Monuments and Scraps

This Sunday I ended up spontaneously walking around the National Mall with a friend, and it was the perfect way to think about the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I’ve always loved living so close to our nation’s capital, and joining the crowds of monument-gazing tourists reminds me that we’re all part of a bigger national story. Where else can you see a house of legislature facing two rows of museum? On 9/11/11, it also made me ponder how Americans have chosen to mourn and remember.

The somber anniversary made me see the national pain behind the acanthus-draped marble columns and sleek modernist walls of granite. Walking around the Mall is like taking a tour of American casualties. The Lincoln Memorial is a temple to the memory of a martyr, tragically struck down at his moment of victory. The states listed above the portico all had their own dark wartime memories of slavery, hunger, loss of loved ones. The stately pediment and huge urns belie years of conflict and just as many months of rebuilding.

The Vietnam Memorial, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of modernist simplicity, confronting visitors with sorrow head-on. My friend C.  and I realized that America left Vietnam in 1975, only ten years before we were born. So when my parents brought me to the wall in the late 80s, they were telling me stories that sounded like ancient history, but to them felt like yesterday. If I bring my future children to the memorial at Ground Zero, it will be similar timing. Democracy has always had a heavy human cost, but it wasn’t until terrorists attacked my hometown that I felt such loss in my heart. Now it’s something I can never erase.

While massive buildings and slabs of rock guard the memory of tragedies, you can also find the story of American suffering in the little things. It’s a photo of a Civil War soldier, or a wreath left at the foot of the Vietnam wall. On 9/11, images of everyday objects were what drove home the enormity of what happened. Who can forget the sight of ashen streets strewn with airplane parts and the contents of filing cabinets?

I loved this week’s New York Times slideshow “The Things We Kept.” New Yorkers with varying 9/11 experiences have held onto ordinary relics of that day. In those mundane scraps you can see their fear, grief, hope, and confusion. Similarly, the National Archives has been using their collections to illustrate staffers’ memories of 9/11, particularly this moving essay about the bullhorn George W. Bush used at Ground Zero.


As for me,  my 16 year-old self made a scrapbook of the political cartoons I cut from my parents’ newspapers all through the fall of 2001. There are pictures of  mournful Uncle Sams and jokes about anthrax. I got the book out on Sunday, and one day I’ll share it with my next generation of Americans. I also want my future children to stroll (or stroller) around the landscape of memory that is the National Mall. Some things might alarm them, but I’ll do my best to tell the story of a time not so long ago. The American story of suffering, grief, and reliance is their inheritance.