My Morning, or How to Rescue Baby Birds by Really, Really Trying

Some people are morning people. Me, not so much. Mostly because mornings have a habit of bringing you Really Weird Things.

Since I live on a farm, very much in the country, I never quite know what to expect. In the past, mornings have brought me stray greyhounds, a porcupine in the barn (one really memorable morning, I found said greyhound sporting more than 300 porcupine quills.), injured horses, and one morning, a baby possum on the porch (which my black Lab had brought for me. He was quite pleased with his gift. He’s also brought me live armadillos. Those, I made him put back.).

Today’s escapade was like that.

baby birdsFor the past few weeks, a pair of blue jays have been jealously defending their nest against all comers. The nest is very high – about 60 feet up the tallest tree in the yard – but boy, do they think the cats are out to get them! I haven’t the heart to try to explain to them that my cats are lazy, and they suck at climbing trees. But I’ve been dreading the day when the babies try to leave the nest. Because the cats will be interested in them then.

This morning, when I went out for my walk, I was greeted by two tiny balls of blue-gray fluff with beady black eyes and wide-open mouths. Somehow, in the night, two babies, not quite fledglings, had fallen out of the nest. They were sitting in the grass in the middle of the yard, waiting for me, apparently.

They stared at me. I stared at them.

First, the fact that they survived the fall was a total miracle. Second, the fact that my two barn cats hadn’t found them yet was a miracle. Third, the fact that I’d chosen to go for a walk this morning, instead of letting the other seven barn cats out of their crates first, was a miracle. (YES, my barn cats sleep in large crates at night, with litter boxes, food, water, and blankets to sleep on. Sue me.)

I looked away. Looked back. Still there. Staring at me. Mouths open. Eyes beady. Waiting.

baby birds basketA normal person would say, okay. Nest in tree. Replace birds in nest. Easy. But remember, the nest is about 60′ in the air.  I cannot climb that high. If my life depended on it, I’d be dead. So . . . I had to go to plan B.

The most important thing was to get them off the ground. So I cam up with the bright idea of getting a basket, using hay to make a nest in it, and putting the babies in that.

They stared at me. I stared back.

Then, I got a dog leash and secured it to the basket handles. I had a 30-foot lunge line (used for exercising and training horses), and the idea was to toss one end over a branch, secure it to the basket, and then hoist the basket in the air.

Okay. If you’ve never tried to do this, don’t. Hollywood makes it look easy. Hollywood also makes it look easy to drive 200mph in a stolen Lamborghini, and knock someone out with one punch. Hollywood sucks.

I would need a ladder.

I HATE LADDERS. They are all sentient beings, with one goal and one goal only:  to kill as many humans as possible. But I leaned it against the tree and climbed as I high as I could make myself, which was enough to be able to toss the end of the line over the branch and feed it over, until I could reach the end from the ground. Then, I was able to clip the line to the dog leash, hoist the basket in the air, and secure the other end to one of my vintage lawn chairs.

I do not recommend this if you are tired, hot, out of shape, and also fending off 9 curious cats, one of whom REALLY wants to play with the lunge line (but could care less about what’s in the basket). Seriously, though, you can return baby birds to the nest; birds don’t have a good sense of smell. And apparently, even if only one or two babies fall out of the nest, if you fix a new one for them in the vicinity of the real nest, the mothers may take care of both nests. Who knew?

So that’s my morning. Sadly, that’s not even a really odd morning. Par for the course, really. Right up there with watching a skunk eat the dead bugs under the yard light.

I’m happy to report that this evening, the babies are fat, healthy, sleeping, and Mum and Dad Blue Jay are taking care of them. I’m hoping they are able to continue until they are ready to leave the makeshift nest.


Here are some good guidelines for dealing with baby birds that have fallen out of nests:


The other day, I found myself at Walmart, staring with a feeling of growing panic at the rows of motor oil.

Yes. I said motor oil. Apparently Minis use a lot of oil. And if I screwed up and bought the wrong kind, I could kiss my engine goodbye. And since I’ve already replaced about half the engine components, I didn’t really want to do that.

