The Pit and the Page

"I can’t think about my mother, who is dying slowly and furiously. My grief is an unpacked box of sharp pieces stacked in a dark storeroom; I lug around a catalog of unfinished business."

When I talk about my volunteer work at the Independence National Park Archeology Laboratory in Philadelphia, people often ask me if I’ve taken anything. Apparently, many people would pocket a sherd of broken glass or pottery as a souvenir if given half a chance. But these fragments of Colonial history don’t tempt me; they seem sacred, imbued with other people’s stories. Besides, there are too many pieces for any one to be precious. I have only to enter the lab’s storeroom and stand amid the floor-to-ceiling rows of cartons (more than a million artifacts hauled up from a mile-square block of backyard privy pits) to feel the weight of history. Two sites—one named for the President’s House, which once stood at Sixth and Market; the other for the National Constitution Center, which now stands on the vast lawn across the street—have yielded more treasures than the dig at Colonial Williamsburg. It will take ten years to process it all.

Today’s assignment—brushing diluted adhesive across tiny field specimens to seal the numbers inked onto hundreds of sherds—is Zen-like in its tedium. Hours pass, marked by the transfer of pieces, one by one, from mesh tray to aluminum, as the empty baker’s rack is slowly filled. My time to think, I tell my friends. But really, I love the work because it requires just enough focus so that I can’t think. I can’t think about my mother, who is dying slowly and furiously. My grief is an unpacked box of sharp pieces stacked in a dark storeroom; I lug around a catalog of unfinished business. 

This is my break from that.

* * *

At my mother’s memory care community in Phoenix, I look out across the parking lot and see a cinder-block fence and, beyond it, dull taupe houses made of chicken wire and stucco. My mother sees a timeline of her accomplishments—years bundled into numbered lots dotting the desert, constellations of housing developments named Saddleback Homes, The Meadow, Scottsdale Vista, Heritage Village, Mountainside Estates. There is no convincing her that these aren’t her houses, the three-dimensional evidence of her long career in real estate. 

“That’s what I have to look at while I’m locked up in this prison,” she says, gesturing to the space surrounding the gazebo where we sit. “Do you know how awful it is to be here when I used to be there?” 

Her arm hangs in the air for a moment, as loose as a marionette’s. Lately, her movements seem detached from her intentions, inspired instead by her body’s memory. I feel that way, too—disconnected—sitting in this ridiculous gazebo in the center of a burnt-grass courtyard a few days before Christmas. I am performing, directing myself from a seat somewhere in the audience. I don’t want to be here, but this is what it’s come to.

“A man from the state came yesterday. He says I don’t belong here,” she says.

“Would you like to open your presents?” I ask.

“You’re not even listening to me,” she says.

“I am listening.”

“I’m going to kill myself.” 

I am performing, directing myself from a seat somewhere in the audience. I don’t want to be here, but this is what it’s come to.

Suicide has always been her backup plan, first voiced when I was ten years old, a child with my ear pressed against the hollow bedroom door while she sobbed into her pillow about a hairbrush she couldn’t find and about ending her life. Even then, I knew her complaint—“I have nothing! You kids take everything!”—was the screw-top cap on the deep jar of her grief. I sensed, too, that her dire plan would soon be abandoned, just like the weight-loss diets and new enthusiasms (ESP, horoscope, Phoenix Suns basketball, genealogy) and unopened patterns for child-sized clothes I recently found in the drawers of the old baby dresser in the back of her closet. For years, I listened at that locked door, one hand on the brass knob, reassured by her sobbing because it meant she was not dead.

“You don’t mean that,” I say. 

She has lived to see seventy-five, only to lose her memory.

* * *

I began volunteering at the archaeology lab after taking a leave from teaching creative writing. My mother’s dementia had reached a crisis, and I needed time: to rescue Dad, to move Mom into memory care, to prepare their house for sale. Like any teacher, I feared shortchanging my students—though it was more likely I’d give my best self to my students and bicker with my brothers about what we should do to keep our parents safe. I anticipated a slow leak of my patience, the airbag between who I am and who I’d become during the long, sad ordeal. And so for the first time, I declined invitations to a season of Young Writers Day presentations at local elementary schools and asked a colleague to take over my college course. Volunteering at the lab was a commitment I believed I could honor since I’d be able to withdraw when my family needed me.   

