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.
Lauri is at an ATM. There’s an elderly gentlemen at the machine next to her. She nods and asks how he’s doing. He smiles and says “Excellent. I married well.” Lauri cracks up at this and says “Me too. Do you have any children?” The man nods. “Four daughters.” Lauri raises her eyebrows. “Wow. We have two daughters. Do you have any advice?” The man nods again. Without missing a beat, he says “There is no God.”
It’s time to brush CB’s teeth. Normally, she fights me tooth and nail, but tonight, she is relaxed, pondering. I get ready to brush her teeth, her sitting in my lap in the armchair near her bed. She puts her hand up to stop me. “No, hold on.” She reaches in her mouth and pulls out a sliver of something white. CB asks “Do you know what that was?” “Fingernail,” I reply. “How did you know?” “I’m a dad, I know these things.” A smile creeps across her face as she rolls it around in her finger and then puts it back in her mouth. “Well, you were WRONG. It’s a TOENAIL.”
I’m at the farmer’s market with LA and CB. CB has climbed a fir tree in the park, she’s probably 20 ft. up. She’s 6. I shouldn’t let her do this, but I do, and I can’t really tell you why other than I’m a father and for some reason this instinctively feels like an important thing I should let her do. LA is running around the base of the tree. I catch her and scoop her up, her giggling and squirming. I feel a THUMP on my hat. CB shouts down from the top of the tree. “Dad, did you feel something land on your hat?” I frown. “Yeah, what was it?” I can hear CB start to cackle. “SPIT!” The cackle spreads to the nearby farmer’s behind their booths.
CB and I are wrapping it up for the evening. She’s on top of her little bed house, peering over the railing. It’s the night before Halloween, and she’s nervous. This whole last month she’s been back in bed with us, waking up frightened in the early hours. Getting her to sleep takes longer than it did, and she chats as she tries to calm herself down.
“How do you kill a zombie Daddy?”
“There’s no such thing, sweetie.”
“Yeah, but how do you kill one?”
I look up from my Sudoku puzzle. “Well, in the movies, they chop its head off.”
“Because the body needs the brain to function. Even in zombies”
“Because the brain sends messages to the body that tells it what to do. If the brain is gone, the body doesn’t know what to do.”
“Is it easy to chop their heads off?”
“Honey, you never have to worry about it. I’ve been to many places, and seen many things, and I have never seen a zombie, nor do I know anyone that has.”
“But what if you have to chop their head off?”
“Sweetie, that’s just in the movies. Don’t worry about it.”
“But how do they know in the movies? How do they know it would really work? How do they know?”
We’re all at the beach. I’ve just come back from a run, and it’s slowly getting to be time for us to head home. The girls and I play tag with the waves, LA holding my hand, CB, running next to us. I lift Lily up when a bigger wave comes in and drag her toes through the water. She’s laughing. I look next to me and see that CB has been knocked down and is riding the surf to shore. She’s a good swimmer, but this is the first time that a wave has pushed her over like this, the first time she has gotten a taste, herself, of the power of the ocean, even in a foot or so of water. There’s a look of panic on her face. I head over behind her, in case she doesn’t get her footing, and am in position to catch her if she gets dragged back out, LA in my other arm. The wave recedes, she has clung tenaciously to the sand, long wet streaks where she was pulled back towards the ocean, a mix of fear and victory on her face. For now, she’s had enough.
LA plods through the sand to throw her little cold, wet body on her mother. CB stays along the edge of the waves now, drawing in the sand with a stick. She begins to write “I love…” but the wave sweeps up and takes it away. She scowls. “Why does it do that?”
“That’s how waves and sand are, boo. Nothing you put in them lasts very long. You write what you want to and then it goes away.”
CB chews on her lip. She goes further upslope to edge of damp sand and makes a long rectangle. “Guess what this is for?” she says with a bright smile. I make an exaggerated questioning shrug of the shoulders and watch her. “I…love…you…Dada” she prints it out nice and clear, her handwriting rapidly becoming better than mine. She shakes her stick, flinging wet sand, then trots off to see her sister and mother. I’m patting my pockets to see if I have my phone for a photo. I don’t. A wave sweeps up, over the writing, clearing most of it.
If I was a different writer, a different father perhaps, I would tell you that the wave washed it all away except for the word “love”, that it left me with a jovial feeling that all was right in the world and that everything would be ok. What was left, though, was “Dada”, the water sweeping the “I love you” to wherever the ocean keeps such messages, the sea playing a different game with me than with CB, a grown-up game. I frowned and stared out at the waves. I bent down and re-wrote the word “love”, and walked over to join my family.
Lily has just finished her ice cream popsicle and has found her herself in fine form. Her sister is lounging on the trampoline looking up into the old oak, everyone has full bellies from dinner, and the sun is setting. Lily has decided to share a story and regale me with a tale of ribaldry. To be honest, I really don’t have any idea what the story is about, other than it involves a rabbit, a dragon, possibly a puppy, and poopie, boobie, bobo, and ‘stinky’. Rather than try to reconstruct the story, I simply give you photos of her telling the story, and I think you will be probably get the gist of it. Some tales transcend language.
There is, hanging in the long hallway of my parent’s house, a large painting.The painting is hung high enough for my two young children not to see it. I suspect that this is intentional, though I’ve never asked. I’ve never spoken to my mother about the painting until now.She has pulmonary fibrosis, and is now on oxygen 24-7. She is an award-winning artist, and there are paintings that I have questions about, images from her art that have stayed with me over the years, and I’m looking for answers about this one.
Most of her work over the past decade has been pastels, vibrant ultraviolet landscapes that prove to me that she can see ranges of light beyond the rest of us. This painting, however, is in black and white, except for one crucial detail.
The painting is from a photo in William Stevenson’s book A Man Called Intrepid. It’s of a woman named Madeline, the first woman British WWII radiotelegraphist who transmitted from occupied France. She was caught by the Gestapo. She sits naked and emaciated, one of the Gestapo men holding her head up for the photo. There are no faces other than hers, just the legs of the men standing behind her. In the photo, she looks away, and does her best to cover herself before execution.
The painting has a secret. Up close, at eye level, you can see, in the shadows of Madeline’s eye sockets, that my mother has painted two tiny red dots. I wanted to know about those two dots. With those two tiny dots, my mother has transformed Madeline, from victim to something else, a force of vengeance. The man’s hand, holding her head, has rotted away, every man in the picture now dead and defeated. Madeline wears a halo of amputated limbs. She is victorious and unmoving, an eater of evil souls. The painting is as beautiful as it is unsettling, it reminds me of the true power that an artist has to re-forge images of despair into those of triumph, even a horrible triumph, and I love my mother even more for painting it. I imagine in her the same burning coals, the unflinching stare, as she faces the disease slowly taking her breath away.