I’ve wanted a Mini since 2002. Seriously, who DOESN’T? So freaking cute! Those little bug-eyed headlights, the grill that’s a perpetual grin, the adorable side mirrors that look like Shrek ears . . .

Oh yes. I was smitten. And I knew exactly what I wanted – Oxford White, black top, black side mirrors. I wanted the tan leather interior. I wanted the ‘flappy paddle gearbox.’ No reason. Just did. It sounded cool. Actually, that wasn’t what I wanted at first. The first Mini I fell in love with was this cute 2005 base model, with the black and tan interior. She was gold and white. I. Loved. Her. Still do. Named her Penny. Test drove her twice. Then she got totaled in a hail storm and the dealership shipped her off to the junkyard.

Then last spring – almost a year ago – my beloved Saturn L200 died at 351,000 miles. I cried. I was in class when I got the call. I cried anyway. Then I spent the next five months searching for Exactly The Right Car. I wanted a Mini. If I absolutely had to buy a new car, it was going to be my dream car.

Ever notice how dreams so often turn into nightmares?

miniIt was August and I was still driving my dad’s spare truck when I finally saw Tally. She was three hours away. A 2009 Clubman, tan interior, the S model. Dual exhaust. I test drove her. I loved her. I was desperate and lonely and I fell in love and I didn’t care what her past was or what she might have done before I met her. It didn’t matter, I told myself as I signed the check. Tally was mine. MINE!!!!!

On the way home, the radio started to act funny. I thought it was odd that I couldn’t seem to tune it, but I figured I just didn’t understand it. I’d figure it out later.

A week later, it rained. Inside the car.

Yup. I opened the door to see water all over my dash, and the center console. Dripping down the front of the radio. Pooling in the cup holders. Apparently, whoever had replaced the windshield had never actually glued it to the car. So when it leaked, it took out the speedometer/radio component and my remote keyless sensor.

That’s when I met Marcus. He is – was, today was his last day – my Mini guy. Without Marcus, I could not have afforded Tally all these months. Marcus informed me that the windscreen had been leaking for quite some time, and that the radio/speedometer would cost about $2,000 to replace. I decided that I could live without the radio, and I could live without locking the car (another $900), and I could live without knowing quite how fast I was going.

A week later, she started to overheat.

That was the entire cooling system. She did make it most of the way to Wichita before going into the red. As I recall, we replaced the water pump, thermostat and housing, the water pipe, and something else really expensive. She was there for nearly two weeks.

A week after that, in the drive-through one morning, I hit the switch to roll down the window.


I hit it again. Nothing. Then for some reason, I pushed it up – and the passenger side window went down all the way. And stayed there. Eventually, after a great deal of hitting switches, both windows rolled down and stayed there. Back we went to Marcus, who diagnosed a bad computer module (it couldn’t be a simple computer module. NO. No. This was the Mother of All Computer Modules, the one that controls ALL the interior switches.). Replaced. All good. While there, I had the brakes done because, well, they were metal-on-metal by that point.

All seemed good. Then, in December, we had a cold snap. Flurries. Wind chills in the teens. That’s when I got the bright idea to roll the windows down. They stayed down. All day. By the time I got off work, the temperature was about 21, with a wind chill of 14, and it was starting to snow.

Now by this time, you might be asking yourself, why not just put a sheet of plastic or a blanket over the door frame and at least block the wind? That’s an absolutely brilliant idea. Except Minis haven’t got door frames.

So I drove home nine miles like that. Windows down. Overcoat buttoned to my chin. A wool blanket over my legs and a scarf tied over my head like some 1950s starlet. News flash:  that does not help when there’s a 14-degree wind chill. Every single person I passed on the highway just stared at me. Then I had to cover the car with horse blankets and stick it in the barn to keep the snow out of it.

I live in fear of the next thing going wrong. Actually, that fear came true last night when the Check Engine light came on. She’s at the dealership now, even as I type, with the latest loaner car in my driveway instead. At least I get nice loaner cars.

