Friday, December 20, 2013

Why I Like Dead Flies

"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.

KMT magazine

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.

KMT Magazine
 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".
Creepy. ;-)


  1. Your personal stories are so beautifully poignant, Sandy.
    And the images you included are perfect accompaniments.

  2. I LOVE the Amelia Peabody series!!! I might just have to re-read them! I really enjoyed this post. Ancient Egypt has always fascinated me.

  3. I realized a life's ambition of travelling to Egypt six years ago. It was so wonderful. I also enjoy Amelia Peabody books. Sandy, I love your blogs, your artistry and your wacky sense of humour. You are such an amazing an inspiring woman!

  4. Sandy, I think you would also enjoy books by Pauline Gedge, who writes wonderful books about ancient Egypt, The Scroll of Saqqara being one of them. I have read several of her books and they are a good read!

  5. Thanks Sandy, I've always loved the Amelia Peabody series, no will have to check out the Barbara Michaels books, I've read a few of the Vicki books, but not the others,. Always love reading your notes to us all!

  6. What an interesting series of events! I've always loved pen and ink illustrations, starting at 4 when my dad used to read me the comics in the Milwaukee Journal. As newspapers disappear, unfortunately, the joy of following the illustrated stories they provided will dry up with them.

    Anyway, I still keep up with these comics in online subscriptions and am extremely pained when the artists die. I can generally tell this has happened when a series stops. This causes me to check Google news where I find a death announcement and go into mourning.

    Among the living who I value are Garry Trudeau, Lynn Johnston, Jan Eliot, Jeff Danziger, Brooke McEldowney, Signe Wilkinson, Jimmy Johnson, Gary Delainey and Gerry Rasmussen, Darrin Bell, Jennifer Babcock, Julie Larson, John Forgetta, Greg Evans, Robb Armstrong, Allison Garwood, and a special nod to Pluggers by Gary Brookins.

    BTW, that is only a fraction of my favorites. Should anyone be interested in an online subscription, go to

  7. Wonderful story, Sandy. I enjoyed it so much that I was sorry when it ended. It was nice to get a peak into the young Sandy!

  8. Sandy,
    Thank you for sharing your adventure and spine-tingling story. It's weird how things tie up in ends! What an inspiration you are :)

  9. HI Sandy, thanks for posting this. I started reading Elizabeth Peters the first year or so after the first book came out. It was a used book I got from my boyfriend at the time mother. I have all of her books. I also started reading Barbara Michael's about that time and used to think the writing was similar, not the same. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out it was the same writer. I have also had an interest in Egyptology. I was sorry to see when Ms. Michaels passed. I have enjoyed your post. I am always happy when I run across other people that liked Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. Thanks!

  10. Thank you Sandy for the brief history lesson on one of your favorite authors. Beautifully written! Of course I could not just sit at my computer and not search further into this brilliant woman's career. As I was reading her list of books, I mentioned her author name/names to my husband, who is an avid reader, and he of course recognize it. I always enjoy reading your post as you really put your heart into your writings, be it happy or sad. Have a Wonderful 2014!

  11. thank you so much, Sandy, for the delightful yet poignant read. and the reminder about Amelia Peabody ... i started reading that series when they first appeared and fell in love with the characters and the setting. i drifted away from them, but i will go back now and re-read the early ones and continue on with the rest of the series. and i plan to give some of her other series a go as well, so thanks for all of that. delightful reminiscence!



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