill (and Congress was out of session,) a co-worker and I dyed a lot of eggs. We spray painted about three of them gold, and if you found the gold egg, you would win a special prize: a chocolate bunny or egg, cd's...we had all sorts of prizes. Late one night, we stayed behind in the office and started hiding them. We did keep count, not wanting a nasty surprise days later from something that had been overlooked. It was a real morale booster for the staff, and it was funny to see these normally Alpha driven people running around the office, trying to be the one who found the most eggs. I remember one gold egg totally eluded everyone. I had hid it inside the toilet roll tube in the Congressman's private bathroom. Yes folks, your tax dollars at work. I know, I know, I know.

So here I am. It's Easter, and I am not prepared. Tonight, I went into a local drugstore, and I found the perfect gift for my jaded urban set:

"You'll die for this cross!"
(I love the faux wood grain effect. In milk and white chocolate!)

This got me to wondering if maybe it's time for the Vatican to have another overhaul, maybe rethink the communion wafer. "Take this and eat. This is my body... in six delicious flavors."

Are we expecting rain?

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