So if you, too, have been bitten by the Mini bug, here are some tips:

1.) Buy your own flatbed tow truck. You’ll save a LOAD of money. Believe me.

2.) As with horses, it’s not about how much it costs; it’s about how much it costs to maintain. I’d advise having at least $15,000 on hand for repairs. That should get you through the first year.

3.) The more parts you have, the more parts you have to break. Forget the S model. Yes, that turbo is FUN, and I LOVE when big-ass truck idiots idle next to me and rev their engines, and then I waste them off the line. But. Remember that ‘flappy paddle gearbox’ I just had to have? I’ve never actually used it. Why? Because I’m convinced that if I do, I’ll break the transmission.

4.) In all seriousness, never buy a Mini from a used car dealership. No matter how freaking cute it is. Only buy from a Mini/BMW dealership. Will it cost more? Yes. Will you save money in the long run? Quite possibly.

5.) Never ask how much a part is. Just hand over the credit card. Never look at your balance. Just assume that whatever the part is, it would cost less to buy a black-market SCUD missile and use it on your Mini.

6.) Enjoy all those times someone says “OMG it’s so CUTE! Is that a Mini? I love it!” Cherish them. Remember them as you’re limping along at 45 on the highway one day with your Check Engine light on, praying the car makes it to the dealership before catastrophic engine failure occurs.

7.) In fact, just consider buying a house a block or so away from the dealership. You’ll save money in the long run.

8.) Also, in all seriousness, remember that Minis do need premium gas to run right, and they DO burn oil. Even new ones. It’s just their nature.

I love my Mini, I really do. She’s great for hauling everything (and I mean everything – she’s a true British estate car). She’s fun and sporty. She’s damn cute.

But as I stood there in that Walmart, frantically searching for the right kind of oil, I had to ask myself – was it worth it?

Maybe some dreams should just stay dreams.


So you want to start an Etsy store, eh?

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Open an Etsy shop. Watch the money roll in.


I’m approaching my fourth anniversary on Etsy with my shop, CatNip Collectibles ( I sell vintage accessories – hats, gloves, scarves, jewelry, and men’s accessories like tie clips and cuff links, mostly. And it’s a lot of fun.

But it’s also a lot of work.

Every year, thousands of people start shops on Etsy, and every year, thousands of shops shut their doors – some without ever selling a single thing. Most of them come to the Etsy forums asking the Same Exact Questions Time After Time. So I thought I’d put a few things together as a bit of a FAQ for Etsy.

1.) How does Etsy differ from eBay? I’ve sold on both venues. Etsy is often described as a large mall of individual shops, owned by individuals across the world. Items are offered at a fixed price, no auctions. Currently, there are over 1 million shops on Etsy. eBay, on the other hand, is an online auction site where you can sell almost everything except live animals and your excess liver tissue.

2.) What can I sell? You can sell anything handmade and anything vintage. Vintage is over 20 years old. That means you cannot clean out your closet and sell off last year’s stuff. Put that on eBay instead. Here’s a link to the Etsy Seller Handbook:  (There are restrictions on certain things, and Etsy will remove items deemed to go against their rules.)

3.) When can I expect my first sale? Depends. I sold my first item within the first 30 days of operation. I sold two more in April, 3 in May, 1 in June, 4 in July . . . get it? It takes a lot of time to become a trusted seller. It was October before I had 10 sales in a month. It takes a lot of time to get the right feedback, to create your brand and ‘look’, and to get your inventory listed. There are some people on Etsy who’ve been open for a year without a single sale. There’s a rule of thumb, though:  the more items you have in your shop, the more likely it is you’ll be found. Many claim 100 items is the ‘magic threshold.’ (And OMG, please, please, read up on SEO before you start posting!)

4.) I want to make things of fabric. Can I use anything? NO. NO, NO, NO, NO. I know what you want to do. You want to make cute little things out of all that Disney-themed fabric you see at Walmart, don’t you? You think it’ll sell like hotcakes. YOU CAN’T. Disney has all their stuff trademarked. You can’t make a profit off their images and designs. The same thing if you try to hand-paint anything with a Disney image – they’ll nail you for infringement. They’ll send a cease and desist order to Etsy, who will shut you down. They might even sue you. Just don’t do it.

