George Washington and the Pursuit of Happiness


George. George. He is everywhere.
On a teapot.
On a bonbon plate with Martha.
Here he is in the window of an antiques store.
On a lollipop.
Here he is down the block from my apartment.
Here he is on a terrace in Rome. No, wait. That's my mother, Sara. But I think you will agree she looked a lot like George.
Who was he? What do we know? The most famous thing everyone knows is not true.
The cherry tree/can't-tell-a-lie story is a fabrication by a biographer. Though I believe Washington was a very moral man who was averse to lying and partial to cherry pie.
The other thing is true. He suffered so from his teeth, one after the other being pulled, until finally he was left with one sad tooth. The dentures were heavy—made from hippopotamus ivory with wire springs. Aargh. And they were too big. He looked as if he had swollen cheeks.
He aspired to be a gentleman and, when he was still a teenager, wrote “George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Rule 1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present. Rule 100. Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth. He was a hero and became famous at the age of 22, fighting for the British in the French and Indian War.
Disillusioned with the British, he became the general of the Continental Army, leading the 13 colonies in the fight for independence.
Here is the flag that he took with him into battle.
As he said, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” What made it possible for him to persevere and inspire a ragtag army for six years? The Americans believed in their cause. And they had help. The French hated the British and came to the aid of the colonies.
The noble struggle inspired the 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette (whose family motto was “Why Not”) to leave his 16-year-old wife, Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles (whom he did indeed love, hair and all), and join the cause in America. Washington adored Lafayette and the feeling was returned. Lafayette named his son George Washington!
There was no lack of affection for Lafayette in my family. My parents admired the Marquis and we celebrated his birthday every year with a lovely lemon layer cake.
And George’s private life? I go visit Mount Vernon, his home on a hill overlooking the Potomac in Virginia. He designed and redesigned the house, while working on designs for a national capital city. The house is not large. The rooms are spare but elegant. The colors blast at you.
Never let it be said that Americans were afraid of color.
It was a civilized life. George and Martha entertained constantly. Martha wore fancy shoes. They loved each other. Martha would join him at winter camps during the war.
They had many dogs. One of them was named Sweet Lips. When the war finally came to an end, George came home to be ”under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree,” content to work on his farm. He was an entrepreneur. Selling herring! Running a distillery.
Building a flour mill, which you can visit today and where you can buy the cornmeal to make excellent corn bread.
Wise. Cautious. He was not an intellectual, but he valued his library.
He was not destined to remain on his estate.George was revered. He was exalted. President for eight years, he rejected a third term and returned to Mount Vernon.<br /> Thomas Jefferson, who later became his adversary, said there would have been no United States without George Washington.
He had only three years of peace.<br /> He died from complications of a cold at the age of 67. And here is the bed he slept in and died in.<br />
And now.<br /> The chairs on the back porch look out on the same view he saw.<br />
Look out on the same view he saw
We have the Mount Vernon Ladies Association to thank. Formed in 1853, when the family could no longer hold on to the estate (and the federal government declined to purchase!), a group of splendid women, who apparently were not afraid of an extra helping of mutton or blancmange, bought the estate to preserve and maintain his vision and legacy.
You can visit the gardens, where 300,000 bees produce honey. You can see the fig trees laden with figs. On the wall in the entrance hall is a key from the Bastille, given to Washington by Lafayette in 1790. It remains where it was placed that day.<br />
A Short Visit to the White House<br /> It was raining in Washington.<br /> The linden trees were all black trunk and yellow leaf.<br />
The house luminous in a gray mist.
And inside, a burst of color. Again. The Red Room.
The Green Room, with a red chair.
And outside - a farm (almost).<br /> The garden has vegetables and fruit and 60,000 bees making honey. Washington never lived in this house.<br /> But his image is everywhere. And Lafayette's as well. It could be that the current president and his wife have the same integrity as the first president and his wife. Could be. And I do imagine that, on festive occasions, the first family will celebrate with a lovely lemon layer cake.
Happiness It was raining in New York.<br />
The trees were wet and black, and people walked up Fifth Avenue.
Where is happiness?<br /> What is happiness?<br /> What did Thomas Jefferson mean?<br /> The pursuit of happiness.<br /> I visited Dr. James Watson.<br /> Maybe there is a genetic explanation for happiness.<br />
And all we need to do is take a pill that puts it into action. I asked him. He could not tell me because no one really knows.<br /> And anyway, everyone has to be sad part of the time; otherwise, you would be insane.<br /> I looked at him. He takes walks. Plays tennis.<br /> He works. He looks at trees. Those are good ways to find happiness.<br /> To find peace of mind. Me? I work. And walk. And go to museums.<br />
I look at Velázquez's infanta.
I look at a woman in a red dress with a snappy hairdo looking at the infanta.<br /> Later, I see her going home in her fur-collared coat.<br /> Not the infanta. The woman.<br />
A present arrives.
It is a book by Vladimir Nabokov, who is no longer alive.
There are so many people I miss.<br /> Oh, Vladimir. Oh, Sara.<br /> Oh, George.<br /> Oh, Marquis de Lafayette.<br /> Where are you all?<br /> This is not a question to ask if you want to be happy.<br />
I clean my house.
I take napkin-folding classes.
I make plans for trips to gardens where I will sit and draw and eat a meringue and savor the moment.<br /> By George! That's it.<br /> Savor the moment.<br />
In my family we do not say 'goodbye.' We say 'so long.' This is the final installment of 'And the Pursuit of Happiness.'  It will appear as a book in October 2010. Why not?

via Maira Kalman and her Pursuit of Happiness Series

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