Friday, May 6, 2022


It's been almost four years since I posted here. Sorry. There are reasons: busy, sick, grieving, joyful, distracted. 

I submitted this to the New York Times' Modern Love feature thinking it might be an interesting take on Mother's Day, but they didn't take it so I decided to add some photos and post it here. Happy Mother's Day.

            Beep. Beep-beep. Stop, kneel, dig, hold, examine.

I’m metal detecting an old farm field on the outskirts of Nashville and thinking about my mom.


In the palm of my glove lies the target: a rusted bottle cap. Whee. I hold it up to the sky and yell, “Happy Mother’s Day!” I sometimes speak in this concerning manner because I’m finally allowed to talk to her.


 I drop the pull tab into my fanny pack and move on, swinging my Fisher F75, which is the finest and most magical of machines.

i don't normally hug my detector.

bottle caps were once useful, but now
are disappointing. still, they deserve
to be posed near knockout roses.


For the last decades of my mother’s life, I spent my birthday and hers, but especially Mother’s Day, wondering what she was doing and if she might be thinking with some sort of fondness of her only child. Once she achieved the cessation of her successful, cultured, New York City speech teacher life by dying nearly alone in her Sutton Place apartment, I stopped wondering what she was doing on those admittedly meaningless marker days. Instead, I was suddenly free to learn as much as I could about the woman who birthed me, raised me to adulthood, then cut me out of her life like a tumor.


Beep beep. Beep. Stop, kneel, dig, slice through annoying root, hold, examine. 1941 Mercury. Nice.

so pretty.

She was born in Mississippi, the white-blond eldest of three daughters, and grew up picking cotton and helping her daddy gather pecans. 

this is the kind of truck that would
have thundered  down the dirt road in front of the farmhouse
where she grew up.

She told me once that while sitting in the outhouse, clutching a magazine intended for other purposes, she learned that there was a place called New York City, and that it had “delicatessens.” The city became her tractor beam. She met my father—a full-blooded Armenian from Appalachia—while doing summer stock and they moved to the city to become actors. A few years later, and despite her best efforts, I appeared in her uterus. This caused all sorts of dismay, the end of my parents’ marriage (and my mother’s dreams of theater) as well as the start of a mother/daughter relationship with a sell-by date.

i found this in her belongings.

this is a music box that doesn't make 
one sound.

But if she was going to do this mother thing, she was going to do it right: a progressive preschool, dance and piano lessons, horse camp, French camp, world travel, and a delightful disregard for rules. I wanted to stay home from school to write a story about an avocado? Of course, I could. And I did, in 15 minutes, then spent the rest of the day crouched in front of the portable Zenith eating Snow Caps. On the bookcase above the TV stood bronze sculptures of us—a hollow-eyed bust for her, and me as the little Degas ballerina, albeit with quite a tummy. This was a love for the ages; the two of us in our one-bedroom, roachy micro-apartment, living our best enmeshment, while padding about on Oriental rugs. “Ours is a charmed life, my daughter,” she told me over and over. I believed her and loved her with all I had.

she wanted me to be a dancer.
luckily, i was one, for a long time.
but it was not enough.


There were clues of what was to come. The letters I ripped open at camp often closed with some version of “I thought I would miss you, but I don’t. Mom.” There was the occasional and entirely unwarranted crack across the face. There were the many trips to various neighborhood liquor stores, which I loved because they smelled like paper. But I was just too close to it—and too alone—to know what I was dealing with: an actress playing a part. Luckily, happily, my dad was a natural and enthusiastic parent; his resilience and optimism shaped me as I grew. 

an item i want.
an item i don't want.
an item i both want and don't want.


Beep. Beep beep.


I dig and dig and dig. Ooh, look: a silver dime from 1848. A few steps later, another signal: part of a Dr. Pepper can. 

i do have a part of a dr. pepper can in the
trunk of my camry, but i'm too lazy
to photograph it so here is a 4. 


