Sunday, June 24, 2012

Completing the Circle: Lincoln's Tomb and My Love Affair with History

One day about a year ago while I was sitting at my desk in the midst of a hectic day, I experienced one of those rare memory recalls that are just as vivid as they are unexpected. It didn’t wash over me so much as stab my heart with a realization almost thirty years in the making. I was finishing up writing my last lecture on the Civil War with some material about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Looking for visual material, I chanced upon a photo of Lincoln’s tomb, and was suddenly, unwillingly transported back to the summer of 1980.

It was sunny that day when my family, on vacation, visited the Lincoln-related sites in and around Illinois’ capital, including New Salem, which I particularly enjoyed. Having spent the whole day learning about Abraham Lincoln, we finished it all off, appropriately enough, with a visit to his tomb. At that time it had fallen into severe disrepair, and I distinctly remember the many cracks in stone steps where I sat despondently.

I had just been inside the unnaturally cold marble crypt, its eerie silence oppressive as I gazed upon the sarcophagus holding Lincoln’s dead body. My mother, bless her, never sugarcoated the reality of death for me when I was young, something that I am eternally grateful for. Right there she matter-of-factly related to me the details of Lincoln’s murder in Ford’s Theater at the hands of the scoundrel John Wilkes Booth.

This may sound implausible, but I think at that very moment the inherent unfairness of life first impressed itself upon my mind. It just didn’t make sense to me that such a great person could be shot down in cold blood. According to my parents, as I sat inconsolable on the decaying monument’s steps, I asked them if Abraham Lincoln still had his beard in heaven. (My mother never gets tired of that story.)

And so, over thirty years later, now teaching others about Lincoln’s death, it felt as if some great, mysterious circle to my life had finally been completed. For the first time I truly know the exact moment that ignited my lifelong fascination with history, an obsession that goes back to my earliest memories and which will define me until the day I die.   So many things I once cared about intensely matter little to me today, but history has stuck hard, and it will never go away.  After years of study and multiple diplomas my understanding of the past has certainly become more sophisticated, but the past retains its power to prick my heart and rend my soul as much as it did those many years ago.

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