What I Did on My Summer, I Mean, Fall Vacation

September 19, 2012

Someone left a brochure sitting on the sofa. This is a very foolish thing to do around me. You see, brochures have words on them, and I like to read words. (Sidebar: In one of my college Italian classes, the prof decided to show a movie. He told us to ignore the subtitles so that we could practice our listening comprehension. I don’t think he understood what he was asking. I could see the words. I couldn’t not read them!) This brochure was about some of the historic sites in Leesburg. Being me, I thought they all sounded interesting. And, again being me, I really wanted to see the Union Cemetery.

On Friday, there was a rummage sale that my SIL, Jane, wanted to go to. My mom and I said we’d meet her and Felicity, who is in PM kindergarten this year, there. This would give us some girl time and would leave my mom and me free to do some of our own exploring. The rummage sale was, well, a rummage sale. I did find an awesome book for my brother. Haven’t decided if it’s a Christmas or a birthday present yet. I won’t say what it is because there’s a chance he’ll read this before he receives it. (Matt – don’t get too excited; I did buy it at a rummage sale.) When Felicity had had about enough (as had my mom and me – we’re not big shoppers), we took her to the playground while Jane finished shopping. By then it was getting close to time for Felicity to get home so that she wouldn’t miss the school bus.

And that’s when my mom and I spent more time than we know at the Union Cemetery. The DC area is so metropolitan that it’s easy to forget that it was in the south. As you can tell from the name, the Union Cemetery was created to bury dead Union soldiers. But they buried Confederate soldiers there, too. Like many old cemeteries, it is beautiful both physically and emotionally. It’s still in use, so it has graves from over the past 150 years. Parents who buried many children… Beloved mothers and fathers… Old men who had once served during the Civil War, some for the USA, but many for the CSA… Here in Michigan, I’m accustomed to seeing the markers on the graves of Union soldiers. There’s something eerie to me about the markers that proclaim CSA in capital letters. (For those of you who don’t remember your high school American history lessons, the official name was Confederate States of America, shortened to CSA.) And what we were looking for as we wandered amongst the old stones was the monument to the Confederate soldiers killed at Ball’s Bluff. It turned out that we’d parked right next to it. Remember what I said about the Titanic exhibit? The Civil War is the same way. So many men died. So many men died. This is one of those monuments that manages to return their humanity. Again, this might be because I see it with Northern eyes. The Confederates were the villains of the piece. Except they weren’t. They were men with families who loved them and mourned their loss.

So that was Friday.

On Sunday, the entire family went to the fair. Emily enjoyed meeting an alpaca, which made up for us missing knitting group this trip. I rocked out to the music of the Fabulettes. How could I not? They’re called the Fabulettes!

And on Monday, my parents and I ditched the rest of the family for a trip to Harpers Ferry. My second year teaching we planned a big end-of-the-year field trip for our 8th graders. We were going to take them to Washington, DC, and Harpers Ferry. And then 9/11 happened, and the trip got canceled. I was so disappointed, possibly even more than our students were. If I remember correctly, I was seven or eight when I went to Gettysburg. I do know that’s where I first learned about John Brown. There was a figure of him at the wax museum there, based on the famous drawing of a slave woman holding up her baby for him to kiss as he was led in handcuffs to the gallows. I remember my mother explaining why the woman was doing that and how important that man with the long beard was. That image (well, that and Jenny Wade) has stuck with me, vividly, since then. As an adult, I got my hands on Ann Rinaldi’s novel Mine Eyes Have Seen which tells the story of Brown’s preparations for the raid on Harpers Ferry from the viewpoint of his daughter Annie. I highly recommend this book. It’s YA, so it’s a pretty quick read. And if you just want to know what happened on the raid, read the epilogue. If you’ve read the entire book, have a tissue or two handy.

I thought I would cry when I walked into the firehouse, but I didn’t. Perhaps the spirits of the men who died there have finally been able to move on. I did cry at the John Brown Museum. The story of the raid usually makes me cry. Not because it failed. But because of the individual lives that were lost. Because of how some of those lives were lost. People on both sides of the abolition divide proved to be cruel and vindictive over the days that Brown and his men held the firehouse.

By the time we were heading back to the car, I was already ready to go back to Harpers Ferry. It is a beautiful spot. The way the mountains and the rivers converge is simply breathtaking. And the way the Park Service has handled the museums so that none is too large also makes it easy to miss one of them. I’m looking forward to going back there again and again. I’m sure that I will visit the firehouse every time, to pay homage to the men who died there, but I look forward to discovering new things while drinking in the beauty of its natural surroundings.

And we spent the night in Ohio on Tuesday, and I got home today. And that’s what I did on my summer fall vacation.

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