I’d first visited the President’s House site just after the National Park Service archaeologists uncovered the foundation wall of the “Philadelphia White House,” including Washington’s slave quarters. Just beneath the entrance to the modern glass house containing the Liberty Bell once lived Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, and Joe Richardson.

Head archaeologist Jed Levin stood in the pit, wearing his hard hat, and told me how five long weeks of effort had yielded nothing but rubble and fill. And then he’d found the 1833 U.S. penny—“an omen,” he said—placed by a mason to mark the boundary between the 19th-century storefront built that year and the colonial townhouse below. For Jed, it was a career-making discovery, one that twined his life’s purpose with his years of practiced skill. “This foundation isn’t just bricks and mortar,” he said, and I felt goose bumps rise along my arm. “It’s a tangible link to the people who lived in this house and a link between the enslaved and the free.” 

I was hooked. What writer doesn’t understand the urge to look for truth beneath the surface, or the desire to tell the untold story? And what middle-aged teacher doesn’t sometimes lament the energy she’s expended on students, which might have been harnessed for her own discoveries? My mother’s memory loss haunted me, warning me to make something tangible to account for my life. But though I’d cleared my desk of student work, I was too distraught and distracted to write. Processing artifacts from the President’s House dig was a way of contributing to a bigger, more important story than mine.

I was hooked. What writer doesn’t understand the urge to look for truth beneath the surface, or the desire to tell the untold story?

But by the time I was able to join the Thursday crew of graduate students and retirees, the staff had already completed work at that site. The ground had been filled in and grass-seeded; meanwhile, the city argued over the plan for a memorial that would reflect the complex truth about Washington and the nine enslaved Africans. And so my supervisor, Deborah Miller, set me to work washing the colonial dishes of the German, French, Irish, and free African Americans who’d lived in the dense block of rowhouses that had been cleared to give visitors to the city’s bicentennial celebration a nicer view of Independence Hall.  

I was disappointed, but still I signed on. After all, I was seeking solace, not story material.  Four years later, I haven’t missed a shift. 

* * *

“I’m so bored,” Mom says. “There’s nothing to do here.”

The activities calendar lists Sittercise and Library Outing and Puzzles & Games and Art Class, among other activities the staff says she enjoys. A pile of unread New Yorkers my brother sent rests atop her wooden wardrobe. Blank crossword puzzles that some thoughtful person has clipped from the newspaper for her are stuffed into her dresser drawer. As far as I can see, her routine here is the same as it was in the house we sold to afford her care: pacing, watching television, picking fights. But we have ruined her life by “putting her away”—in this place where she can’t drive, can’t drink jug wine in the afternoon, can’t beat up our father, and can’t hang her broker’s shingle and re-sell all those homes. 

Last Christmas, I gave her a journal called The Story of Your Life, hoping its nostalgic prompts—Write about your best birthday; Describe your favorite pet; Did you have a secret hiding place as a child?—would take her to the Indiana childhood she remembers vividly. In art class, she’s painted a stack of watercolor pictures featuring the family barn. I had hoped she might fill the journal with words that recall a happier life, but the book’s spine is unbroken and its pages are unmarked.

“Where’s your father?” she asks.

“He had a doctor’s appointment,” I say. 

It’s a lie, but here, lying is a strategy. And besides, it’s what comes to mind whenever I think of our poor father now: the blood bruises spotting his back, his broken thumb set in plaster, his arm immobilized by a sling. Defensive wounds, Dr. Cohen said, when she signed the letter that declared Mom a danger to herself and to others. Dr. Cohen is my hero. She saw and signed and legally documented what it’s hard for others to believe: my father loves my mother, so much so that he risked his life defending her wish to continue living at home.

“That’s a lie,” Mom says. “He’s got a lady friend.”

