"Why I Like Dead Flies" - that was the title of my application essay to Brown University.
When I was 8 years old I decided I wanted to be just like Indiana Jones when I grew up. (Except, a girl, of course). There was only one book available, with color pictures, about Egypt and that was from Time/Life books. It was enormous. I knew every photo by heart. I kept notebooks with diagrams of tomb layouts. I learned the basics of hieroglyphics. I dug up my grandmother's lawn. I obsessed.
That year, my mom took me to Washington DC to visit the Zoo and The Smithsonian. My heart almost stopped when I learned that the King Tut exhibit was visiting. The line wrapped twice around the Gallery. There was no way we could get in... my mom said, "You'll just have to wait and see it in Egypt."
So, I did.
I talked about Egypt and being an archaeologist so endlessly that I infected my father who also had a passion for history. He eventually gave in and, when a period of relative calm occurred in the middle east, he took the chance for an adventure of a lifetime. Or in my case, three adventures now, or maybe I've had three lifetimes? I was 12 that first time. And I will be forever grateful to my dad for taking the leap. The magic was still intact. When I visited a few years later with my college professor, so much had changed. And when I returned 20 years later, it was almost unrecognizable! Seriously, they had PAVED the Valley of the Kings (where Tut's tomb is) and made tourists ride in little trams (like they have at Disney in the parking lots). I don't think I know an expletive that could express my true feelings. Then there are the four lane highways, the smog and the trash... but this isn't really what I wanted to tell you about.
In 1986, I was in High School and applying to colleges. Actually, although I went to art schools every summer, I was only applying to Brown University for Egyptology. It was my destiny. My mother presented me with a book that had just come out called Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters. And she inscribed it for me:
And when I met Elizabeth Peters, she also inscribed it for me. :-)
And off to college I went with a love of Egypt and books and a new role model in the form of Amelia Peabody, the "indomitable Victorian Englishwoman" and "intrepid Egyptologist". Her "gorgeous, irascible archaeologist husband Radcliffe Emerson" and their "obnoxiously erudite son Ramses" set my standards for what I expected from my own future family. Weirdly enough, my own son, Alexander, is an awful lot like Ramses! (Ramses grows up to be a really great person, don't worry). And looking back, I can see why my own marriage was doomed - how could any ordinary man compare to Emerson?
At Brown, I got to meet Zahi Hawass, the Director of Antiquities in Egypt. If you have ever watched any of those Egypt specials on the History Chanel, they always interviewed Dr. Hawass.
But I was also immersed in some very dry studies of ancient grammar. Too many languages that made no sense to me. History that went... backwards? (B.C.) Chronology, reigns of pharaohs, terminology, classes led by lifeless, nerdy grad students... OMG what am I doing here! I realized I wanted to dig! I wanted adventure! I wanted to draw!
I dropped out and went to NYC. (That's another story). But I also learned that Elizabeth Peters was really Barbara Mertz, a real-life female Egyptologist with a real PhD. She had written tons of scholarly type books about Egypt too, like Red Land, Black Land. And when my sister started her mystery book company, Sherlock and Co., and I started my murder-mystery rubber stamp company (Bartholomew's Ink) - we frequented the Malice Domestic Mystery Conventions. At Malice, I learned that this woman ALSO wrote the Barbara Michaels gothic mysteries that I loved!
That last book, A River In the Sky, takes place in Jerusalem. I read it while I was on my trip to the Middle East a few years ago.
One year, I carved a rubber stamp for Barbara of her logo - Isis with her wings outstretched holding a martini in one hand and a chocolate bar in the other. I wanted her to remember me as more than just another fan.
Time passed. I sold my stamp company to Stamp Francisco. We moved back to New England. I lost touch with the mystery world and had little time to read long books with no pictures after my kids were born. I stopped reading Kmt Magazine (Yes, there is a magazine for Egypt freaks... ahem... scholars).
Occasionally I wondered why I hadn't seen any new books by Barbara.
My mom, bless her heart, still reads books with no pictures AND Kmt Magazine. She showed me the latest issue (Volume 24, Number 4) which explained that Barbara Mertz had died from Cancer in August this year. She was in her 80's and had an amazing adventure of a life.
I am sorry that I never got to take a trip to Egypt with Barbara, but mostly I will miss Amelia Peabody. And Emerson. And Ramses. And all the other characters that were like family to me.
I realize that there is a message in here about life experiences all building on each other and how we never really know where they will lead us. I'm not a failure because I gave up on my archaeology dream and turned to books. Barbara pursued her dream to PhD level and STILL ended up with books. :-)
When I look back I see that SO much of my illustration work in those years after I left Brown was highly influenced by my passion for Egypt. Here are just two examples:
Above is a very bad scan of a postcard. The original art was 18x24" - white and flesh colored pencil on black paper. It's a self-portrait of me and my bear, Longfellow. I still love that piece. I used it as my business card for ages.
The one below is a pencil drawing of canopic jars.
Hearing the news about Barbara Mertz' death is kind of like walking into a closet door that I was so used to walking past, that I had forgotten it existed... until I cracked my head against it. Now I can't resist poking through all the books and boxes and drawings and photographs that were stacked inside. It feels like someone else's life!
But I can't stop thinking what to do with these treasures that I've unearthed...?
Note: The Barbara Michaels series of books were the "spine-tingling" ghost-mystery sort of books. Oooo I love those! Barbara just sent me one final chill... I went to her website, MPM, to find a link for you, in case you want to know more. It said there that she died on "August 8". I got serious goose-flesh.... take a look at the inscription that my mom wrote in Lion in the Valley... yes, I first "met" Barbara on "August 8".