5.) Wait. What’s infringement? Infringement is when you take someone else’s stuff and try to make a profit on it. That’s not the technical, legal definition, but that’s basically it. You can’t use ANY trademarked logos, images, or names. That goes for all professional sports teams, Disney, Marvel, Warner Brothers, anything movie-related, etc. The only exception is if you’re selling a legitimate item and it’s vintage (for example, a vintage movie poster). So you can’t embroider Micky Mouse on a shirt and sell it. You’d have to get a license from Disney first.

5.1) So how do I know what’s trademarked? Good question! Here’s a link to the US Patent Office’s website, with a search engine just for trademarks – And here’s the link to the US Copyright Office: Keep in mind that even certain terms, like ‘fairy dust,’ are trademarked now . . . so is ‘onesie’ and a host of others.

6.) But everyone else is doing it! So what? Are you a lemming? Just. Don’t. Unless you’re ready for a massive lawsuit from the parent company.

7.) So . . . then what CAN I do? You can produce  your own artwork and designs, your own photography, your own purses, handbags – the sky’s the limit! Just be sure it’s YOURS.

hat-88.) Hmm. Well, that vintage thing sounds good. How easy is it to sell vintage? If you’re asking that, just go away. Seriously. Selling vintage is bloody hard work. You have to love vintage. Adore it. Live with it every single day of your life. You need to be able to tell, within a few seconds, if something is vintage or a knock-off. You need to be able to accurately describe not only the item, the maker, the colors and materials, but all flaws in the items you’re selling. Can you tell I sell vintage? It’s also difficult to store properly – right now, my bedroom is stuffed full of plastic storage tubs full of vintage hats. Ideal? No. But you can’t store vintage outside. It needs to be in climate-controlled areas. You also have to be willing to do the research –  A LOT OF RESEARCH. For instance, do you know what style hat this is – and what era it’s from? I do.

9.) How much money can I make? Depends. How much work do you want to put into your shop? There certainly are people who make a good living from their Etsy shops. There are many more of us who have it as a ‘side gig’ – we make a few hundred a month. There are many, many more who maybe have one sale every six months. It also depends on your overhead and how much your items sell for.

10.) How do I get started? Easy. The best thing to do before you ever start a shop is visit the Etsy forums ( and read the Seller Handbook. Decide if this is really right for you. It takes time to photograph and list items. It takes time to promote on social media. You need to develop a shop name and a brand. This is just like starting any other business – it is a business. Look at other shops doing what you want to do and see 1.) how many there are, 2.) how many sales they have, and 3.) how well their items are made. Had I looked at how many vintage shops there were before I started, I might not have! But there are shops that specialize in just one thing, too – glassware, handmade jewelry, vintage movie posters. Find your niche. Then, you’ll just sign up to become an Etsy member, click on the little “open shop” icon, and get started.

I don’t want to sound crabby and bitchy, but the fact is, this isn’t something to undertake lightly. So many people come on the Etsy forums with the same questions, usually about “I opened my shop last week and no sales! Why?!” I hope some of this might answer a few of your questions, and that the links prove useful.

If you do decide to go for it, good luck! 🙂


An Open Letter to Estate Sales

I’m sorry, but I have to take a slight detour this week, away from writing and editing, and into my other passion – vintage items. Specifically, estate sales and rummage sales and what not to freaking do to your vintage items!!!! So this is an open letter to anyone who organizes and runs estate sales especially.

Estate Sales:

I’m at your sale for two reasons:  because I love a good bargain and the thrill of the hunt, and to find items for my personal collections and for my vintage shop.

I don’t care how poorly organized everything is. In fact, the less organized, the more fun it is for me. I love to dig and rummage through boxes of crap to find the one good thing in the bottom. And for once, I’m not being sarcastic.

