Oh-So Jane

By Bill Rathje

My mother died at the age of 87 after a full and vigorous existence.

My mother's best friend, Victoria, died in her twenties. In so many ways, including her untimely death, Victoria added to mom's zest for life.

There are so many stories about mom. After we laid her to rest in a family plot next to my dad, a group of relatives and friends had a meal together and each of us told our favorite Jane Rathje story. Most of them I had never heard before, so I took notes. I didn't want to forget any of those oh-so-Jane details.

I had no trouble whatsoever deciding on the story I would tell. It embodies the oh-so-Jane way my mother raised me . . . and it explains why I'm an archaeologist, why I think in - to put it politely - creative ways, and why I take great comfort in all those oh-so-mom things I carry with me everywhere.

When I was about five, I found a bit of copper in the dirt under the grass in the front yard. It had corroded to a fascinating green patina. Thinking back about the way I remember it looked, my guess today is that it was part of the inner workings of a doorknob assembly. At the time, I had no idea what it was, except mysterious and exciting, and I was determined to find whatever else there was of it. So I began digging in the front yard. I even talked my friends into helping.

We were taking turns at mucking about a day or two later when my grandmother drove up. She was horrified, to say the least, and let my mother know in no uncertain terms that it was not proper for a young man such as myself to dig great gaping holes in the front yard!

As soon as my grandmother left and my friends had departed, my mother sprang into action. "William," she said quietly, "have you thought about digging holes in the back yard?"

I was devoted to excavation, but not to where I would do it. The 'digs' promptly moved to the back yard, where they and their hoary holes and backdirt remained for several years.

Like her daughter my grandmother was a lady of both grit and guile. When she realized that my mother would not crimp my desire to dig, the next Christmas she presented me with a book called The Wonderful World of Archaeology to turn my inappropriate urges into preparations for a socially responsible profession.

I loved that book with all my heart and soul. In my opinion, it is the very best book on archaeology there has ever been - straightforward text ensconced in a welter of mesmerizing watercolors!

No wonder I'm an archaeologist. No wonder I founded the "Garbage Project," that examines our own garbage to study our modern-day lifestyles from a rather unusual perspective. No wonder I'm grateful to mom for that and so many other unexpected dimensions of my world.

Over the last few years, I've told mom how grateful I am for strong support and no crimps many times. I didn't tell her that many times before she died holding my hand, but I believe she always knew. Now you know too.