Monday, June 29, 2009

The Spooky Stuff

If you’ve read Tainted Legacy, you know that, during my previous stay in Missouri, I found the grave of my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford. Well, at least, I found the approximate location of her grave; there was no headstone to mark her grave. Believe what you will about BG, I felt strongly—and I am sincere in the choice of that word, “strongly,” and cannot emphasize it enough—that, if for no other reason than historical purposes, Bertha’s grave should be marked. In fact, I made up my mind while there that if the book were ever published, I would use whatever advance I received to purchase a stone.

Last August I learned that Tainted Legacy would be published by Publish America. My advance? One dollar. Whatever. I emailed Marc Houseman in Missouri, the historian who has been a tremendous help in editing the final draft of the book and tracking down sources for me, to say nothing of his support for the book. I asked for his help in getting a headstone ordered, and that’s all it took: Some weeks later I received a bill in the mail with the promise that the stone would be ready sometime in the spring. And it was.

Our last stop on the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour was the cemetery in Morse Mill where BG is buried. If you’ve read the previous blog, you are aware that certain strange events occurred as we drew ever nearer. But hours earlier when the tour began, Marc made a statement that started the wheels in my mind turning and made it nearly impossible for me to focus on the event at hand. He said something he’d never shared with me before: ‘Bertha’s family,’ he told our tour crew, ‘said when she died that her grave would go unmarked for fifty years.’ Fifty years. Later, I asked Marc the source, but he explained that this was part of the oral history passed down about Bertha, and he had no way of crediting a single individual with having said it.

Fifty years. When did she die? August 2o, 1951. It took me over an hour yesterday, searching back through my journals, to find the piece of a puzzle left unsolved in my brain since the tour. Finally, I found it: The day I decided to write the book about Bertha Gifford. Actually, it was an evening; Joyce Spizer, True Crime author, had come to speak to my writers group, and as she set up, I told her about Bertha. She was so intrigued, she urged me to write the book. The next day I called my mother to make sure she was comfortable with me doing so. “Yes,” she said, “you need to write it before I die.” That was in February, 2002—fifty years and six months after Bertha’s death. Joyce, by the way, was speaking to my group that night because she had a new book to promote—Cross Country Killer. It’s about a serial killer. The book had been released on September 21, 2001—exactly fifty years and one month after Bertha Gifford’s death.

One more note: On the first day of this last trip to Missouri, Marc took me to the Brush Creek Cemetery, where Ed Brinley is buried. (His death led to BG’s trial.) The last of Ed’s children, LaVerne, passed away just a few months ago. Her grave was there, the dirt still not covered over by grass. Close by, Marc and I noticed that a deceased son of Ed Brinley had a wife still living, Ilean Brinley. (Her birth date was engraved on a shared headstone with her husband, but there was no death date.) Marc made a mental note to try and contact her, to see if there were family stories about Bertha we hadn’t heard yet. Some days after I returned from Missouri, Marc emailed me with the news that Ilean had died on June 18th—the very day we had stood looking at her future headstone.

You may draw your own conclusions. I’m just the journalist reporting the facts as I discover them.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bertha Gifford's Wrath