But poorly organized is one thing:  poorly run is another. If you want me to patronize your sales, please take note:

  • Never, ever put masking tape on velvet or any other fabric. Never, ever put any sort of adhesive on any sort of fabric, ESPECIALLY velvet and silk. In the past three weeks, I’ve purchased five hats that were ruined – RUINED – by morons using masking tape as a price tag. The adhesive DOES NOT COME OFF. If you really want to sell something, stick a sign on the wall saying “Hats, $2 each.” I bought those hats thinking I could salvage them. I can’t. I won’t do that again, no matter how good the hat is otherwise.
  • And on that thought:  never, ever put safety pins through vintage gloves! You may think you’re keeping pairs together and you’re able to stick a price tag with a string on it to the safety pin and aren’t you being clever? NO!!!! You’re not being clever. You’re ruining the value of the gloves. Because now, I have to disclose to MY customers that there’s a pinhole in each wrist. Put them in individual baggies. It’s very easy.
  • Don’t think that because a piece of costume jewelry is signed, it’s automatically expensive. It’s not. If you aren’t going to do the research to find out exactly what this Sarah Coventry brooch is worth, don’t expect your customers to pay exorbitant amounts of money for it. I guarantee you, it’s probably not worth what you think it is. And if it’s signed Christian Dior? Do me a favor and assume it’s fake. 🙂
  • Vintage handkerchiefs are not all the same. The fact that they’re old doesn’t make them rare or valuable. I have literally 175+ handkerchiefs sitting in my room right now that I’ve picked up in just the past six months. As with anything else, stains, holes, loose threads, etc. makes them worth less. Or in some cases, worthless.

I never know what I’m going into your sale to find. That’s what makes it fun for me. I know that what I want is mostly likely going to found in either the bedrooms or the basements. (Or the attic, in some cases.) I may walk out with nothing. That’s not a reflection of you; it simply means that I have to be choosy about what I bring home, and you didn’t have anything that met my criteria – or, let’s be honest, my budget.

Oh, and this habit some of you have of “saving back” items that you can trot out on Day 2 and 3 of a sale? STOP THAT. I may only be able to come for one day. I might make it back for Day 3, when everything is half price, but possibly not. If you have 15 hats, but I only get to see 5 of them on Day 1, and my schedule doesn’t permit me to come back, that’s not fair. And please don’t pull that line about “well, we’re still sorting stuff.” It’s your job to get the stuff sorted BEFORE THE SALE STARTS.

While we’re on that, this whole elitist thing about handing out numbers and only allowing a few people in at a time? It’s just that. Elitist. STOP THAT. Most people who come to estate sales aren’t there to steal items, they’re there to find bargains or pick up the things they collect. Most people who come to estate sales are adults who are certainly able to avoid each other and the merchandise. And I am capable of defending my pile of stuff. 🙂

While we’re on that . . . could you please have a designated “piles of stuff” area for customers, complete with boxes of varying sizes and slips of paper that we can write our names on and put on our box(es)? Right next to the cashier would be fine. Oh, wait, you haven’t got a cashier? Well, you need to fix that, too. I went to an estate sale a few weeks ago where my pile of stuff got raided. Luckily, I caught them in the act and they were apologetic (and as it turned out, I’d unknowingly raided their pile of stuff, too!), but the entire thing could have been avoided by this one simple thing:  Boxes and a designated area. Both of us ended up buying TONS of stuff, more than we could carry through the house and garage. We needed a safe place to put it.

And for the love of God, don’t ask me to tell you what something is worth. If you didn’t research it, don’t expect me to pay you some outlandish price for it. Like many of the people coming through your sale, I own a vintage shop. I take pride in being able to find the best items at the best price, and finding them good homes at good prices. Buying low means I can sell them for slightly below my competition.

I want to buy things at your estate sale. Lots of things. Too many things, probably. 🙂 Help me help you.

Sincerely, One Frustrated Customer

The Destruction of Our History – ISIS and Nimrud

This week marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day when civil rights activists tried to march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for their right to vote – and were met with violence on the other side of the Edmond Pettus Bridge by armed police.

But I’m not writing about that. Because something much more important happened this week. ISIS decided, for the world, that we should no longer have the historic site of Nimrud. A Biblical Assyrian city, capital of the Assyrian Empire for a time, Nimrud is – was – a candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Fat lot of good THAT did.

