Lady with us!
By Jim Atwell
Fly Creek is throwing
a party, and youre all invited. The partys 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 Creeks most treasured
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 hed 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. Shell
leave city life and a good job as a photo finisher. Shell 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.
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.
Shes Lady, and thats 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, shell tell you,
is the pioneer English photographer Margaret Cameron, dead more than
a hundred years.) For Lady, its a thin veil that separates the
world that can be seen from that which cant. A thin veil, and
I wish there were
a word to describe her aptly. The Old English wiccan would
do, if the term hadnt lately been preempted and politicized.
But its meaning surely applies: Wise One. Thats
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. Thats 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.
Party time ...
A thousand thanks
to Barbara Lyon and all who planned Fly Creeks celebration of
Lady Ostapecks 85th birthday. At the partys start, about
seventy were there, milling around in the church basement, laughing,
visiting with old friends. Lady hadnt 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:
that angel food first, and then that four-layer raspberry, then that
cheese cake... Ill 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 weeks column: When Lady left the city and her job as
a photo retoucher, her son Bruce didnt 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 farmers bible and read
from Maine to Kentucky. Lady still has the big stack of responses
she received. (That wont surprise any of her friends.)