Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gogo's Ghost

I think I saw a ghost at the foot of my bed two nights ago. It was three or four o'clock in the morning, a good time for ghosts, and I was awakened by someone impatiently tapping on my knee. I opened my eyes, peered into the darkness, and saw the transparent and whiteish-gray figure of an old woman standing there.

She was smiling and waving at me, with a nimbus of short, old-lady curls around her head, and wearing a flower-print dress. She looked like she was enjoying herself, just come to say hello. Then her image shimmered back into the darkness and she was gone.

I'm not sure if it was a dream or real. I had just been awakened from a deep sleep, so I was in a sort of half state. Our cat Henrik was lying on my side of the bed, and Dave was sleeping soundly. I can't imagine either one of them had tapped me on the knee so firmly.

I think it was my Aunt Gogo. I was telling a friend about Gogo just the other day, so the telling must have summoned her spirit to my bedside. Gogo was born Helga Johansson in southern Sweden, in 1895 or so, and moved to America with her parents when she was two years old. She was the first of six children, one of them being my grandma, Nana Mildred Dolly.

Gogo was a nurse in Depression-era Chicago and would visit tuberculosis patients at home. She and her husband John never had any children of their own, so they spent a lot of time with my mom and Aunt Jeannie, taking them on trips, out for dinner, on picnics, to the beach at Lake Michigan. They liked to have fun. Gogo wore a big fur coat.

I only met Gogo a few times, and by the time I met her, she was old, and then she died when I was 12 or so. It was only recently, talking about Gogo with my mom, that I realized how similar Gogo and I are, both of us urban, childless career women who like to have fun, and who discovered an artistic passion later in life. For me, it's writing, of course, and for Gogo it was painting. When Nana died, I got some of Gogo's paintings, which now hang on the walls of my apartment in Brooklyn.

Why, just the other day, I was in the kitchen, cooking, and poured myself a glass of wine. I lifted my glass to the painting on the wall, a nature scene on a forested mountain, and said "cheers" to Gogo. Gogo. I miss her. I was kind of hoping she would visit me again last night, but I slept soundly till morning.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Original "Cougar": Catherine the Great

I'm married to a much younger man. Lalalala.

I'm old enough to be Dave's mother. But if I really was his mother, I would have been one of those irresponsible teenage moms who would leave baby home with grandma all the time, claiming that I was just nipping out for some Pampers and smokes, then not come back home till four o'clock in the morning, drunk.

The thing is, I recently read an article in a back issue of Bust magazine about women of a certain age who call themselves "cougars" cuz they're always on the prowl for fresh young man meat. I kept rolling my eyeballs as I read, which made reading very difficult indeed, as these old birds went on about how they only date young men because they're such studs and how it's so easy and fun to pick them up.

I think the Bust article was supposed to fill readers with sisters-are-doin'-it-for-themselves admiration for cougars, but to me, the women they interviewed came across as supremely dissatisfied, restless and shallow beeyotches. Are we supposed to be happy that women have now commodified love and sexuality the same way that Hugh Hefner does when he gives open-call Playboy auditions for his new girlfriends?

You see, I'm very special and perfect, because when I found Dave I hadn't gone shopping for him. No, I found the love of my life as one should, meeting him when I least expected it then flailing about uncertainly as I tried to figure out what I was getting myself into and why I felt so powerfully attracted to then repulsed by this guy I couldn't get out of my mind.

Anyway, cougars aren't all that new. For centuries, women who've managed to accumulate power and money have gone after young lovers, just as men do. Catherine the Great is a classic case. When her burning passion for her older boyfriend Potemkin died down, he stayed close to the empress by helping her find beautiful young men to play with. And the older Catherine got, the younger her "favorites" got. She would keep them around for a year, have crazy sex, grow bored, retire them with a severance package of jewels, castles and serfs, then move on to the next boy toy. She thought she was in control.

Then, when she was 50, she met 21-year-old Alexander Lanskoi. There was something beautiful, sweet and feminine about him, like a teen idol. And he loved the Empress, really truly loved her. Catherine had grown used to choosing her lovers from among the cynical courtiers and cavalrymen who guarded the palace in Saint Petersburg. But Lanskoi was a pink-cheeked lad from the countryside, a tender young soldier who had gained entry to the palace’s royal guard thanks to his good looks and adoration of his country's ruler.

When Alexander met Catherine in 1779, he was eager to learn from her, loving her private tutorials on art, antiquities and gems. Poorly educated but hungry for knowledge, he read what she read and learned to speak French – badly. Catherine took great pleasure in playing private secretary to Alexander, calling him her General and taking dictation for the letters he wrote in French, correcting his mistakes along the way.

Then, after a year or so, she grew bored and found a new favorite. But unlike his predecessors, instead of just going away, Lanskoi freaked out. He came to her chambers, crying, and demanded to speak her, telling her he couldn't believe that she could just walk away from a love that made them both so happy. Catherine was stunned and powerfully moved by Lanskoi's passion and took her baby back into her arms, loving him another four years until her baby grew ill with diphtheria and died at the age of 26.

"I am submerged in the most acute sorrow and my happiness is no more; I thought that I myself should die from the irreparable loss which I suffered a week ago of my dearest friend," Catherine wrote in a letter to a confidant. "I had hoped that he would become the support of my old age: he studied, he profited, he had all my tastes; this was a young man who I was bringing up, who was grateful, gentle and sincere, who shared my grief when I had any and who rejoiced at my joys; in a word, between my tears, I have the misfortune to tell you that General Lanskoi is no more."

R.I.P. General Lanskoi. May every cougar get her mind blown by her own personal Alexander.