Big Girl Books

It’s time. For parents of a certain generation, mine certainly and perhaps the one before me, and of a certain mindset, it’s a benchmark we hope might come. Ours was last week. I worked it with the appropriate drama when I saw she was ready.

Dad: “Ok, let’s see, we finished the last Never Girls book. What do you want to read next?”

CB: “I want one of your books, from the office.”

Dad: ”Those are pretty big books, boo. Most of them are for work, I don’t think you’d like them. How about Magic Treehouse?”

CB: “No, those books are for babies, I want big girl book, I want one of your books.”

Dad: “Are you sure? I don’t think there’s anything in there but really grown up books.”

CB: “PLEASE DADDY! I want one of YOUR books.”

Dad: *rubbing scruffy beard, leans back in chair, regards CB* “Well… There is… one book…”

CB: “WHAT? What is it?”

Dad: “I dunno CB, it’s a REALLY big girl book. And there are scary parts in it. It has witches and monsters.”

CB: “Really? How scary? I think I’ll be ok. Please?”

Dad: “It has four kids in it that get in a lot of trouble. But it has a big lion that helps them out. There’s no pictures though, like I’m saying it’s not for little girls. Are you sure you are ready?”

CB: “I’m a big girl, I’m ready.”

Dad: *rubs beard a few more seconds, pondering* “Ok. We’ll give it a try. But if it gets too scary, you just tell me and we’ll stop reading it, ok?”

CB: “Ok!”*starts to squirm around*

I go and get the book and sit down in the reading chair. CB climbs into my lap.

Dad: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air raids…”

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Ether

A few times a year, I get a phone call or a visit that, in the world of fiction, would be the start of a novel. Invariably, I don’t take the bait. Novels are filled with people suffering for the purpose of furthering the plot along.

I’m not that kind of archaeologist.

I received a call yesterday, from a woman, wanting me to go with her and her sister, to an exhumation of her mother. Their mother had died when she was quite young, as did their father.  She and her sister had, finally, after all these years, decided to place the ashes of their father with her mother.

I asked, then, why she needed me? The cemetery where her mother was buried was going to do the exhumation. She didn’t need an archaeologist.

She said that, it was her belief and that of her sister, that when they opened that grave, they would not find her mother. They would find someone else.

This is first call. At this point in the conversation, I usually try to end it.  You may accuse me of a lack of curiosity, which is fair enough. But these exchanges typically only get crazier as they continue, and once you’ve crossed this line, there’s no going back. They assume you are interested and want to help. They call you for years. I have several of these people that I hear from about every six months or so, whether I answer the phone or not. They are the type of people to leave long messages.

I suggested to her, then, what she probably wanted was the police.

She stated that the body was buried on government property, that the government had hidden the reasons why the mother had died, and that she and her sister had spent their lifetimes piecing together the story of their mother and father, and that the time had come not just to bury the father, but to exhume whomever was in that grave, get a DNA sample and perform an autopsy. The father had left behind a mountain of encoded evidence for the two girls in the form of notes, diaries, and music.

Second call.  I’m rubbing my temple at this point.

I reiterate that she doesn’t need an archaeologist here, she needs to get permission from the government to do the autopsy. She needed to contact an estate lawyer to find out what rights she had in this situation, and get a court order if she felt there was foul play.

She countered that it seemed unlikely that the government would allow this, since they were complicit in the foul play. Furthermore, based on the trail left behind from her father, she and her sister believed that the body in that grave was several centuries old, and was actually someone I had heard of. She said that if she told me who it was, I would think she was crazy. She needed an archaeologist to confirm the antiquity of the skeleton and any associated grave goods.

Third and final call.  I wish her the best of luck, to contact the estate lawyer, and accepted her invitation to contact me when the lawyer advises her.  I have no idea what rights one has in such situations, but I imagine they are interesting.

Over several years in this business, I have encountered this more than once– parents or grandparents leaving behind clues or messages to some cryptic tragedy, or secret wealth, or unimagined ancestral lineage. Most of the descendants are interested, this portion of their family history becomes a hobby. They sit on the porch with glasses of whiskey and talk in low voices with close kin, hypothesizing the possible truths behind what they think they know. But every once in awhile, when the tragedy cuts close to the bone, when the mystery is spun hard enough, intricate enough, real enough, the sons and daughters are consumed.  They’re lost, their life courses spun out into the ether, following paths created by people with no understanding of what they’ve left behind.

Towards a Deeper Meaning

 

A few years back, I visited the Cabrillo College archaeological field school high in the coastal ranges. The students had been camping for weeks and were field-hardened, everyone knowing their tasks, moving as an organic whole to sift through the site that was thousands of years old. Representatives from the Ohlone stayed with them the whole time, camped and ate and educated the students as they worked together to explore the ancient human history in this now remote area.

What archaeologists look for are the pieces of our lives that stay, works of stone and shell, concrete and glass. What we want, however, is the ephemeral. We’re not just interested in what someone hunted, we want to know how they hunted, in groups or individuals, during the summer or spring, near villages or on long treks.

We want to know about ceremony and family structure, about the forms of entertainment that brought ancient people joy and the artwork that carried their reverence and hope. The artifacts are stopping points on the way to something deeper, and all of our efforts are bent towards that deeper meaning.

The irony is, of course, that most of our lives are ephemeral. Our greatest moments often leave nothing behind — our memories carry the only proof that an event occurred. We have precious few physical things that mark truly important events: the brass baby slippers, the wedding ring, the casket. Unless we write it down, our lives evaporate around us, with only a handful of other people as witnesses.

The other week, I was crossing a parking lot with my two-year old daughter. She stopped and noticed my shadow for the first time. She gasped with surprise and said “That’s daddy!” I pointed to her shadow and asked her “Who’s that?” She gasped with even more surprise and said, “That’s me!”

And as she reached out, she watched her shadow hand take my shadow hand.

 

 

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Note: A slightly different version of this appeared as part of KQED’s Perspectives series on August 10th, 2010. I have a number of essays posted there, most in relation to archaeology and every day life. I encourage readers to check out the Perspective broadcasts by myself and other authors. ~M