Thursday, June 30, 2011

Missing Mizzou

Photo by Ginger Collins-Justus

One week ago I landed in St. Louis at 4:30p.m. and by 8:00p.m. I was standing in a small family cemetery in Robertsville, watching lightning bugs dance just above the recently mown grass and listening to Marc Houseman tell me the tragic tale of the Finney family. People in California often chuckle when I tell them that I spend a great deal of my time while visiting Missouri just wandering around old graveyards. Mostly, they think I’m kidding. I understand why; most of our graveyards here are simply expansive acres of grass, with perhaps a tree planted here or there. We have little of the sense of place and history that folks in the mid-west, who’ve often lived their entire lives in the same town, do. I still remember my first visit to Missouri, driving down the highway with my mother in a small rental car and seeing a ‘real’ cemetery with above ground monuments. I pulled over, jumped out, and ran to look at headstones, snapping pictures right and left. There were birth and death dates in the 1800’s. Imagine that! Mom remained in the car, nonplussed at the diversion from our course. There was nothing novel there for her, having been raised on a farm in Missouri. But I could have spent hours just reading the names and epitaphs on the headstones, immersed in the imagined history of the deceased.

When I travel to cemeteries with Marc, I often don’t have to imagine the history; he is a walking directory of “Here lies…” information, and can often tell me what the person did for a living, what family members are still in the community, and other details which honor the life of the departed. On this trip, I also had the privilege of wandering through several cemeteries and a mausoleum with Ginger Justus, who is working on, among other projects, the restoration of the Oak Grove Mausoleum in St. Louis. Like Marc, Ginger is devoted to the preservation of the history and beauty connected to places of burial, and she, too, is a fount of information. It is her photo that graces the top of my blog today.

On this trip to MO, I also met Betty Green, a fan of Tainted Legacy and a woman with a contagiously youthful spirit and vigor. Betty lives in Catawissa, the small town where my great-grandmother lived, back in the country by the Meramec River, where cardinals and other birds exotic to California flit around her outdoor feeders. Betty was gracious enough to invite me for a visit, and I had a great time chatting with her and her husband, Jim, who is an actual veteran of the Battle of the Bulge (and co-author of a book about it).

And I met Cody Jones, a young man who has grown up not with privileges but with courage. His story was inspiring. (He told it to me, in a self-effacing way, as we enjoyed pizza together at the Pizza Hut in Pacific.) Cody and I share a similar connection in that we are both still hopeful that “the right one” will come along someday, and I asked permission to adopt Cody’s mantra of “I’d rather be alone than wish that I were.” Amen, my young friend, amen.

I also had lunch with Brenda Wiesehan and toured the Pacific Plaza Antique Mall where she works. She has arranged to carry copies of Tainted Legacy in the store, so there will be an outlet in Pacific for them on a regular basis.

On my last night in Missouri, I spoke about Bertha Gifford at the Scenic Regional Library in Union. A great and gracious crowd gathered. One gentleman was kind enough to mention that his grandfather had worked for the Giffords at one time and ate many a meal at their table—and lived a long and healthy life, apparently. Another woman spoke up to say proudly that her father had been on the grand jury which indicted my great-grandmother. Amazing….

In our frenetic lifestyles here in Cali, we tend to overlook the fact that there are stories everywhere. Returning to Missouri every year gives me the opportunity to slow down—way down—and simply listen to some of them… or imagine them from the spare lines on tombstones.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

First day of summer

School ended on the 9th of June, and last week was my first official week of summer vacation. While friends began to post on Facebook about taking their kids or grandkids to Disneyland or about having fun on shopping excursions, I looked forward to taking long walks in the woods. Here are a few highlights from last week:

