Thursday, August 27, 2009

For The Union Dead

Although my absence from this blog these last several days may seem unnecessarily derelict, in reality I've been swamped by several unexpected events since I returned to New York early last week. I'll refrain from enumerating them here, except to say that their foci range from my brownstone to the arches of my feet (intrigued?), and culminated in a hasty trip to Washington, D.C. this past weekend. LRC and CSC joined me, and for the first time since last Christmas the three siblings slept under one roof. That experience alone made the trip worthwhile, despite the unfortunate event that resulted in our arrival. 

General George Thomas
When I was growing up, my family spent part of each summer in the swampy Potomac basin, and as a result my childhood memories are layered with images of trapping crabs near Bethany Beach, chasing fireflies in the Maryland twilight, picking blueberries on the Eastern Shore, and swimming for hours to escape the thick humidity. One particular Fourth of July celebration at the Chevy Chase Country Club stands out, if only because it displayed the most brilliant fireworks display I've ever seen, and also featured a Good Humor truck that distributed ice cream for free to all the children running around the gardens (myself and LRC included). And of course, the hiss of the cicadas woke us in the morning and lulled us to sleep at night.

General Philip Sheridan
A fair amount of our time on those Washington trips was spent at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and at the homes and memorials of other family members and friends who were affiliated with the Armed Forces. As a result, even now, when I arrive in DC via Union Station, the first thing I look for are the Generals of the Grand Army of the Republic lining Massachusetts Avenue, facing south with their stony steeds into perpetuity. 

General Winfield Scott
It seems to me that even though, over the summers, we visited the battlefield at Manassas and the gravestones at Arlington, saw the pictures of our fathers' first ships and held the tailhooks that caught their planes, that the dead among us were never dead. When LRC and I stepped off the train and breathed the thick swampy air, it was the same air that we breathed as children. William's portrait watched us with its level gaze as we made our hellos and goodbyes, and as the train later whisked us North, his eyes settled back over the steely Pacific waters.  

Robert Lowell, that New England poet who, for me, often evokes Washington, of course says it best:

Their square-riggers used to whiten /
the four corners of the globe, /
but it's no consolation to know /
the possessors seldom outlast the possessions, /
once warped and mothered by their touch. /
Shed skin will never fit another wearer. /

[...]

I think of you far off in Washington, /
breathing in the heat wave /
and air-conditioning, knowing /
each drug that numbs alerts another nerve to pain.

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