As Others See Her

Lady O's 85th Birthday

A. W. Starkweather, Sr. Photo


February 20, 2003

Come celebrate Lady with us!

By Jim Atwell

CoopersTown Crier ©2003

Fly Creek is throwing a party, and you’re all invited. The party’s this Saturday, February 22, from 2 to 4:30 at the Fly Creek Methodist Church. No presents, please, but cards and mementos are welcome.

What are we celebrating? Why, the 85th birthday of Lady Ostapeck, Fly Creek’s most treasured resident.

Lady’s life story has long since entered local myth. A myth, you know, is a story that a community cherishes because it embodies shared beliefs: about the world and how humans should live in it. A myth carries universal truth, far above mere fact.

Our own civic history is full of myths. About young Honest Abe, who walked five miles (or was it ten?) to return a penny he’d overcharged a store customer. About noble George, stepping into a tree line at Valley Forge, kneeling to beg mercy on his starving army. About heroes by the hundreds, known and anonymous, who threw off tyranny, saved the Union, liberated slaves, settled the West, smashed the Axis (the old, original one), banished Jim Crow, put footprints on the moon.

All those stories have importance for us, far beyond historical fact. They give us ways to reflect on values and on ourselves. As does the tale of Lady Ostapeck.

Stage One of the story has a gritty middle-aged woman making a big decision. She’ll leave city life and a good job as a photo finisher. She’ll move to the country with her young son. Oh, yes, and with her horse. She knows about Otsego County, and so she advertises in local papers there: “Lady with a horse needs country home.” She considers and rejects some amusing offers from elderly gents. Instead, she buys a ramshackle farm in Fly Creek.

Phase Two has the woman, settled in, making two great discoveries. The first is in a thrift shop: a 1901 Century camera in good working shape. She buys it. Then comes the second great discovery. The woman has a gift for portrait photography. A phenomenal gift.

Phase Three covers forty years. The horse dies and is lovingly buried in the back field. The little son grows to be a fine, gentle man. (He was lost to us, sadly, just last year.) And the woman? She creates an astounding body of portraits and is honored by shows in this country, in Ireland, and in her beloved Finland.

Early in Phase Three, the woman discovers the key to her style. First, interview subjects for at least ninety minutes. Learn who they are. Then think, long and carefully, about who they might have been — in this time or another. Then reach into the last five hundred years and pick apt costuming. Then take a portrait, one that lets the subject transcend ordinary time, and reveals far more than simple appearance. One that reveals spirit, soul.

The technique carries a note of mystery about it — but so does the woman herself. When she moved here, she shrugged off her given name and took a new one. It was drawn from her newspaper ad: “Lady with a horse …”

T. S. Eliot says that, whatever name we assign a cat, that cat has its own name, a private one it never reveals, even to other cats. So it is with Lady Ostapeck. None of us Fly Creek cats knows her old name, or wants to. She’s Lady, and that’s that.

But mystery, with Lady, extends far beyond name. Its comes, I think from living a long time alone, from communing with her own thoughts and with others, some long gone from the earth. (Her mentor, she’ll tell you, is the pioneer English photographer Margaret Cameron, dead more than a hundred years.) For Lady, it’s a thin veil that separates the world that can be seen from that which can’t. A thin veil, and permeable.

I wish there were a word to describe her aptly. The Old English “wiccan” would do, if the term hadn’t lately been preempted and politicized. But its meaning surely applies: “Wise One.” That’s Lady. In conversation, she fixes you with eyes at once shrewd, piercing, and profoundly kind. I think Lady looks deep into people and loves us in spite of some of what she sees. That’s the way of her art, and also the way of her life.

So, come to our party! Help us celebrate an extraordinary presence in our midst. Fly Creek has lots to be proud of. But, in my book, Lady tops the list.

February 27, 2003

Party time ...

A thousand thanks to Barbara Lyon and all who planned Fly Creek’s celebration of Lady Ostapeck’s 85th birthday. At the party’s start, about seventy were there, milling around in the church basement, laughing, visiting with old friends. Lady hadn’t arrived yet, and it took iron will for everyone to hold back from two tables laden with gorgeous cakes, tortes, trifles, and pies. While I waited and smiled and talked, I was secretly in dialog with myself:

“Some of that angel food first, and then that four-layer raspberry, then that cheese cake...” I’ll bet others were doing the same.

Lady swept in to warm applause and a fairly credible singing of “Happy Birthday.” Garbed in Finnish national costume, she carried the large china doll featured in so many of her photo portraits. The doll was given an honored place on a long side table displaying pictures of and articles about Lady; and she herself worked the big crowd, greeting everyone like close, old friends. As indeed they were. Finally, as cameras flashed, candles on the principal cakes were duly blown out. Then Lady wielded the cake knife. Once feasting began, it continued through the afternoon. I went home with no interest in supper whatsoever.

What a great time for Lady and for all of us!

A couple of amendments to last week’s column: When Lady left the city and her job as a photo retoucher, her son Bruce didn’t follow her immediately to New York. Bruce was already in college at that time; and he moved up here later, after he was married. Lady has also since told me that she did her “Lady with a horse” advertising through “The Rural New Yorker,” at that time the farmer’s bible and read from Maine to Kentucky. Lady still has the big stack of responses she received. (That won’t surprise any of her friends.) …