“…If the only surviving son of such a revered man can be forgotten, what hope have I to be remembered?”
NOTE: I was thumbing through my journal recently and came across this… Although it was penned over a decade ago, about an unforgettable experience that occurred on the eve of the Independence Day holiday, its sentiment, as you will see, remains timeless.
How quickly we forget…
Although it happens every year at this time, here we were again, in an endless bumper-to-bumper traffic jam around the Lincoln Memorial. It was July 3rd, the eve of Washington’s Independence Day Celebration; we should have been prepared for the mayhem of this annual holiday, but here were again, caught between the sight-seers driving into the city and D.C.’s regulars trying to leave.
Under the glare of that hot holiday sun, car engines and human tempers were both heating up. And watching the rise of this civil unrest was the giant man of marble sitting, peacefully, in the shade of his columned memorial to war… (how quickly we forget).
Through the fumes of frustration and slow moving vehicles, my weary eyes eventually spotted a way out. Praying it was not a mirage, I inched our car into the “fastest” lane, and when the opening came within striking distance I stomped on the gas and turned off onto our path to freedom.
But in making our escape from that endless patriotic journey around Lincoln and the National Mall, we ended up on the bridge that has served as the journey’s end for many American patriots. We found ourselves crossing the Potomac River into Arlington National Cemetery.
Glancing back at the bumper-to-bumper gridlock behind us, we decided to maintain our forward motion and travel down a road that might as well have been called, ‘Memory Lane’; for after a few revolutions of our melting tires, we found ourselves rolling through the gates of Arlington, and into the Past.
The place was quiet, cool, serene.
Green rolling hills, swaying trees, even the rustle of the leaves in the low branches all conspired to keep the noise of the nearby city from intruding. The hillside was peaceful, strangely inviting. And the urge to explore its calm surroundings was irresistible.
Parking our over-heated car in the shade, we decided to walk.
The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other is a common thing, but as we meandered freely through the weathered stone markers of soldiers and statesmen, I realized that the repetitive pendulum of my feet was soothing, calming, an act of individual freewill; a liberty I could take anytime. It was a holiday of independence that the permanent residents, now surrounding us, had helped to purchased for us… How quickly we forget.
As we wandered silently, contemplatively through this garden of grass and marble a gentle breeze washed over me and I caught the whisper of a name -“Robert… Lincoln.”
I don’t know if it was triggered by my lifelong infatuation with the Lincoln legacy, or because we had just completed a half dozen laps around his father’s monument, but the name of Abraham’s son wafted through the trees.
“…Robert Todd Lincoln…”
Scanning the brochure that was given to us as we entered the grounds, my eye instantly fell on his name. To my surprise he was actually listed among Arlington’s prominent citizens. And prodded by my discovery, I stopped a passing security guard to ask where he was interred.
“Who?,” the uniformed woman responded.
“Robert Lincoln,” I repeated.
“Lincoln? Oh, he’s buried in Springfield, Illinois.”
“No,” I shook my head, pointing to the brochure, “not Abraham Lincoln – Robert, his son.”
“He …had a …son!?” her eyes widened in surprise.
“As a matter of fact he had four,” I offered. “Only Robert Todd survived to adulthood. The man served as America’s Ambassador to England, he was the president of the Pullman Railroad Company and was Secretary of War under two presidents.”
Embarrassed by her ignorance, the middle aged Black woman attempted a smile. Then shrugging her shoulders, she quickly walked away. My friend and I glanced at each other, each aware of the obvious irony: How could an employee of this historic place – a woman of color no less – not know the basics of ‘Lincoln 101?” But then, nobody knew. No matter who we asked, no one seemed to have any idea who Robert was – or where, on Arlington’s vast estate, he was laid to rest…. How quickly we forget.
The remainder of that holiday eve was spent in search of Robert Lincoln; the forgotten begotten.
As the hours past, our game of ‘hide ‘n seek’ gradually became a serious challenge. Even when the hot sun gave way to the dark clouds of an afternoon shower, we kept on looking. Finally, threatened by the deluge of the summer cloudburst, we were forced to take shelter under a sprawling oak tree just north of the old Robert E. Lee mansion…
And that’s where we found him.
His remains were not underground, as I expected, but encased in a pink marble vault, resembling the size and shape of the Unknown Soldier’s tomb. Engraved in the marble was not only the name of Robert Todd Lincoln, but also the names of his wife Mary, and his only son. The hand chiseled carvings spoke volumes: It seems that like Robert’s three younger brothers, his own son, Abraham Lincoln II –“Jack”, never reached his 18th birthday. And though his daughters kept the family line going, the name of “Lincoln” ended here, under the sprawling umbrella of one of General Lee’s trees.
It was sad scene to behold. The tomb and its surroundings were littered with brown leaves from the October before. In the cracked cement floor encircling the tomb were weeds, tall and prosperous.
Glancing eastward, from under the tree, I saw why Robert was buried in that particular spot. It was the only place in all of Arlington where one had an unobstructed view of …the Lincoln Memorial. Even in his own burial, the living paid more homage to the memory of the father, than to the now-forgotten life of the son.
The sight of it all was more than I could take.
I suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to mourn for a man I never met. I felt sorry for him. I sensed the torture of his life: The regret of turning down his dad’s invitation to Ford’s Theatre that fateful night. The pain of later having to commit his mother to an asylum. The emptiness of living in “Lincoln’s” perpetual shadow. And the reminder of it all – when, as Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield and McKinley, he could no more prevent their assassinations than he could his own father’s.
Although his eighty-three years were filled with prestige and fame, from where I stood it appeared no one remembered his name…
Something in me wanted to shout it out and declare to the world, “Robert Todd Lincoln lived! Abraham’s son contributed to the world, too. His remains are here, on this hill… Remember him!”
Before I realized what I was doing, I found myself on my knees, brushing away the wet leaves and pulling up the stray grass from around Robert’s tomb. “If the only surviving son of such a revered man can be forgotten,” I wondered as I weeded, “what hope have I to be remembered?”
Eventually the rain stopped.
My friend offered me her hand, and we started down the hill. After a few silent steps she leaned in close. “You okay? You just made more orbits around that Lincoln memorial than we both made in the car.”
As I turned to reassure her, the sun broke through the summer clouds, sending slanted shafts of light across Arlington. In its wake, the white marble of thousands of markers suddenly illuminated the rolling hills. Immobilized by the sight, I stopped in my tracks. And I heard another name in the wind…
Suddenly everything seemed clear. “How quickly we forget…”
“….He was the only Son of the Most Revered, ” my mind raced, “He did more than just contribute to the world; He died for it… for me…purchasing my independence on a hill, like this, just outside of town. Yet, no grave for Him will ever be found.”
In the light of that moment, a cool breeze once more washed over me, and with it came a whisper that will remain with me wherever my wandering feet may fall…
“If you will simply remember to proclaim THIS Begotten’s name with the same passion you felt today, YOU will never be… forgotten.”