On Saturday, June 20, I climbed aboard a big shiny red touring bus with Marc Houseman, historian, and twenty or so people who are just quirky enough to appreciate the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour (which, Marc would explain, really had no real element of mystery; we all knew who’d committed the crimes). Dan, our bus driver, headed out of Washington, Missouri, toward the small town of Pacific, and I noticed when we hit the highway (speed limit: 50mph, with cars zooming by at 60 & 65) that he was chugging along at 35mph. Oh dear. We had only so many hours to complete our tour, and at this rate, we’d never get to all the cemeteries. What made it worse was Dan’s seeming distracted attention—until I realized that he was taking his mind off his driving as he strained to hear what Marc was saying. I smiled. For some reason, everyone is fascinated by the story of Bertha Gifford.
As we tooled along then, at our snail’s pace, Marc explained where Bertha was born, how she came to live in Catawissa, Missouri—and how I fit into the picture. He also—shame on him, as it turned out later—told tales on her. How she used to (rumor has it—I’m just saying, Great-Grandma) hide inside her barn and peer out at the school children as they walked past each day, and how two sisters were offered candy by Bertha. One would die the next day, having taken the sweet. The other survived because she didn’t like candy.
Throughout the tour, we went from graveyard to graveyard, piling off the bus to view yet another headstone, another victim of Bertha’s. Marc would tell the tale of the individual, and he would include as much history about that person as he knew (which I believe honors the dead, no matter how they died).
Finally, at 2:30p.m., we headed for Morse Mill, our last stop on the tour, where we would see Bertha Gifford’s grave and the hotel that Bertha and her husband Gene once ran. We were right on schedule, and everything had gone smoothly. Until we were less than half a block from our destination. As we rolled around a corner on a narrow country road, tall trees bordering us on both sides, a man came running down the middle of the road toward us, waving his arms, indicating that he wanted Dan to stop. (What else could he do?) The man explained that there had just been an accident—a motorcycle had run head-on into a car. We could see the bike on its side in the road ahead.
“It just happened!” the man said breathlessly. “He just came out of our yard and headed down the road, and then we heard the crash! The troopers aren’t even here yet!”
So we waited. Mercifully, Dan left the A/C on, as it was in the 90’s outside. We waited while the state troopers arrived, while the ambulance came and the man—who was moving his limbs as they loaded him, thank heavens—was taken away, while the troopers slowly, lethargically, measured skid marks and proximities, while the tow truck finally came and removed the downed motorcycle. Finally, the road cleared, and off we went—by this time, quite late. We didn’t stop to look at the boardinghouse, as there wasn’t time. We simply rolled up the road to the cemetery, which is next to a busy highway, where Dan slowed… but couldn’t make the turn into the driveway. He continued down the highway, looking for a place to turn around. He found it, down a narrow side road, but just as he got the bus completely sidewise across the road, a small pick-up truck came barreling toward us from the opposite direction. It was going too fast to stop, we could all see that. We were all watching, helplessly, as the driver hit his brakes. I grabbed the partition in front of me, waiting for the impact, but still watching, wondering how the day would go once the truck collided with us. Then, at the last moment, the driver of the truck simply veered completely off the road, driving into a culvert and up across someone’s front lawn, where he came to a stop in the grass. Dan, unruffled, completed his turn as we began to breathe normally again, and headed back to the cemetery.
He still couldn’t make the narrow turn in, so he parked about a hundred yards away, in a parking lot. As we walked toward the graveyard, the sky darkened, the clouds thickening overhead. We gathered around Bertha’s grave, Marc began to speak, and I felt the first big drops. Marc spoke faster. Rain pattered on the broad leaves of the catalpa tree overhead. People scurried around, trying to snap photos of each other next to Bertha’s new headstone. And then it poured. There was no way not to get soaked as we walked (or ran) back to the bus. Drenched, looking like we’d all jumped in the pool with our clothes on, we climbed back onto the bus for our ride back to Washington.
“Hey,” someone pointed out, when we were a quarter mile down the road, “the pavement’s not even wet here.” Seems it only rained over the graveyard.
I’ll have a couple more posts about the trip over the next few days. I’m still trying to get caught up on laundry… and cuddle time with Sugs.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Jury List

While here in MO, I'm trying to keep my CA hours--which means, with the two-hour time difference, I'm going to bed at 10:00p.m. and getting up at 6:00a.m. Like real people. It's interesting.

I spent some time in the Pacific Coin Laundry this morning, writing in my journal while my unmentionables sloshed, then tumbled. It was good to get caught up on the writing. Then Marc picked me up and it was back to playtime again.

He took me out to two more cemeteries today and again told me stories of how the victims met their demise. "Oh!" he said at one point, stopping abruptly near a remote, rural driveway, "Do you want to meet the granddaughter of the woman who chased your great-grandmother off her property with a broom? If she's home, that is...." Turned out to be the wrong driveway--but there's a chance the woman will be going along with us tomorrow on the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour.