“He does not have a lady friend,” I say. Against professional advice, against logic, against my own will, I am arguing with her.

“He brought her here,” she says. “Took her around and showed her off right under my nose.”

“That’s crazy,” I say, a poor choice of words because they are true. I take a deep breath and try again. “Dad loves you. He’s still your husband. He just couldn’t visit today.”

“Where’s your father?” she asks again.

“He had a doctor’s appointment,” I say.

“That’s a lie,” Mom says. 

I have never been good at lying. 

I’ve discovered, through trial and mostly error while telling this unfolding story, that caring for a sick parent is like nursing a child: everyone has an opinion about how it should be done. By everyone, I mean not only family, but also doctors, social workers, legislators, insurers, neighbors, colleagues, columnists, novelists. Friends with sane parents, friends with long-dead parents, friends without children and not sandwiched, as I am, between needy kids and needier parents. Like the elder-care advocates who have overrun Arizona, everyone talks about options while somehow making it clear that the only sanctioned choice is for me to care for my mother in my home. To embrace the opportunity to give back what I have received from her. 

I have counted and cataloged and cartoned our history, hoping to make sense of the few sad relics I didn’t sell or give to charity or bury in the dumpster behind the First Baptist Church.

I think such re-gifting is criminal. Part of my inheritance is genetic: possibly latent, testable but inconclusively so. I collected the rest of my inheritance when I spent a week in my childhood home, cleaning up the mess Mom’s disease has made of our family’s life. Like an archaeologist, I have counted and cataloged and cartoned our history, hoping to make sense of the few sad relics I didn’t sell or give to charity or bury in the dumpster behind the First Baptist Church. 

* * *

I bring no skill but nearsightedness to the work of archaeology and am regularly rewarded with writer-geek discoveries: the stub of a charcoal pencil, the intact lens from a pair of round eyeglasses, a bit of 19th-century newsprint stuck to a pottery bowl. But most days at the lab are more mundane. I label pieces of broken bottles—many of them the size of my pinky nail—using black or white ink applied with a nib pen. Or I dismantle bottles we’ve spent weeks mending with masking tape and then catalog the pieces by vessel number in the lab’s database. 

Urban archaeology is ethnography, staff archaeologist Willie Hoffman explained when I first began. The point of our work is not to preserve or display these artifacts, but to learn about the people who used them: their socioeconomic classes and customs, eating habits, manufacturing and trading patterns. Working alongside the archaeologists, learning their vocabulary, and practicing their peculiar methods, I’ve come to see our jobs as similar. Writing is something like building a bottle from the base up, using broken glass scattered on a table, glittering and inscrutable. And then taking it apart again to slowly fashion a story from the findings. 

* * *

“This one’s peanut brittle,” I say, tearing through the wrapping paper to reveal the box of candy I brought to Mom from See’s at the mall. “Let’s open it now, so you can share it with me.”

“That’s nice,” she says, as she lifts the lid and fishes out the largest sherd. “It’s my favorite.”

“Mine, too,” I say. “By coincidence.”

She laughs, I laugh, and this is the moment I hold on to, the anecdote I will offer my father later, as proof that things aren’t as hopeless as they seem. That it might be possible for him to visit soon. The day is warm for December, and the afternoon sun casts a flattering, soft sideways light. Back in Philadelphia, my husband and daughters are trimming our tree, drinking cocoa, texting me funny messages to remind me of my other, parallel life. 

Then Mom says, “He says I don’t belong here.” Meaning, of course, the Man from the State. He is her newfound deity.

“Hmm,” I say, looking away.

“You don’t believe me,” she says, and when I look at her, look full into her face, I notice that her eyes seem unsecured. They roll strangely in their sockets, like a ball-bearing game, searching for their groove. “Your father has a lady friend.  He had the nerve to bring her here.”

“Nope,” I say. 

“I guess that’s what happens to wives when they stop making money,” she says. “They get put away.”

