I am standing halfway between two opposing forces, on a field of blood and loss. On the surface, all is calm, although the horizon is dotted with monuments to the past battle. The war is both distant and immediate, overgrown but impossible to forget. Four score and seven years ago: I have come to Gettysburg to bury the past.
My parents were married for 16 years before their divorce. I think they were only together for about five of those years, two of which included me.
Like all adults, their reasons were complicated, and I’m sure they were both doing their best.
Meeting my father’s girlfriends, making room for them in my young heart, and losing them over and over – all without any explanation of the real nature of their relationship with my father – took a toll on me. Worse, though, was the echo of my mother’s devotion on my heart.
Mom told me recently that two days after they married, they arrived in their new house to find a letter from his high school sweetheart, professing love, a sense of missed destiny, and regret. “I think that I never really felt close to him, after that,” she mused. She earned a gold medal of devotion, though. My mother: ever optimistic, ever hopeful, ever faithful and patient. She waited for him to come home and be her husband.
I have done the same. A life spent waiting for men to come to their senses and realize that I’m what they want. I didn’t know anything else. I recreated my parents’ marriage, aware that I was doing so but unable to break the pattern.
My mother gave me her wedding ring when she remarried. My father’s ring is buried somewhere in the concrete of a nuclear power plant, not far from his home. An accident. An early loss. A portent.
My mother and father came here with me when I was a baby. It was one of their last family trips. There is a picture somewhere of my father with sunglasses and feathered seventies hair, my mother looking like Joan Baez. There I was, too, a tiny human strapped to her, tied to her fate.
From the Union line, the Virginia monument to her fallen sons seems miles away. Thistle and milkweed crackle and hiss in the wind as I trudge across this impossible distance, a house divided, a nation at war.
The North’s side is peppered with small obelisks and monuments along the Angle and the Copse of Trees, honoring each battalion. In contrast, at the tree line where Lee stood and directed his men to slaughter, the Virginia monument is a lone monolith. An appropriate metaphor.
I walk back to the halfway mark. Despite being clenched in my fist for the whole two hours I’ve been here, the ring is still cool to the touch. Impassive, striped in bands of multi-hued golds. The sun is close to setting, but has taken on none of the colors of sunset. The light is gray. The wind whips by.
I ask forgiveness for the sins we commit in pursuit of living our lives. I ask for understanding from both sides of this old war. I ask for freedom from old patterns, and I ask for a new way in the future.
Is this the right way? Will anything change? Have I lost my mind? I think of that sunny 1980s day, of the three of us on our separate trajectories but aligned for that moment in time. I think of the blood of the soldiers, how this placid earth holds the memory of so much pain and I know, Yes. This is how it must be done. Such a small thing, with such a heavy burden. A small tomb will suffice, a place from which to watch the world grow old, to weather seasons. An inverted monument to my past. Ghosts will keep company in kind. A new soul leaves this place, quick to the world like the sharp wind through the weeds, like grey sun on granite.
My mother’s wedding ring is buried at Gettysburg.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”