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!!

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