Tuesday, October 06, 2009

In Memoriam

Arlington Memorial Cemetery is one of my favorite places to visit in my beloved hometown. Today, for the first time in a very long time, I visited the cemetery grounds with my mom. She doesn’t go often; it’s always very emotional for her, and so we try to make it a special occasion, to really give it our full attention when we go. It was a typical fall day in DC—warmer than you dressed for, but not as humid as it has been only a few weeks before. We like to walk rather than taking the ever-present Tourmobiles; you see more that way, and anyway we were stiff from being in the car for a while. But everything in Arlington is uphill, so it takes a while to get to the spot we like best: the front lawn of the Lee Mansion and the JFK gravesite just below.

Arlington is a favorite destination of mine because it’s quiet and peaceful, demands solicitude and respect from all who enter; it seems to be one of the few places left in this country in which people actually show some degree of decorum without being browbeaten. (Sad that it takes the sight of literally thousands of gravestones to evoke this reaction.) So it’s quiet when we reach the grounds of the Mansion on top of the hill and look back across the glistening Potomac to the broad vista of the Nation’s Capital. It’s miraculous to me that so much riverfront acreage has remained undeveloped; if you concentrate (and if no planes fly overhead) you can see pretty much the same view they saw from that very same hilltop 45 years ago.

It’s hard to believe it’s been that long since the JFK funeral. My parents, like hundreds of others, felt they had to be there, and I am told that I was there too—I was almost two years old and my mom brought me in a stroller. Time has gone by outside the cemetery gates, but it seems to have stood still within them. Not much really changes here: grass is mowed, leaves raked and bagged, graves manicured. And to my middle aged eyes, it looks the same as it did all the other times I was here—as a little girl not knowing what she was seeing, a teenager struggling to understand, a lost and confused adult still trying to figure things out. Looks the same, but really it’s not, because they’re having funerals again here.

I don’t remember there being funerals here when I was here before, though I’m sure there were. It’s just that the funerals were for older veterans of more distant wars; nowadays they’re burying people in Section 60, a new area designated for the service people from new conflicts in old places we still can’t quite pronounce. Today while we were walking up the hill we heard rifle salutes—three distinct shots—several times. It’s chilling and heartbreaking. You know what it means but you don’t want to know, don’t want to think about the fact that they’re probably burying someone young enough to be your son or daughter somewhere down that hill.

My mom likes to come here; she was (and is) a proud Kennedy supporter, and always makes a point of stopping off at the Eternal Flame and the small white cross a few feet to its right (RFK). Only now there’s another white cross farther down past it. It’s hard to imagine Ted Kennedy being buried there; hard to grasp that the huge, vital presence we were so used to seeing out and about on the streets of DC was here, forever stilled. It’s probably the last time my mom’s going to make it here, so I gave her a few moments to herself to take it all in.

It’s always hard to go back home again, and I never leave DC without a pervading sense of melancholy. Doesn’t help that it’s fall, the season that always leaves me unsettled, homesick for a place or time I can’t quite pin down. I loved living in Washington, but am not sure I’ll ever live there again, and that saddens me. I had so many wonderful experiences there, too many to count. But though it’s still a great city, it’s not the city of my youth anymore, and I would want something from it that it was no longer able to give if I tried to live there now.

So we drove back to my mom’s place in Pennsylvania, the first beginnings of autumn color appearing on the fields and foliage we passed. I don’t know where I’m going to end up settling now; so much of my life has been unsettled, and I am not sure where home really is to me anymore. I’ve often heard that home is the place you go where they have to take you in (or some such thing, it’s a Robert Frost quote, I think), but I’m not so sure. I think maybe home is where you are most comfortable, where you are your truest self. I guess I’ll know when I find out who that self really is.

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