The city of Nimrud was discovered bIraq;_Nimrud_-_Assyria,_Lamassu's_Guarding_Palace_Entrancey Austin Henry Layard in the 1840s. The story of its discovery was one of the things that propelled me towards history and archaeology. I loved the idea of finding a city covered by desert, of learning to read the ancient Assyrian texts, the statues and reliefs that told story after story of conquest and expansion. But more importantly, I loved the Assyrian libraries – the fact that even though they loved to conquer others, they loved saving history more. It’s in Assyrian libraries that we find ancient Sumerian texts. It’s in Assyrian libraries that we find documents we can find nowhere else.

Will ISIS someday do the same? Not libraries, obviously, but put their ‘victories’ up on stone walls for all the world to see? For enemies to see, and be terrified by, as they pass through the gates of whatever city ISIS allows to survive to become their capital?

What is the purpose of any of it? What is the purpose of UNESCO, of nations ‘condemning’ the bulldozing and wanton destruction, if they bloody aren’t going to do a damn thing to stop it???

Enough already. How much more do we have to lose? People come and go. We get 50, 70, 100 years if we’re lucky, and then we’re gone. But these sites? These artifacts? They belong to no one. They belong to all of us. They belong to the world. They don’t belong to Iraq or Iran, or Afghanistan. They don’t belong to the Taliban, or to ISIS, or to any other terrorist organizations. Are we going to sit idly by and let these worthless pieces of crap dictate to us what we can and cannot have?

I spend my life trying to make history relevant to students. It’s bloody hard work. I have to fight against prejudice (“History is boring!” “I’ll never need this!”), and previous bad teachers, and the stigma that history is nothing more than names and dates. And nothing could be further from the truth. I take pride in the fact that most of my students are engaged, they care, and I’ve even turned a few into history majors, with a passion for doing for other students what I was able to do for them – make history interesting and most of all, to make it relevant.

So the things ISIS is destroying, they’re just statues, you say? The cities of dead kings? Stone buildings that no one cares about? Bullshit. This is our history. Mesopotamia is where human civilization began. The ancient Sumerians gave way to the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Hebrews, the Babylonians, and the Persians, and a half-dozen other cultures in between. They traded with Egypt, with the Greeks, and even later with the Romans (before, of course, falling to the Romans). They gave us laws and legal codes. They gave us the first written language. They gave us metallurgy. Stone arches (take that, Romans!). The wheel. Irrigation. The first banks. Long-distance trade. Professional armies that didn’t also have to be farmers or something else. Art. The first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which details the Sumerian’s idea of the afterlife. The first poetry known to us. And on.

Without the ancient cultures of the Middle East, we would not have what we do today.

I’m so heartbroken and disgusted by the world’s response. Condemn the destruction? Why aren’t we protecting these sites? Why aren’t we working with the Iraqi government to get the artifacts out of the country, into safe hands? Why did the Baghdad Museum just reopen this week? Are we this stupid? Are we this naive?

I can hear some of you now:  how is this worse than what Hitler did in the 1930s? Trust me, it’s worse. Hitler looted museums, yes, but most of the stolen works were either put into private hands, or sold at auction. Some were destroyed, yes, but not this wholesale destruction we see from ISIS. Hitler wanted many pieces for his own personal museum, which he planned to build after he’d dominated Europe. We are still finding artwork that we thought was lost. It happens all the time.

But if ISIS has their way, there will be no lost artwork to find. It will all simply be in tiny bits and shards. A giant historical jigsaw puzzle that we may – or may not – be able to put together.

When a (historian’s) dream comes true

For six years, I’ve been obsessed with a story that I first stumbled across in my local paper. We have a “100 Years Ago Today” segment, as many papers do, and I started to read about this particular case that had occurred. In 1898, a man named George Kimmel had disappeared without a trace. Eight years later, a prisoner in New York suddenly told the wardens that he was Kimmel . . .