At 22, I was back from college living in a Soho loft with a brooding boyfriend and attempting to “be a dancer.” It was pretty much what my mother had raised me for: a life in the arts, one untethered to convention, filled with inquiry and adventure. Though we saw each other regularly, she seemed increasingly tense and distant; I’m sure I was too wrapped up in my own life to ask why. On a hot September day, I sat on her sofa and told her I was going to have a baby. For a long minute, she stared out the window at the traffic hurtling up First Avenue, then turned toward me, unrecognizable.

this, too, is unrecognizable. 
no one knows what it is. 
even experts.


“Get it taken care of.” Her words: rusted machinery, jolted to life. I knew exactly what she meant and I swear, she showed her teeth.


“No, I don’t want to…do that. It’s OK! We’re gonna get married!”


“You’ll be barefoot and pregnant like the rest of them.” 


“What? No! I can do this Mom. I want to do it.”


“Then there can be nothing more between us.”


And with those words, she was free of me.

and it was like a stake to the heart.
this is not an actual heart stake.
but it certainly could be used
that way. 


My boyfriend and I had a grim little wedding in a Greenwich Village church, then moved to Cape Cod where I gave birth to my daughter in an 1830s house on a soft spring evening. Not long after, a box arrived with no return address, filled with the detritus of my childhood: dolls, doll furniture, crumbling crayon drawings, adoring love notes with backward “e”s, letters I’d sent her from college. I put it away. 

this is my daughter. she 
just sent me a beautiful
mother's day gift. i'm so
glad i stuck to my guns.

and this is another beautiful find.
it had been hit by a lawn mower,
but i had it repaired.


We moved to Michigan where I founded a dance company and our son was born. This makes it sound as if I moved on with my life easily, but those years—and many to come—though filled with art, friends, divorce, remarriage, and the joyous chaos of tending to small, sticky, hilarious humans, were weighted with the loss of my mother. I sometimes wondered if I’d done a truly terrible thing–murder, perhaps? Klan membership?–and somehow forgotten about it. I never gave up, sending her letter after letter, some pathetically chatty—as if nothing had happened—others pleading, outraged, demanding to know why, how this could have happened. Silence from my phantom limb.


It was challenging explaining her absence in my life to others. My children, whom she never met and whose names I assume she never learned, grew up knowing that mothers, even once-beloved ones, can and do abandon their young. They processed this in their own ways. When my son was five, he burst into tears one night, thinking of his grandmother alone in New York. “We have to call her, mom! She needs us! Can we call her? Now?” 

there was no one to call for help.
she didn't want our help. 
she wanted to be free.
to not be a mother.

If a new friend asked me about my mother, I had a few sad, stock answers: 


“We’re not very close.”

“Yeah, she died a long time ago.”

 “She lives in New York. I mean, I guess you could call it living…” (This one shut the topic down and became my go-to.)

this sterling silver child's knife handle
is the only item i ever dug in new york city. 


But in fact, with me out of the picture, my mom exploded into living. She traveled every corner of the world, spent two years in the Peace Corps, wrote her memoirs, and developed deep, enduring friendships. Meanwhile, our “estrangement” (a polite word for what felt to me like dismemberment) had blighted every leaf of our family tree. My good, sweet, Southern relatives never stopped loving me, but they also fell in line with my mother’s directives. If she was within earshot, I was rarely mentioned. If she planned to visit for Easter, I was gently advised to stay away that year. When names were drawn for a Secret Santa gift exchange, my aunts made sure the tiny slips of paper my mother and I received bore safer names. “It was like a bomb went off in our family,” my cousin told me recently. 

i found this 1944 new zealand half 
crown in a yard near my house here
in nashville. new zealand is one
of the places my mother visited while
in the peace corps in the 1990s.
there is no meaning inherent in this. 


In my darkest midnight moments, I cycled through questions: Had she ever loved me at all? Was my upbringing an elaborate performance? 

Was that kind of ruse even possible? 


Did she ever dream about me?


Soon after moving to Nashville with my second husband, I bought a metal detector from a man at a gas station. Bizarrely, this uncool hobby stilled the roiling questions and gave me hours and hours of peace as I roamed forests and fields, digging into the earth. 

i am adept at finding round things.


One morning during a pandemic summer, my aunt called me. 