Marc bought me lunch again today (darn these Midwestern men and their chivalrous values!), and as we ate, we went slowly through his huge file on Bertha. He wanted to make sure that I had copies of everything he'd collected. I had most of it--except for the documents found at the courthouse in Union. Now, I've been to that courthouse twice; the first time was 15 years ago, the second time was six years ago just before I wrote Tainted Legacy. Both times I made a nuisance of myself asking folks for any and all documents. The second time I spoke to Bill Miller, the gentleman who is responsible for, among other duties at the courthouse, keeping the files of the court. Six years ago he insisted--despite my persistence--that nothing was available on Bertha Gifford. But though he acted like he knew of her crimes, it was evident that he was confusing her with someone else. At any rate, by the time Marc began sniffing around a couple years back, Bill had come up with page after page from the days of the trial, including expenses incurred by Bertha during her incarceration (for meals, etc.), various subpoenas, and a list of citizens called for jury duty, with names lined through of those who didn't make the cut. Marc also had the original comic books and detective magazines containing stories on Bertha, which he showed me. Now that was one great lunch.

We also went out to the House of Mystery in Catawissa today. I'd gotten permission from the owner, Bob Fiedler, to visit the farm, so I assured Marc we could get out and look around, which we did, boldly peeking in the windows. He mentioned something about expecting to see ghosts--my same reaction when I'd first walked through the house six years ago. A sad note here: the gorgeous steel span bridge over the Meramec River into Catawissa may be demolished soon. The county is considering replacing it, as it was erected in 1906. Wish I could post a photo here--and I will post one when I return. The bridge is close currently due to high water levels on the Meramec, so we got out and walked halfway out. It's a great piece of engineering, and I felt completely safe on it. But what do I know?

Another stop on today's guided tour: The funeral home where Bertha's funeral took place--with only one person in attendance, her husband Eugene. We didn't go inside, but it was amazing just to see the little place, formerly someone's home, gleaming white in the summer sun, just like it must have in 1951 when Gene said his final good-byes to the love of his life.

Tomorrow I will meet Marc in Washington, MO at the historical society's museum. Marc, myself, and a large (I hope!) group of individuals will climb onto a Greyhound bus for the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour. Can't wait!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On the Road with the Mortician

If you've read Tainted Legacy, you know that Marc Houseman is the historian in Missouri with whom I connected last summer. Marc has been more than gracious in helping me with the book and also sending me copies of documents concerning Bertha Gifford--including color copies of the comic book about her. (No, I'm not kidding.) Today Marc and I met in person for the first time.

What a day! From the first moment we met, we were clowning around like two kids playing hooky. To understand our enthusiasm, however, you have to understand that we both love cemeteries. Every person has a story, we believe, and dead people still tell their tales... through the voices of those who remember them. Marc picked me up at the hotel, then drove me from cemetery to cemetery, telling me stories about some of Bertha's victims... and some of my ancestors. In between, he threw in some pretty fascinating stories from his days as a mortician. But I can't, um, recount those here....

The highlight of the day, by far (after the incredible veggie lunch at the Gourmet Cafe), was the trip to Morse Mill to visit Bertha's grave. As soon as Marc pulled in, I could see the new headstone we'd ordered. If you've read TL, you know that one of my concerns was that, although Bertha's husband, Gene, put a down payment on a tombstone for her, he died before he paid the balance, and her grave has remained unmarked for the past 57 years--until two months ago, when the new stone was installed. It is there now, just beneath the big catawba tree, next to Gene's grave... and just behind Henry Graham, her first husband. (Life moves at a different pace in the midwest... especially back then... when you could be laid to rest in close proximity to the husband you'd murdered....)

I had dinner tonight with the Fiedlers (owners, now, of the House of Mystery, where Bertha lived) at a restaurant in town. It was great to see them again, and they were very gracious in their encouragement about the book. Once again, we spent a long time immersed in conversation about Bertha and the impact her actions had on so many people, so many families. Tim Fiedler mentioned something that I had in fact brought up to Marc earlier in the day, and that is that as young folks, we're not much interested in our family histories, because we haven't created our own histories yet. Later, in our 40's and 50's, perhaps, we start to reflect on life, on its brevity, on our place in this world as a larger whole. And we start to look back instead of forward. And that's when we make profound discoveries. I believe our histories shape us--for better or for worse. The individuals we are today were formed, in part, by the decisions our ancestors made. It's inescapable. When we study the grandparents, we understand more fully our own identities. It's not always pretty what we find... but their lives, in one way or another, are an integral part of our own.

The rain predicted for today never came. Hopefully, the good weather will hold until Saturday; that's when the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour will take place. Can't wait!!