Reading the little 2- and 3-sentence tidbits in the paper made me curious, and I started going to the library and giving myself migraines with the microfilm. (Seriously, people. Microfilm sucks. Give me 100-year-old newspapers any day.) Curiosity moved swiftly into obsession. Was the guy in New York really Kimmel? And if not . . . what had happened to him?

As I said, the case went to trial numerous times. Here’s a tip:  doing research on cases that are not part of the online Archives database is HARD. Particularly if some things are held in one place, and some things are in another . . . I nearly gave up several times because even though I had the case file numbers and names, I couldn’t locate the files. Honestly, I started to think that they’d been lost or destroyed long ago.

But then . . . I found them.

And I spent yesterday at the National Archives in Kansas City, laying eyes and fingers – for the first time ever – on a set of papers I’ve searched for for two years. Seeing them sitting there in their archival boxes, so neat and tidy — it was a surreal moment for me. They gave me the rules — only one box and one folder on the table at a time, no gloves (not for paper documents), no pens, no feeding the documents after midnight — and left me to it.

All the names I’ve become familiar with for the past six years were there. Bacon, the lawyer. Edna, the sister. Denton, the local bank teller. Swinney, who threw a monkey wrench into the entire thing. Subpoenas. Depositions. My God, the depositions! Entire books of depositions. I was trying very, very hard not to cry sometimes because really, crying in an archive and getting their papers wet is not a good thing. But then I pulled out one last deposition — and actually had to turn around, because I was afraid I would cry.

As a historian, there’s a moment where, when you’re researching someone, it becomes real. They become real. When I researched David Rice Atchison a few years ago, that moment was when I was looking at his diaries on microfilm and there, at the top of one page, in his elegant scrawl, was My daughter Molly has gone away to college today . . . This big man, who had been a Senator, who had led the Border Ruffians against Kansas, who had fought in the Civil War, who had owned slaves, suddenly became real to me in that one sentence. His heartbreak and his pride were clear, even across the distance of more than a hundred years.

So even though I’ve been working with this particular case for 6+ years, there was always a veil between me and these people. I’d been reading about them mostly in the old newspapers, and truthfully, I’d begun to think that it was all made up. A story fabricated – and then syndicated – by someone who needed to make a buck or two.

But then I picked up that last deposition and saw the handwritten notation on the front. “Deposition of Geo. Kimmel, taken at Auburn State Prison, 1908.” That’s the moment, for me, that it became real. That I could finally lay to rest the fears that this was fiction, that I would never find the truth because none of it was true. Kimmel’s the central figure in this incredible story, and whether he really gave that deposition in 1908, or whether it was someone just claiming to be him, is part of what I have to discover.

So in the next two weeks, I get to go back at least twice — I’m guessing three times, so please, little Saturn, make the trip! — and photograph and catalogue the entire thing. Yeah. All three boxes, and 2,500 +/- pages. I don’t know yet what will be important and what won’t.

This story has haunted me for so long. But finally, I’m going to know the truth.

Forgotten . . . But Not Gone

There’s so much here in Kansas and Oklahoma that’s almost gone — and usually forgotten by almost everyone. Wandering around the pastures near my house, driving down random dirt roads, seeking out the remnants of history . . . these are a handful of the images I’ve captured this year.

plymouth dash 2Old Plymouth sedan, in a pasture near my house.

frieze 3Part of a frieze that has broken away from the Ponca City Depot, Ponca City, OK.

bridge 4Abandoned bridge north of Newkirk, OK.

History’s Orphans — those items I can’t let go

I’m a historian. I teach history for three local colleges, and while I started out as a medievalist, and still love that, I’ve gotten much more into American history since I started teaching eight years ago. There’s something about it – we learn one thing in elementary school, mostly propaganda (at least, that’s how it was when I was in elementary school!), and then you don’t learn anything else unless you really start to get into it and study it more.

All the little stories. All the hidden history. All the things you never knew, or took for granted. (For example: did you know that the KKK of the 1920s was far more likely to attack Catholics or bootleggers, than African-Americans? It’s true!)

