four score and so many tears
it wasn’t on our way. but we steered there anyway.
a red-lined triangle on the roadmap was all that it took. that and what turned into a few hours’ drive through the mountains, in the rain, with no shoulder to the right, and big trucks barreling by on the left.
and there was that boy in the back seat, after all, the boy who’d learned all the words, who’d traced the story of the president who’d ended slavery, and who somehow had decided that to settle his own hard-thumping heart, he’d needed to slip the soles of his shoes into the very same spot on the crest of the hill in the midst of the half-circles of square white stones, unmarked graves, state-by-state in the somberest of roll calls, where the words first were bellowed over the stretched-out limbs of the forever-sleeping soldiers.
it was the gettysburg address, three short paragraphs really, that he’d learned at school, read out loud in assembly, recited one night at dinner, delightfully reading “deducted” instead of “dedicated” each time he came to that particular mix of d’s and c’s and t’s that, after all, is so indistinguishable to an orator of a mere seven years.
and so, since we were driving to washington anyway, he figured, why not swing up into pennsylvania, that breadloaf-shaped chunk in the jigsaw puzzle, not far from the d,c, triangle, and drive to the little town where the great speech was etched into the national memory.
it wasn’t enough, on that chilly cold afternoon, to merely drive through the town, stand in some parking lot, marked visitor center, and rip out the sheet with the words.
we stopped for a map, and directions. we wiggled our way through farm fields once soaked in blood. we parked near the crest of a hill, walked past long stone fences, crossed a country road, and walked and walked until we couldn’t get closer to where ol’ abe’s shoes must have fallen, stood firm against the hard cold soils that had seen and heard too much, and now at last were being laid to rest and peace and the broadcloth of history.
the little boy, one who most of the time spouts numbers and news about ballfields and the players who play there, somehow had been transfixed by these words and this speech and this spot on the map.
there was no steering him elsewhere. no approximation of history.
he’d decided it had to be just as it was. had to be him reading the words out loud, to the cold winds, and the three grownups (his big brother, after all, is nearly a grownup) who love him so very much, who stood somewhat astonished at this whole insistence on honoring history.
he’d carried along a parchment, written in script, signed “Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863,” but he couldn’t make out the 19th-century swirls and dips and swoops of soot-black ink.
so, when we’d stopped for the map, he’d handily gotten the words typed-out, more to his liking, more like the pages of books he now reads by the hour, this boy who not long ago struggled with words in any old form.
so there we were at the top of the hill, just in front of the great marble monument, with the plaque marking the spot.
the boy, seven and change, settled in, maybe as lincoln had; pulled the words from his pocket, unfolded the ridges, began.
“four score,” he started, of course. and then carried on. the words coming in that familiar cadence and rhythm we all know, all of us who in some schoolroom somewhere pored over the civil war pages, tried our hand at memorizing, maybe for the very first time, with this particular passage.
somewhere, though, near the part where lincoln wrote that “we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground,” the words slowed to nearly a halt.
we looked in, each of us, zeroed our eyes on his face, trying to read the root of the slowed-down reading.
only then, as the next few words sputtered, did i see what i thought looked like a tear. and then another and another.
he was crying and reading, the boy who would not let the tears stop the cadence, the moment, not till the end when we all crushed him, a tangle of arms, cheeks, tears.
“sweetheart what is it?” i asked, not sure if it was that the hard words had netted his courage, swallowed his sense of the moment, or whether it was the sad truth of the story, the soldiers buried in half moons and lines all around.
“it’s the soldiers.” he managed to choke out in short few syllables, before burying his face in my sleeve.
we all stood in this knot for a minute or two. i knew that i, for one, was etching the moment into my mind, into my picture of this boy who i’d birthed, this boy who not often was thought of as the one with his pulse in sync with the poetry of a world marred by bloodshed and tombstones.
sometimes on a cold afternoon, at the crest of history, you discover the script that you’ve dotted and crossed in your head, the script of your very own child, it’s not what you thought it was.
and you stand there, wiping back tears, his and your own. and all of a sudden you understand a whole new chapter’s been written.
one you will never forget.
nothing earth-shattering here. just a page in the scrapbook, titled “our road trip to washington,” it’s been a long long time since we went away for spring break. all the cats in the ‘hood bore a bit of a shock since over the years we’ve evolved into the de facto cat sitters. as always, it’s splendid to be home and back at the keyboard (and washing machine, and the checkout line at the grocery), but, of all years, this was a fine one to brush against the white house gate. criss-crossing the country we listened to obama on tape, both books, and to hear the depth of the man–and the wisdom he piles into but one clause of one sentence, let alone 10 hours of books-on-tape–well, it made the 1,500-some miles whiz by in what seemed like mere minutes.
now, back to the laundry.