“Hey, little chick,” she said. “I can’t reach your mother. She hasn’t answered her phone in five days.” I’d always wondered how this would go. My aunt eventually tracked my mother to a hospital where she was recovering from surgery; she wouldn’t say what had happened. Though groggy from drugs, she was emphatic: No one was to come help her. Her plan was to “go home and die in three weeks.”

she was not religious. at all.
but somehow this feels appropriate.


And that’s pretty much what she did. At my request, my aunt bravely asked my mother if I could send her a card. Her response: “What would be the point?” I stared at the card, already written, addressed and stamped, then put it in the recycling.


A week later, my mother’s attorney called to tell me she was gone and I wailed the singular, strangled wail of the excised daughter as my husband gathered me tight. Flustered, the attorney tried to soothe me by telling me my mother left me her belongings and some money, but this confusing information did nothing to stop the torrents of necessary sound. See, I just never could quite bring myself to hate her. 


The attorney gave me the phone number of my mother’s closest friends, two women I’d never heard of. I stood in my driveway, called them, and learned that through decades of friendship, she had never mentioned she had a daughter. Even though the information stung, I discovered that knowing it felt oddly empowering. What else could I learn, now that she was gone?


Beep. Beep beep. It’s a faint signal, this one. I dig deep into Tennessee dirt, then set my spade aside and use my fingers, feeling for something dropped and forgotten, but I never find it. Sometimes that happens. 


Back home, I peel off my jeans and stand barefoot on the threadbare Turkish carpet I learned to walk on. Around me are boxes of her life: manuscripts, photographs of strangers, her travel journals—and all the letters I ever sent her, unopened.


 I’ve been going through everything, trying to understand. There’s something in here, somewhere.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

George Washington Slept Here

Wonder of wonders, my last Dirt Girl post about losing my longtime job actually netted me a rather sweet freelance gig. Little did I know that my long and somewhat whiny plaint (illustrated with stuff I dug out of the ground) would find its way to the desk of a Cincinnati media company that started shooting me advertorial work right away. It’s not what I need long-term, but writing about financial planners, travel agents and endodontists is fun and is keeping me and Al in ramen noodles and guitar strings for the time being. Thanks to all 32 of you who commented! I appreciated the kind words.

(Me being responsible: Anyone looking for a copywriter can check out my portfolio at

OK. This post is just going to be a breezy little recap of recent finds. Also included will be some not-so-recent finds because I dug a LOT of cool stuff during the THREE YEARS I ignored this blog. You deserve to see these magnificent, dirt-encrusted items!

At the end of the post will be some Big News.

First, here is a random picture of Pearl. I didn't dig her up. (Digging is her job, as my yard can attest.) I found her a year ago at Nashville Humane and I love her so much.

Pearl, wondering what and why.

There’s a road near my house that I just never get tired of. It runs along a high bluff overlooking the Cumberland River. People have been walking along that river for… well, as long as there have been people walking. I think I’ve detected 70-80 yards along or near this particular road. In fact—and don’t tell Al—I’ve had something of a love affair with one yard. Been digging it for years and yes, every now and then, I bring the homeowner brownies. I’ve found lots of Colonial stuff there. Here’s a smattering. Longtime DGU readers will recognize some items from previous posts.

What I originally thought was a broken Colonial
flat button turned out to be an India-Bengal
Presidency "pice" circa 1810. The writing is Persian.
This is perhaps my favorite find of all time, and the
inspiration for my song, "How'd This Get Here?"
OK, I didn't actually find this; Cheryl Clark did, about 20 feet
from where I was standing. Grrr. This is an actual "piece of eight"
(a cut Spanish real coin.) Can't tell the year, of course, but
probably late 1700s. I'm including it here because it speaks
to the date of the activity that once took place on this
mild-mannered, suburban lawn. I, myself have found three
Spanish reales (two whole, one cut) on this road over the years.

Lovely buttons.

Not sure what this was; possibly a heel plate.

Bone-handled implements.

WWII-era knapsack buttons.

Not sure what these little shields are. Possibly
saddle or bridle decorations. You'll see another
later in this post, from the lawn next door.