Hike #1
On my first day of break, I indulged in a third cup of Irish Breakfast tea, spent some time attending to my email inbox, then headed down to the village to drop off trash, recycling and mail. Afterward, I headed up Glendora Ridge Road, rolling along slowly in the truck, looking for water bottles cast off in the recent Tour of California bike race (not because I’m a groupie, but to make sure they made it into the recycle bin). I saw a fire road tucked way back in the hills, so I parked the truck and started walking. The path was lined with patches of lupine and other flowers, so as I walked, I breathed in the wild scent and listened to chickadees, tanagers, jays, wrens and nuthatches. On the way back, I heard a commotion in the foliage next to the road, so I stopped and waited. A young buck emerged and seemed surprised to see me. When I said hello, he trotted down the trail in front of me, eventually going over the side and down into the canyon below. Driving back, I swerved to avoid a rock in the middle of the road that looked just like a bird. In my rearview mirror, I saw it move. I stopped, leaving the truck in the middle of the road with the emergency flashers on, and walked back. A baby bluebird was standing on the asphalt, looking very confused. When I put my hands down to him, he stepped onto my finger. Slowly and carefully, I walked to the side of the highway, found a shady place in the chaparral, and set him down. Moments later as I got back in the truck, a sports car came flying up the road from the opposite direction. The tiny bird would certainly have been killed if it had remained where it was. This was another magical opportunity for me, one I do not take lightly (thank you, Universe), and one that is afforded by having the time to move slowly and quietly.

Hike #2
The next day I invited my buddy Doug to join me on an evening hike to Sunset Peak. I knew the moon would be rising about sunset and that it would be nearly full. We met at the trailhead at 5:00p.m. and began a leisurely walk up the trail. “Maybe we’ll see a deer,” I told him. Two miles later we did. A doe stood on the path about fifty yards ahead of us. We watched her for a moment, then she dropped over the side into the canyon. Cool. A mile further on, we stopped to watch a family of mountain quail. After two hours, we reached the summit. From the top, we could see fifty miles to the south. To the west we could see the rest of the San Gabriels stretching toward L.A., with the day’s misty marine layer settled in between the purple peaks. As the sun dropped below the ridges in a gorgeous display of orange and red, the moon rose to the east, so we could watch one show for awhile, then simply turn 180 degrees and watch the other. When the light was nearly faded, we began our walk down. By the time we reached the highway, we no longer needed our headlamps; the moonlight was bright enough to light the way. I enjoyed the deepest of sleeps that night.

Hike #3
My cabin sits a hundred or so feet back from the edge of a canyon. At the apex of that canyon is a steep waterfall. One of my favorite hikes involves climbing down into the canyon and following the stream up to the falls. On Thursday, I did just that, for the first time since last fall. In December we had five days of continuous rainfall which gorged the streams and, in the case of our canyon, actually changed the course of the water’s flow since so much debris tumbled down so quickly. The rushing water also gouged out deeper pools along the streambed, so walking up meant either finding ways to climb around them or simply wading through them. The water percolates from melting ice and snow inside the mountain, so it’s pretty cold, but on a hot spring day, it’s delicious when a hand or foot or leg goes into the water. At one point, a rock dislodged as I stepped down on it, and I tumbled into one of the deeper pools, getting wet all the way up to my pockets. I wasn’t hurt, other than a bruise on my hip, and later my Facebook status read: “I don’t mind falling. It’s landing that tends to erase the thrill of the event.” Still, it was a great hike, and I did it again yesterday, this time managing to negotiate the stream all the way to the falls without once falling. Of course, once I reach the waterfall, I like to take off my cap, hold it under the falling water until it’s soaked, then put it back on.

In two days, I’ll be heading to Missouri to visit much-missed friends, meet new cousins, and speak at the library in Union about my great-grandmother (who is infamous in the area, thus affording me mini-rock star status while I’m there). My walks while there will consist of heading up the hill from the hotel to the graveyards beyond. But I’ll be looking forward to many more trail adventures when I return. In the meantime, I fall asleep now at dusk listening to western tanagers singing high overhead in the treetops, awake to the same music every morning.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A picture of Bertha Gifford

On Wednesday after work I did a slow and leisurely hike up Bear Canyon. We’ve been on minimum day schedule this week at school due to final exams, so I was able to hit the trail by 2:00p.m. I moseyed along, watching for snakes… and didn’t see one until a juvenile rattler lethargically slid off the trail just before I reached Bear Flat, my destination. In the pine-scented meadow, I sat on a large boulder in the warm sun, ate some grapes, strawberries and pumpernickel pretzels, and wrote in my journal.

The program, Ghost Hunters, will do a segment on the Morse Mill hotel this summer. If you are unfamiliar, some, er, paranormal investigators will walk through the hotel at night with electronic equipment and be filmed as they do so. At some point, someone in the group will exclaim, “DID YOU SEE THAT?” or “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” I know. I’ve watched the program many times. I have no issue with what they do (while I do question their methods—Really? Ghosts only appear in dark time? What are they afraid of, exactly?). But it does bother me on a personal level that this mythology of Bertha haunting the hotel persists. Of course, the mythology is perpetuated by the owner of the hotel—because now he’s charging fifty bucks a person for ‘paranormal tours’ every weekend, claiming that Bertha murdered many people there.

