Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Another Memory to Mark

I usually listen to the radio in the mornings when I’m at my studio. Since today is the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I heard many reports on the different memorial services that have taken place today; as in past years, the names of those who died were read at the three different sites. While listening this morning, and hearing little snippets of that long list of names, I began to wonder: for how many more years will we continue this practice? At what point will the enthusiasm (is that an appropriate word? Is “need” better?) for these types of events wane? Will it happen when physical, permanent memorials are erected, or will it be a gradual falling-off over time as memories fade?

Later on in the afternoon, I heard commentators on the Patt Morrison Show (KPCC 89.3 FM) discussing the different forms of memorialization in the US, from little roadside shrines at an accident site to the controversy over the Vietnam War Memorial. One commentator said that memorial designs such as Maya Lin’s, that include the names of the dead, are especially powerful. The name evokes the memory of the passed on, and touching it and calling it out makes the memorial that much more effective.

I was reminded of the cemetery visits I wrote about in my MFA thesis. Below is an excerpt:

Shirley Abbot begins her book Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South with the following passage:

"We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies. …Like any properly brought up Southern girl, I used to spend a lot of time in graveyards. … The graves had to be visited, the weeds pulled off them, the markers read aloud, the flowers renewed. …In one sun-bleached old churchyard after another, the women would read the stones and recite the names and vital dates of those neglected souls who lacked markers. …It was passionate and mystical. I loved it." (Abbot, 1-2)

The similarity of Abbot’s account to my own experiences resonates deep within me. I have done the same things with my father, my grandmother, my mother, and my great aunts. My father and mother did it too, with their parents and aunts and grandparents. …You must go and call out the names. You must be told again how they are related to each other and yourself. You must cover yourself with Deep Woods OFF! and still know that you will go home and take a hot shower, despite the summer heat, to kill the chiggers before they burrow into your skin. The air in these places is thick and golden with the dust from the unpaved roads, the dust from the dried up ground that is so hard to stick your plastic flowers into. You need to wet it first, or bring a sharp stick. You wish you could cover your sweet grandparents (and great grandparents) with a carpet of wild violets or petunias, but the cemetery rules don’t allow this. They can’t mow the grass that way.

By calling the names of the dead, by laying flowers, we participate in physical acts that are outward signs of grief, remembrance, and respect. It is said that we need to remember the past so that we don’t repeat it. Maybe, too, we must remember the past to keep alive, if only for a moment in the vibration of our vocal chords, those who have gone on before us. Maybe we will always need to read the names.

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