“You probably saw Dad with someone who works here,” I say. “He came by to bring you a new pair of Keds.” Now, I’m not only arguing; I’m lying with flourish. In fact, I bought and delivered the shoes myself when I visited at Thanksgiving. I dropped them off at the front office and fled when I saw my mother pacing the courtyard mechanically, wearing a ratty sweater and an angry scowl.

“These shoes have ten more miles on them,” she says, looking down at her old sneakers, at the white cotton sock pushing through the canvas where it’s split across the top. She will never wear the new shoes or the nicer sweater I sent her. She is, after all, the same woman who trashed a freezer full of casseroles I made for her while my father was in the hospital.

“Open this one,” I imagine myself saying, handing her a second, larger gift.

Inside the wrapped box is her old teddy bear, which she brought back from Indiana after her mother died. I still remember when I first saw it: an arm was missing, and one glass eye had been switched for a leather button, rendering the bear odd and half-blind. He looked much the same when I found him thirty years later on the top shelf in the hall closet. My mother had always planned to fix him. She didn’t. Considering all her other castoff plans, which I’d unearthed during my dismal excavation of our family home, the bear’s bad condition was distressing but not at all a surprise.    

I have imagined our reconciliation as often as I have imagined her gone. This, like lying, is a strategy. Storytelling is how I survived a childhood shaped by her sorrow and how I moved a mountain of objects and heirlooms from my family’s home without being crushed by grief.

But I have done it. I have repaired him. I have gently bathed and combed his matted fur until his dreads fell loose and shone. I have made a small incision in his backside, vacuumed out his crumbled sawdust stuffing, and carefully replaced it with mold-resistant Poly-Fil. On his front left side where his heart would be, I have tucked a sachet of dried lavender and sutured him closed with invisible thread. I have restored his charm with matching round glass eyes, ordered online. I have consulted a specialist, my mother-in-law, who brilliantly reattached his poor ragged arm. 

I have wrapped him up with my childish wish in bright tissue paper and have brought him to her, to reopen.

“What is it?” she asks, as she lifts her old bear from his box.

“Your teddy bear,” I say.

She turns the bear over, inspecting his seams. “Sweetumpuss,” she says. I had forgotten his name.

“I cleaned him up a bit,” I say. “I re-attached his arm. Remember? You always wanted to do that.”

“You took him,” she says, and I watch as the familiar shape of gloom changes her face. “You take everything.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. 

It’s true. I have imagined our reconciliation as often as I have imagined her gone. This, like lying, is a strategy. Storytelling is how I survived a childhood shaped by her sorrow and how I moved a mountain of objects and heirlooms from my family’s home without being crushed by grief. 

I only wish I had brought that bear and that I had fixed it. The truth is I took it, intending to repair it and return it to Mom, but that was three years ago now. The bear still rests on a shelf in my office, waiting for—what? Her death? Enough time to pass to diffuse its symbolic power? 

* * *

Wandering through the antiques mall in Charlottesville, Virginia, during spring break, I stopped at a vendor’s stand that was set up like a kitchen pantry, a nostalgic display of tin spice cans and rusty wire whisks and homespun kitsch of the Old South. Some of it was sadly similar to items I’d too recently let go of while preparing my childhood home for quick sale. I was still in mourning for my family’s heirlooms; I’d barely had time to process what I’d been through. Perusing the carefully cased treasures inside the cool, quiet, funereal mall—quilts and tea sets and framed photos of other people’s ancestors—I was not exactly in a collecting mood.

And then, in a dusty breakfront cabinet, I found a set of blue Willow Ware. Deborah Miller had taught me to recognize the pattern by its geometric border design and its trio of figures crossing a bridge. “The three dudes,” Debbie called them, with the affection of a material culture scholar who’s handled thousands of broken pieces of 18th-century ceramics. But unlike most of the china I washed and labeled and repaired at the lab, these dishes were entirely, miraculously intact.