Road Signs

Tuesday night, after driving, with few stops, for nearly twelve hours, I pulled off Hwy 40 at McLean, Texas and quickly found the Cactus Inn, a roadside motel I'd found on the internet. I'd made reservations the week before over the phone with Gordon, the 81-year-old proprietor. When I arrived on Tuesday evening, he and his wife Jane were sitting out on the patio in front of the office.
"Mind if I don't get up?" Gordon joked as I walked up.
"Not at all," I said, and took a seat with them. I was tired, and I just wanted a shower, but I've learned in the past decade that these moments with real people are where the real stories are. It only took a few minutes before we were trading stories, and they told me of Alfred Rowe, the Englishman who'd bought 10,000 acres "just over the hill" as the 1900's opened. He established a cattle ranch, then went back to England to return with his bride--who hated it there. Women. Sheesh. So they both returned to England. Once a year, Alfred would make the trip by boat, then train, then buckboard, back to McLean to check on his ranch.
"Sometimes," Gordon claimed, "he'd only stay one day. Then he'd turn around and head back to England."

When I left on Wednesday morning, I gave Jane and Gordon a copy of Tainted Legacy with my email address inside. I wonder what they'll think of that story....

You know you're in Oklahoma when you see a dead porcupine on the side of the road, pass an exit off the intersate for "Garth Brooks Blvd.", and, when you ask for provolone on your Subway veggie sandwich, the young man says, "We don't get provolone out here, Ma'am."

And you know you're in Missouri when you can actually see the moisture in the air ahead of you down a long stretch of road. When I arrived in Pacific last night, the humidity was 71%, and a tornado watch had just been issued. Rain is forecast for today. Just the kind of weather one needs for visiting cemeteries....

Monday, June 15, 2009

Day One is... ginkered....

I left CA a couple hours late yesterday--and was just enjoying the drive, listening to Riverhorse by William Least Heat Moon on tape. Once I entered Arizona on Hwy 40, I slowed down, my eyes searching for elk alongside the road. Bingo--two large elk, full racks and all, were grazing about fifty yards off the highway... as everyone barreled by at 80mph. It was all great... until I got lost in Sedona (has anyone seen the construction through the middle of town?!?) and called Willma Gore's number (I'm staying with her) repeatedly until some nice lady returned one of my messages and said, "Honey, you've been calling this number all day, and I'm not Willma." By the time I got the directions straightened out and found Willma's, I was hungry, tired and not a little stressed. But I had homemade vegetarian soup made my Willma's friend, Jean, then hit my cot to sleep for 8 hours.

This morning, Willma hosted a gathering of her writer friends, and I got to blab on and on about writing Tainted Legacy. I sold books, made friends, and heard great stories. To celebrate, I walked across the street and, in 20 minutes, augmented my poor writer's wardrobe at one of the outlet stores. (Ladies, you have no idea how much more affordable clothes are in AZ!) So it has been a good day... and I'm trying to look forward to a beautiful drive up Oak Creek Canyon at dawn tomorrow morning... instead of missing my cat, my 'coonie, and my kids (not necessarily in that order).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sing me to heaven

“You can lie to a child with a smilin’ face,
Tell me that color ain’t about race,
You can cast the first stone,
You can break my bones,
But you’re never gonna break,
Never gonna break my faith.”

This morning found me dancing up the middle of Mt Baldy Road to Aretha Franklin singing “Never Gonna Break My Faith.” (Good thing it was 5:00a.m. and the road was veiled in fog.) There has been much sadness in my life in recent weeks—the death of a friend, the death of my cat, the terminal illness of my brother…. Still… I find that I can sing. My voice as an instrument, as an expression, is a gift, and one I have not stopped being mindful of. So imagine me, as I roll along in my little black truck along Highway 40 today, on my way to embrace an old friend in Arizona, singing along with Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, John Fogerty, Leonard Cohen, and yes, definitely, the world’s most beautiful diva, Aretha. The sadness will still be there behind the music, but hope will keep on floating to the top.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Countdown to Missouri

The benefit to walking at dawn is in what I see—this morning a huge moon hanging just above two tall pines—gorgeous—and what I can do…. If it’s early enough on a week day and there are no hikers up by the falls, I can dance, which I did this morning, first to Pat Benetar’s “We Belong” and then to Bob Bennett’s “Madness Dancing,” both courtesy of my iPod. And on the way home, downhill, I can sing along—as long as Rob’s not home. And, since I rarely encounter humans at that hour on the week days, I have more wildlife interaction… and I tend to think more….