Another of my favorite finds of all time. Found these Colonial-era
items way out by the road, next to the mailbox, amid all
the usual modern roadside detritus: bottle caps, can slaw, etc.
These "TALLIO" cufflinks, showing a fox jumping over a log,
are found all over the Eastern seaboard, anywhere there may have
early settlements. The fact that there are two here, linked for the ages,
makes this an absolutely stellar find.

As you can see, I love the lawn, and the lawn loves me.

Of course, the logical step would be to get permission to dig the next yard over. I’d left messages in their mailbox, but never heard back. In my own little head, I decided that those people were mean, angry people who would NEVER let a dirt girl onto their property. Their house was too pristine, their yard immaculate. I gave up.

Silly me.

Turns out, the homeowner is the nicest guy ever. Out of the blue, he texted me and was 100% into having his yard detected, plus he wanted to try it himself. I loaned him a machine and we’ve been exploring his yard together for about 6 weeks now. I’ll let the finds speak for themselves.

Awesome homeowner with his first find. I think
it was a penny. 

I'd be lion if I said I wasn't thrilled to dig this item, right up
next to the house. I think it's part of an old drawer pull.


OK. This was next to the driveway, literally five feet from the
bumper of my 1999 Toyota Camry, and maybe 8 inches down.
 I was pretty sure it was something special from the get-go,
as I'd never seen such a big button. Turns out I was right.

Friends, this is a George Washington Inaugural
button, the extremely rare "Dotted Script" version,
made in 1789.
It's pretty toasty, but, heck, I hope I look this good after 229
years in the ground. (Not that I have any intention of getting
in the ground anytime soon.) And the shank is perfect.
I could sew this bad boy on a denim jacket and go
to a show, and I just might do that. 

Here's what it looked like back in the day.

No guarantees, but I'm fairly sure this beautiful item will be featured in the "Just Dug" section of the upcoming issue of American Digger Magazine. And yes, you may touch the hem of my garment.

Here's more (minus the GW button). Notice all those flat buttons
on the lower right and buckles to the left. All Colonial era.
 Also notice that "shield"thingie--just like the ones I found next door.
Oh, and that thing that looks like a cut coin (upper right)
 about made me bust out into the Macarena or some such,
but alas, it appears to be just a broken metal copper disk.
No markings of any kind. I like it, though.
It can't help it if it's not special.

All of this begs the question: WHAT WAS HERE ON THIS SPOT BEFORE ALL THESE RANCH HOUSES? I’ve looked at all the expected old maps, but find no mention of a house or farm on this site. Ideas, anyone?

Here are some other delightful finds from random different sites.

A realtor friend allowed me to check out a
property she was selling and it delivered.

Love this old buckle. It'll clean up real nice.

Know what this is? I didn't, but now I do:
a Civil War powder flask. So pretty.

This old log-splitter I pulled out of a Civil War encampment
is back at work in our yard. Strong and functional. Clearly
glad to be of service, ma'am.

Pretty sure this was from a West Nashville yard from last year.

A friend let me detect her East Nashville backyard. Didn't find much except this beautiful earring, which, it turned out, had been lost during a Halloween party years before.

Here's the moment when the woman who lost it learned she was getting it back. Happy feelings!

OK, the Big News. As many of you know, a few years back, I released "I Dug It Up"-- a record of 13 songs inspired by metal detecting.

If you think this photo was taken on a certain beloved bluff
overlooking the Cumberland, you'd be right. My buddy Jeff
Thorneycroft designed the whole album. Nailed it.

Everyone says CDs are dead, but I dunno; I sure sell a lot of them, both at gigs and from my website,

Well, presto-chango, I’ve turned I Dug It Up into a musical. Four characters, two acts, a whole lotta time travel, and most of the songs on the record—plus several new ones.

Nope, never done anything like this before. (I started the process by googling “how to write a musical.”) Oddly, I found I could only actually write the thing at SIP CafĂ©, near my house. Despite my powerful introversion, that loud and uncomfortable environment, with hits of the ‘70s or ‘90s blasting away (depending on the age of baristas), allowed me to write without stopping for SIX hours a stretch. Anyway, it’s done. Had the first reading in April. 

Many thanks to the actor friends who brought my characters
to life for the very first time, and to those who watched and
gave such excellent feedback.

I'm planning another reading soon. Stay tuned. Love, your Dirt Girl.