Earlier this month, on a rainy walk through Boston’s Public Garden, J and I took a moment to visit the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to the Massachusetts citizens who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was the weekend after Osama bin Laden had been killed, so the memorial was decorated with 206 white roses that had been placed on the monument the day after bin Laden’s death: 206 roses for 206 victims, a visual symbol that the people of Massachusetts will always remember those who died.
Visiting a rainy memorial strewn with wilted flowers felt entirely appropriate. The Public Garden was largely deserted, so J and I had time to ponder the monument and read the chiseled names without the distraction of passing tourists. Almost immediately, I searched for the name of Patrick J. Quigley, IV, whose grave J and I first encountered on a walk through Newton Cemetery several years ago. J and I never met Patrick Quigley, but somehow he’s become the face of 9/11 for me: one name whose death personalizes the passing of all the other names. And sure enough, as soon as I saw Quigley’s name, I felt my eyes misting with something other than raindrops. Just like that, the memories of that terrible day came back, and with them a flood of sympathy for the families of the victims. This memorial is a visible symbol that we won’t forget the ones who were lost: how can we forget, when the families of the victims live on, their lives forever punctuated?
In her book Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell describes the first time she visited the World War II memorial in Washington, DC, which I visited in 2005. Initially, Vowell finds the monument cumbersome with its ring of pillars for the 50 states…but upon seeing the “Oklahoma” pillar, she breaks into tears thinking about an uncle’s story about spending a month in wet socks fighting the Japanese for control of a hill.
Suddenly and forever the World War II memorial stopped being clunky architecture and turned into the sound of my uncle’s voice telling me that story. Now I don’t care what it looks like. They could have carved it out of chewed bubble gum and I would think of it fondly.
This, I think, is the power of memorials, both the stone monuments we erect for the dead and this holiday, Memorial Day: a day set aside for remembrance. It’s easy to forget our uncle’s stories, or the stories of other folks’ uncles. Stone memorials are designed to remind us of some stone-cold truths: people die, and our memories are simultaneously tenuous and as strong as death. It’s easy to forget the touch of a now-gone hand, but easy to remember a story that touched us. All we need to resurrect the past is a reminder–a marker, a monument, a memorial. The simple sight of a name carved on stone is enough to bring us to tears, raindrops erasing the fragile line between then and now.
Click here for more photos from the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, and happy Memorial Day.