Thursday, June 01, 2006

memorial day.

the approach to Lincoln’s tomb is unremarkable. the city of springfield, like so many other mid-sized, historically industrial cities that dot the midwest, has fallen on hard times. as we drove along the wide streets we passed single family houses with ragged concrete stairs and peeling paint, fast food stores and chained-covered pawn shops and hair salons, weeded lawns and patchy sidewalks. only the brown road signs marked with a picture of the tomb and a guiding arrow told us we were on the right path.

we made a left into the cemetery, and dilapidation fell away as we traveled under a row of lampposts festooned in red, white, and blue. the grass got green – very green – and the concrete became smooth. we pulled into the parking lot, and stepped outside into the noontime heat.

while the exterior of the tomb offered a fittingly magnificent monument to Lincoln, the heart of the matter was to be found inside, through a shaded door. upon entering, the marble foyer offered a cool, dark beginning to the short pilgrimage around the tomb’s circular path. a volunteer lifted his right hand and gestured towards another door, and i noticed a sign reminding me that i was in a burial place, and to please behave accordingly.

at that point, i noticed my camera in my left hand. i tucked it into my purse as quietly as i could, thinking, “god, what is wrong with me.” i tried to mentally shake off the tourist dust that had settled on my skin over the course of the weekend. i tried to think clearly. i peered ahead in the half-light, and followed the curved wall towards the man himself.

to look upon the spot where Lincoln is buried was strange and disconcerting. perhaps this is because in the previous twenty-four hours, i had visited his house, a civil war veterans museum, and the new Lincoln library, and upon arriving at this point i had the peculiar sense that i had finally made it to the end of the tale. this was it, the last stop. all of the tumult and strife and agony and ecstasy and history, all of it ended here in the quiet of the grave. i looked at the marble casket, and i heard a metronome. there was no sound anywhere, all was still, but i heard the steady tick of time passed, and still passing. in many ways, it is now as it was then – in many ways, nothing has changed. america fought and died then, nearly tearing itself limb from limb, and we continue to fight and die now, in almost the same fear and confusion. above the casket, the words spoken at Lincoln’s deathbed are engraved: “now he belongs to the ages.” i stood there, over 140 years later, a small part of the ages that continue to roll on, and bowed my head.

just before a visitor leaves the tomb, they are presented with an excerpt from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. metal on metal, the plaque rest squarely on the marble wall. i read the final words, slowly and deliberately, and i can’t say whether the chill in my arms and legs was from the dark of the tomb or from the resonance of that desperate, wartime hope:

…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. i stared at the letters, and a girl of about twelve came bounding around the corner with her mother. they stood beside me, reading, and the girl snapped, snapped, snapped the bubble gum in her mouth. the sound reverberated, thick and relentless, through the quiet hallway.

i turned and pushed my way through the heavy wooden door, emerging into the Memorial Day sun. i squinted at all the blinding sunlight, at all the achingly green grass.


FINY said...

Kate, please please PLEASE tell me you've read Sarah Vowell's work. If you haven't, run out immediately and buy The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation. From that post alone, I know you'd absolutely adore her.

kate.d. said...

love her, finy. i enjoyed partly cloudy patriot more than assassination vacation, but they were both great.

is it in assassination vacation where she talks about trying to jump up and see herself in lincoln's shaving mirror? when we were in the lincoln bedroom and the guide was pointing out the mirror, BoyCat was all "sarah vowell!" :)

my friend mike once pondered proposing to her at a book reading. i still maintain that he should have!

FINY said...

Oh I am SO glad you've read her. Yeah Assassination Vacation was where she jumps up. I have to admit, I've got a bit of a girl crush on her myself. Did you read Take the Canoli (I am SO sure I spelled that wrong) and Radio On too? TPCP is by far the best, but all are worth the read.