I also collect historical items – vintage items, to be more precise. Some, I sell through my store on Etsy. But sometimes, I find those things that I can’t quite let go. That 1930s passport. Research for a book. A wood cheese box that I store Post-It notes in. More than a hundred snapshots and World War II letters, left behind. To some, they’d be things to throw away. To me, they’re orphans. Not perfect; sometimes I can’t even put them in my shop because they don’t meet my own standards. But I keep them nonetheless, because I think everything has a story behind it. My shop’s motto is “Finding homes for history.” Sometimes, that home is with me.

For example: I collect vintage dresses. This week, I found a 1920s silk flapper dress at an estate sale. It’s fragile, but beautiful; a golden yellow with purple edging. Flowers dancing down the skirt. This is my third flapper dress. I showed it to a friend, and then I told her about one of my other dresses. One that I know has a story behind it.

I found it in a trash bin at an antiques shop – it was wadded up in a box of stuff to be thrown away. It’s gorgeous: white silk, sleeveless, with a blue and red striped skirt with heavy glass beads, in red and blue, all down it. So heavy, in fact, that the dress can’t be on a hanger; it has to lay flat. But all that would just be interesting if not for the fact that the dress is also covered in blood stains. I definitely understand why the shop decided to toss it – but I couldn’t let that happen. What tragedy did this dress see? What happened on a summer night in the 1920s? Why were the stains never washed out?

So many stories. So much imagination. I’ve no idea. Yes, I know I’m strange; a normal person would not bring that dress home. But I’m not normal. I’m a historian. And more – I’m a writer. This orphaned dress needed a home. I am slowly working on cleaning it, but the fact is, I’m not sure I want to. Every time I touch it, my mind wonders what the girl who wore it was like. What happened to her – or more likely, to the person she held, as there are no holes in the dress itself. Clearly, it was never taken as evidence. Was it an illicit relationship gone wrong? Where did the tragedy take place? And why?

These are the questions that haunt me sometimes, when I pick up objects, as I decide whether or not to bring them home. Photographs do this to me the most – so many times, the photos I collect have no names attached to them. They are strangers to me, but their stories are still there, somehow, in the paper and ink. But then there are those “orphan” items, like the christening gown I picked up at an auction a month or so ago, clearly tossed in a box and forgotten for generations. I intended to put it in the shop, but . . . I spent so much time cleaning it, I fell in love. 🙂

And that’s why I haunt estate sales and rummage sales. It’s true that sometimes, one man’s trash is just another man’s trash. But it’s also true that sometimes, there’s an item that doesn’t belong in the trash. That deserves better. Those are the items – those orphans – that come home with me.

Going . . . and now Gone

History is lost — and found — all the time. Just a few years ago, a Benjamin Franklin letter was discovered, filed in the wrong place, at the British Museum. People find things at rummage sales and thrift shops. Diaries, letters, paintings. vine and window 3

But it’s just as easily lost. And this week, I lost a piece of history that has a lot of meaning to me.

door looking out 1As far as I can tell, this set of buildings once belonged to a stone company that tried to have a quarry where there just wasn’t a place to have one. They were then allowed to fall into ruin — along with the old Plymouth — and they quickly became one of my favorite places to run away to, and photograph. So quiet and peaceful.

When I started writing my young adult novel last fall, I knew that Nicky’s partner in crime needed an out-of-the-way place for his moonshine operation. This set of buildings came immediately to mind. And so whatever else they were in real life, to me, they became Simon’s home and still. A small place, but his. Hidden away. Peaceful. And maybe more importantly for a black man in the 1920s, his. And so this place became inextricably intertwined with my novel, and with Nicky’s story. old house snow 2

I haven’t been able to get out and run as much as normal lately, but when I did get out this week, I saw that I could no longer see the buildings. Or the car. I think they are now gone. I knew it would happen, but . . . something in me died that morning, standing with one foot balanced on the barbed-wire fence, trying to see over the grass and down the hill to the spot where the walls should be visible. Knowing that now, the only place they exist is in my memory and in these photos.

window in snowAnother piece of history lost. Forever.old house snow 4