Summers mean returning to my craft full time. Six summers ago—hard to believe now—I wrote a memoir, Tainted Legacy, which chronicled the strange journey I embarked on when I accepted a request from my mother to find out the truth about her grandmother. From the time the manuscript was completed in August of that summer, I began to look for a publisher. No one was interested. For the next five summers following, in the first week after school let out, I would Google “Bertha Gifford,” to see if anyone was writing about her. No one was. Last summer, though, my Google search led me to a historian in Missouri who had actually been giving lectures about her. I sent him a terse email: “If you’re going to be giving lectures about my great-grandmother, you’d better have all your facts straight.” We exchanged a few short emails in which we verified each other’s authenticity, and then he sent me this:

Two things I have to tell you to get them off my chest. One, I’m just thrilled to be corresponding with Bertha Gifford’s great-granddaughter. Secondly, although you’ve been kind enough to not challenge my presentations, I do not use Mrs. Gifford’s name in ‘vain’ nor do I show her any disrespect. I merely present the facts as they have been stated through the years and let the audience decide for themselves whether or not Mrs. Gifford was a “monster” or truly insane. In fact I normally refer to her as Mrs. Gifford and not by the too-familiar “Bertha”. I just wanted to tell you that in case you thought I might be a jerk!

Not only is Marc not a “jerk,” he’s an amazing man who appreciates personal history—and cemeteries—as much as I do. That email set off a flurry of emails over the ensuing weeks. We exchanged every bit of information we’d each gathered separately about Bertha. Finally, I emailed him a copy of the manuscript I’d written five years before. He loved it. And his validation—and the gentle nudging of my cousin Danny—encouraged me to send it out one more time. This time, I found a publisher.

Hard to believe a year has gone by. Last summer, I thought I would be spending most of my time sitting on the porch, finishing the novel I’d begun the summer before. I ended up marketing my book and making a friend for life. Next week, I’ll meet Marc in person for the first time when I return to Missouri to promote Tainted Legacy. This crazy sweet man has chartered a bus for the “Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour”—but that’s a story for another blog. Can’t wait.

Monday, June 8, 2009

And so it begins....

How different it was to walk the loop this morning in the daylight of 8:30a.m. instead of the half-light of 5:00a.m. It's my first day of summer break (still hasn't sunk in yet--too much on my mind), and while I didn't sleep in (stepping outside at 4:30a.m. as always, to look up at the stars), I decided to do a half hour of yoga, then catch up on some writing before heading out to walk.

As I strolled through the campground, a young ground squirrel stopped to chat. I had to explain to him that his species is the most shy of the squirrels & chipmunks, and that he needs to scurry away when he sees or hears people. But he just flicked his tail in a pretty insolent manner and continued looking for fallen seeds.

All the babies are out now (except the raccoonies). I stopped by the natural spring on Falls Road and watched a young tanager sipping some water. The juvenile raccoons from last summer's batch of younguns still stop by in the early morning hours sometimes, looking for treats. At this point, they still wrestle and play on the back deck, knocking over the water dish I leave out for everyone and trying to climb the step-ladder that's out there. It's leaning on a wall near a kitchen window, and on that window are two perfect 'coonie prints. Mm hmm. Naughty. Later this afternoon, their mom will come by. When it's warm (which it has not been up here this week), she and I sit outside and talk about how exhausting it is to raise babies. She has a new passel of younguns now (indicated by certain tell-tale signs on her anatomy), and she'll be bringing them 'round in August I'm sure. When that happens, she'll chase all of last year's brood away. Such is the cycle of life....

Outside my kitchen window now is a hanging 'cage' feeder containing two seed cakes. The acorn woodpeckers (not like "Woody"--think of small penguins wearing bright red yarmulkes) love to hang on it and peck away at the big seeds, causing the smaller millet seeds to loosen and fall to the ground below--where beautiful 'pink' doves strut around, pecking them up. These are my little divas. They don't have to work; they just wait for the sugar-daddy woodpeckers to knock their breakfast, lunch and dinner down for them. That's the life I should be living....

In some sense, I will be for the next ten weeks. I don't have to go to work (which, by the way, even after 18 years of teaching, still doesn't seem like "work" to me). I can go have adventures... which, I assure you, will be posted here.