The truth is (in case anyone rational is listening), Bertha Gifford ran the hotel for awhile before she was Bertha Gifford, when she was married to Henry Graham… and long before she was ever accused of poisoning anyone. Bertha Gifford, in 1928, was charged with giving arsenic to two people. One charge was later dropped for lack of evidence, and she was tried for the murder of Ed Brinley. At her grand jury hearing, folks came forward and said she may have given arsenic to others. None of those claims were ever substantiated. And by then, Bertha had long since moved away from Morse Mill. So connecting her with hauntings at the hotel is ludicrous. Oh, I’m not saying there aren’t ghosts there. I’m sure there are, in one form or another…. But they have nothing to do with my great-grandmother.

In advance of shooting the show, the producers of Ghost Hunters or one of the cast will interview historian (and my close friend) Marc Houseman on Tuesday. Would love to be in MO for that. As it turns out, I’ll be there a week later. The producers had no interest in postponing the interview for a week so that they could speak with me. Of course not. I would just spoil everything, wouldn’t I?

In the meantime, apparently folks are still trying to find a picture of Bertha. This blog has seen dozens of hits in recent days from people who are finding it through a Google image search for Bertha Gifford. Thus my subject line. Fooled ya! Ha!

One of the many lessons I’ve learned from living on the mountain is that you always need to watch where you tread, as a snake may appear in your path unexpectedly….

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Back to the dog book

After spending last week reporting on the Tour of California, I am back to working on the dog book this week… which means I have gone from the highs of daily race coverage to the dark forest of some pretty intense emotion. Wordsworth said that poetry springs from a place of deep feeling recollected in tranquility. My time working on this next memoir can be characterized as anything but tranquil.

I talked about writing the book for over a year before I finally had the courage to begin. I have mentioned already that I was quite cavalier in my planning. What could be difficult? I’d be writing about some of the best dogs that have blessed my life. But in writing about Ruf, I had to recount some pretty awful times with my (now deceased) wicked step-father. And in writing about Sapo, I had to write about my first marriage. Oof.

Monday, while most of my neighbors were out enjoying the gorgeous sunshine on Memorial Day, I was inside at the keyboard, trying to finish a section of the dog book. Writing… and crying. This is how it’s been through most of the book. When I think about it, this is how it was while I was writing Tainted Legacy. I sat at the computer, allowed myself to channel, in a sense, the emotional suffering of all the players back when my great-grandmother was stirring up trouble in a small Missouri town, and I wrote… sometimes for hours… and cried.

This time the pain is deeper… closer… as I’m writing about my own life, my own wounds. To write this book well means to re-visit those times in my life when all I had to cling to was a tiny ray of hope and a great big dog.

The dog I wrote about on Monday was Mosie, a Doberman pinscher who came into my life for a short period during a very tumultuous time. Writing about what happened to her as a result of my former husband’s idiocy brought back all the anger from that time—and maybe cooked it up to a hotter degree, given what I know now about good animals and stupid humans.

One of the blessings of being here on this mountain is the ability to walk out my cabin door and up to the waterfall whenever I am so overcome with anger that I can’t function any more. I did that, finally, when The Universe was practically hollering in my ear, ‘Step away from the keyboard. Now. And get you to a tranquil place.’ I walked along the canyon rim, listened to the stream below, patted the trees as I passed them, and thought about all my good dogs.

When I came down the trail at the base of the falls, I looked up to see a big black dog—a Doberman pinscher—a young, beautiful female like Mosie had been—just standing there in the water. I’ve seen a lot of dogs up here—pitbulls, shepherds, labs, retrievers and every kind of mix you can think of, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a purebred dobie. It crossed my mind to ask her person—seated comfortably on a large boulder above the stream—if I could pet her. But I didn’t. I just stood and watched her for awhile.

The experience was haunting, as if in writing about Mosie, I had conjured this apparition. And it was validating. This book has been difficult to write, and I have had to take up arms against my own self-doubt every time I sit down to write again. But it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I knew that for certain as soon as I saw her.