I like working with Willow Ware because its narrative offers clues to aid its repair. Bottles come in distinctive shades of greens and browns, and red-ware hints at matches with its swirling yellow slip, but only Willow Ware offers a pictorial legend: the story, told clockwise, of the mandarin’s daughter and her servant lover. Pursued by her father’s chosen suitor, they escape across the bridge to a gardener’s cottage, then by boat to an island, where the lover is killed and the daughter dies in a fire. They are transformed into immortal doves, surveying their own lives from the heavens, always positioned at twelve o’clock. In the lab, knowing the whole story helps me to find the missing pieces in the pile on the table and put them together again.

That discovery in the antiques mall—not a mason’s penny, but a metaphor—signaled my own breakthrough. Already, my mother had forgotten my children; some day, she would forget me, too. Alone late at night in my childhood home, sorting through the flotsam of my family’s history, I thought I knew how that story would end. But that day in Charlottesville, the Willow Ware reminded me that you can’t know the shape of a narrative until you reach the end of the draft.

I’ve worked at the lab long enough to know that what I don’t know about archaeology is as vast as the storage room where the artifacts from the President’s House and National Constitution Center digs are boxed up and shelved alongside cartons of sample soil. Long enough to see, too, that many of these broken things we work on eventually become whole. I understand now that this slow, careful work—like grieving—is essential to the long process of repair.

* * *

In Mom’s medical file, her neurologist narrates the progression of her symptoms, a grim path of “impressions” of a disease that can only be diagnosed with certainty after death. She is mostly oriented to time and place, intact to person. Memory is impaired for short-term but intact for long-term. . . . She is partially oriented to time and mostly intact for place and is intact to person. . . . She is mostly disoriented to time and place and is intact to person. 

I have my own notes, more recent, taken as I observed Mom’s art class when I visited at Thanksgiving:

At the front of the room is the still life the residents are to paint today: a fern, a few leaves, and a small pumpkin, backed by a Japanese screen. Mom paints, instead, a picture of the red barn in winter. When she’s finished, she turns and sees you sitting in the corner of the room. She does not know who you are. You call her by name; you approach and admire her work; you caption her paintings with personal pronouns; you stand next to her, offering the sensory clues of your face, your voice, your hand placed gently on her arm.“Is this your daughter?” asks a resident next to her, the lady in the pink velour tracksuit.“Yes,” you say. Your mother says, “No.”

There is no other way to say it. I felt erased.

And then I was mysteriously recalled. Today, she knows I am her daughter, sitting in a gazebo at a memory care center in Phoenix just before Christmas. She is, as the neurologist says, intact to person, mostly oriented to place and time. But the sad fact is, I’m not really here. I am still sitting at a table in art class a month ago, my pen moving across the pages of my journal, beginning this essay.

“Where’s your father?” Mom asks. “Why doesn’t he come?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “But I’m here.”

“I don’t belong here,” she says. “I’m going to kill myself.” 

“You don’t mean that,” I say, and kiss her dry forehead. “I love you. It’s time for me to go.”

“You don’t even care,” she says.

I rise and walk across the yard to the exit, repeating a mantra in my head: she doesn’t mean to she doesn’t mean to she doesn’t mean to. At the gate that leads to the parking lot, I stop. The gate is locked, and I have forgotten the code. I always forget the code. 

“Where are you going?” Mom calls out.

“Home,” I say, thinking of my husband and daughters, our cedar-shingled Victorian house glittering with colored lights and iced with fallen snow. Too pretty a picture to be my life, and yet, miraculously, it is.

“I don’t want to die here,” she says. 

I look through the bars across the parking lot, to the familiar neighborhood of stucco homes. Say she did sell them. She might have sold them. I’m baffled by the gridded, sprawling city that lies beyond this gate, meticulously planned and utterly random. Why here, and not there? My mother has spent her life in these houses, all of them identically clean and tastefully staged. I raised myself, elsewhere. And now I’m going home.

My cell phone buzzes in my pocket with a text from my brother, who’s taken my place next to Mom. The code. I punch the numbers into the keypad and open the gate.

“See you next time,” I say, once I’m safely on the other side.

“This is the last time you’ll see me,” she says.

“See you next time,” I say again.

I’ve stayed too long. 

