Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Post in Pictures: Monuments to Independence

I've only been to the Mall in Washington D.C. twice. My brother Nate worked at the Pentagon during his Air Force years, and he took me around the nation's capitol when I was 19. I wore high, spiky heels. My brother told everyone, "She's just like my mother - wears heels everywhere!" But I was cursing those shoes with some salty language in my head, smiling through the pain as I ogled park benches. I went again this year with my sister Vinca's family, 15 years after my last visit. I wore wedge heels, which apparently men hate, but they were a lot more comfortable. Eight hours walking did them in, though, and a strap snapped the next day in protest of the excessive labor.

D.C. is really quite pretty and pristine (well...not the politics). Around the Mall, all these impressive, blocky federal buildings house various departments of state. We passed the Holocaust Museum. Vinca and I wished to go in...but not with the younger kids. When they're older we'll go, I hope.

Feet hitting the green in my sexy wedge heels, the first thing I saw was the Capitol Building and all the various museums in the Smithsonian metropolis. After paying a sack of gold and several greenbacks for a meal of hot dogs, fries and chips, we entered what I thought was the Museum of Natural History. I was a bit down in the mouth when I discovered I was in The Museum of American History. Imagine, then, the thrill that my sis Vinca, Matthew and I got when we entered a dark corridor and saw in the soft lighting behind protective glass the very American flag that inspired Francis Scot Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner. If that will not make your patriotic heart swell, I don't know what will. (Sorry, pictures were prohibited, so just imagine. Oh, say can you see!)

There was this, too, in the History of the American Presidency room, and I just could not believe my eyes or my luck. It is the trunk in which George Washington preserved the papers from the Constitutional Convention:

And this drum and black crepe used during Lincoln's funeral:

In another room we discovered the USS Philadelphia, a gunboat built and sunk in 1776 during the Revolutionary War:

We spent too long in that museum, everyone telling me to STOP trying to read every single sign and to forego the temptation of beating appreciation of wonders into my children's  heads. Someone mentioned the Civil War room on the way out, and I cried, "Oohh, where was that?!" They all replied, "Come along, come along," being anxious to scurry toward Natural History, because, well, there's dinosaurs and gemstones in them there halls, you know.

The dinosaurs are impressive, and the gemstones shiny. The crowds around Hope Diamond are insane; everyone wants a peek at a legend that's mostly invented. And just when you think you're ready to leave, down the hall you find the mummies and their treasures. Then, after a long, long foray in the gift shop, you finally escape into the fresh, humid air.

Just across the way is the Smithsonian Castle, the oldest Museum that houses the crypt of British scientist James Smithson whose wealth was bequeathed to the US at Washington for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men". It's a mystery why he did this, having never been to the United States (except posthumously). Perhaps he thought we were a bunch of uncouth hardheads in need of some culture. At any rate, we're grateful.

After the men took the kids into the Air and Space Museum, and Vinca and I enjoyed some sisterly bonding time in a rainy garden, it was time to see the monuments.

The Washington Memorial has been closed both times I've visited the Mall. I don't remember what the deal was 15 years ago, but this June it was obscured by scaffolding again. It's marble was damaged during the East Coast earthquake in 2011, creating chinks in the structure. It still manages to be beautiful with its geometric trappings, that great obelisk erected in memory of our first great president. Maybe someday I'll be able to go up its height.

The WWII memorial, finally built but long overdue, is expansive. The states each have their own column between the magnificent sculptures for the Pacific and Atlantic campaigns:

 On our way to the Lincoln Memorial, we saw this sly creature:

A fox on the Washington Mall? Crazy! We paused in amazement, but just after we left this young fella caught a fat squirrel and flipped it up into the air a few times before my sensitive daughter's innocent eyes. I had already deserted the area, and so my sister was left the task of consoling Ana and reminding her of the circle of life.

Finally, we walked toward the man I had waited all day to see. I was thrilled to approach his incredible, Ancient-Greece inspired monument once more, but sick of the hike in strange territory, Ella and Danny, my youngest two, opted to spend time with Uncle Dave at the bottom of the steep and numerous steps instead of seeing Lincoln.

I am ashamed to say that in that temple I forgot what my brother had taught me all those years ago. Like any obnoxious tourist, I called across the space for my kids and their cousins to smile for the camera, recalling too late what was due out of respect when I saw the sign pleading for hushed voices. Lincoln seemed unperturbed, but I will remember next time that silence is sacred and possible in this raucous, over-stimulated world. After all, my sister Vinca did not forget.

Maybe it was magic of the day. Maybe it was the company of family I see too seldom (my own fault). Maybe it was the creeping fatigue and the gnawing hunger not quite satisfied by pricey hot dogs eaten hours before, or my insane and specific craving for chocolate and cookie, but outside the Lincoln Memorial, I had the best chocolate chip cookie I have ever eaten in my entire life. My husband purchased savories and sweets across the road at a snack rotunda for us all, dodging tourist buses. The cookies were in little sealed plastic packages, so I am quite sure that if I knew the brand I could find them again, but I am also certain that they could never taste the same as they did that day in D.C.. They were blissfully delicious. I do not exaggerate.

Mindful of my earlier mistake, however, I gathered everyone's snacks back into the bag as we headed down the trail to the Vietnam War Memorial. Vinca and I talked to the kids about the importance of silence in such a place. 15 years ago, my brother had done the same for me.

"Be quiet, Hillary!" he had said. "You don't talk here."

As we walked quietly my niece Danni and daughter Ana began to pick the clover off the path and place it gently by the wall. What should I do? I wasn't sure it was appropriate, but they were doing it with such sincerity - wanting to do something, to leave a little of their love at a memorial of which they could not fully understand the significance. I let them do it. (Later, my sister Vinca would tell a good friend of hers, a Vietnam vet, about their gesture. He teared up, so I cannot feel it was wrong to show that love even if it was not proper etiquette.)

It's a long black wall, and at its base are pictures, flags and mementos. There are coins, too, each with meaning. The significance is this, my brother-in-law Dave believes: a penny if you knew the person, a nickel if you served with them, and a quarter if you were there when they died. After we left the wall, Dave and Matthew spoke in awe of how they had seen lying against the black surface a picture of two young service men. In front of it was a quarter.


  1. Wow, wish I could have been there. Glad you had such a good time.

    1. We did have a great time, but it was a long day. At the end, the guys and most of the kids were several yards ahead on the return to the car, and they paused and looked back at Vinca and me, like, "Can you come on already?" Vinca and I just looked at each other and laughed and called back weakly, "We're comin'; we're comin." My shoes had reached their time limit for sure.


I love your comments!