I had hoped to drive through our old neighborhood on the way to the airport, but now I have to take the highway so I won’t miss my flight. I drive fast, remembering the icons of my childhood, the hometown I’ve keyed for my daughters with stories of mishaps and tragedies, as if disaster defined the place. The citrus orchard at 3rd Avenue and Friar, where other troubled kids were busted at an all-night party. The pawnshop on Central, where a man took a chainsaw from the shelf and tried to cut off his own head. My high school, where a gun-owning boy once tagged my name on the wall. Next door, the Phoenix Indian School, where reservation kids were stripped of their tribal clothing and drilled in Anglo customs. The Adams Hotel, where an Arizona Republic reporter was blown up in his car. The St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, where my childhood writing desk is for sale. The empty house where my family once lived.  

When my family moved here, in 1964, the desert was vast, a blank canvas. As you flew into the valley at night, the city lights appeared suddenly out of the darkness. Every single time, it surprised me. Back then, there were still places where bobcats and rattlesnakes and chuckwallas lived, still places where teenagers could tap a keg undetected, still plenty of places to hide. But Phoenix, for me, has irrevocably changed. Now there are freeways stretching out across the desert, erasing the old landmarks, speeding me into the future, and I don’t know where I am.

* * *

There’s a meditative aspect to the tasks of archaeology: washing, labeling, and mending artifacts; counting and bagging animal bones; sorting through residuals sifted from dirt that’s been washed through a 1/8-inch mesh screen. The trick to this last task, called “picking,” is to tackle no more than a quarter-sized pile at a time. First, you scrape the gravel across the tray with a tongue depressor; next, with a tweezer, you separate the contents by type: brick, mortar, bone, charcoal, flora (seeds), metal, miscellaneous (buttons, beads, straight pins, teeth), insects, and oyster shell. It took many hours of practice before I knew what I was seeing: a splinter of cream-colored eggshell, a transparent fish scale, the fibrous backside of what looked at first like charcoal but was really a bit of burnt bone.

Wash, sort, label, mend, and catalog. At the lab, I work through the mountain, one molehill at a time.

Wash, sort, label, mend, and catalog. At the lab, I work through the mountain, one molehill at a time. As I work, I think about life’s lost objects and found wisdom, about the mysterious ways memory serves and finally fails us, about the fragments that float to the surface or fall through the screen. I think about how the words we choose to tell a story enclose and connect our unfinished business and unsettled feelings just as tangibly as a building’s bricks and mortar do. The art is in the process, whether the story’s being told in the pit or on the page.

* * *

By now, the Thursday volunteers are like family to me, with their set roles, stubborn habits, and particular talents. Randy, a retired librarian, leans over a table full of broken bottles he’s been trying to rebuild for weeks. Carolyn, a retired physical therapist, inks black numbers onto pottery with her personal nib pen, cursing under her breath when a clot forms and smears. Dick, a retired Lutheran pastor, and his wife, Nancy, a retired teacher, arrive after lunch to help wherever they’re needed. 

On such days, when the room hums with library quiet, I can hear the ghosts of the past whispering through these recovered artifacts: the shattered Madeira glasses, the musket balls and curled shoe leather, the pharmaceutical bottle embossed with Swaim’s Vermipuge (a quack cure for cholera), the rotten bicuspid, the gold wedding ring. Let go, I imagine these broken, discarded objects saying. Everything, from the trivial to the treasured, finally ends up in the privy pit. I find strange comfort in that sober message, which humbles and empowers any writer to seek the universal in the personal—to make meaning, which is the artifact of experience.

About the Author

Elizabeth Mosier

Elizabeth Mosier is the author of The Playgroup, part of the Gemma Open Door series to promote adult literacy, and My Life as a Girl (Random House). She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the Pennsylvania Young Writers Day program.

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One thought on “The Pit and the Page

  1. I’m going to enter some
    I’m going to enter some writing contests this year, but I decided to search for examples of the “creative essay” because I wasn’t sure what this meant. I fell upon your work, and lay dazed in front of my screen for the last 20 minutes. It is beautiful, haunting. I loved this essay; it mirrors the quiet horrors we all experience as we start to get older.

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