She walked slowly, which wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. Her legs were strong, despite their size; I was often surprised by just how much energy she was able to channel through them as she ran, jumped and danced her way through her days. But that morning, she didn’t have the same sense of urgency that she often did. To be clear, she was not taking each step deliberately, purposely maintaining her more-than-relaxed pace as a form of protest or expression of independence. She did not appear to have any specific purpose in her gait; there did not seem to be any hidden message that could be interpreted from her soft footfalls.
She just walked slowly.
I didn’t rush her. She was in no hurry, as it was, and any attempt to push her along would have broken the calm that had set in around us. She stepped carefully along the short raised curb between the cobblestones and the wall next to her. She was not afraid of a potential fall – it was only a few inches, at most, and she had taken far worse lumps than that in her living room – but she did seem determined to maintain her balance. She brushed wisps of hair out of her face idly, transitioning back and forth between the curb and the sidewalk, as though she wasn’t entirely sure where she belonged.
I stayed nearby, on the off chance that she might stumble and get a much closer look at those cobblestones than she would have liked, but I made sure to allow her the space to explore on her own. I noticed that her gaze shifted, much like her steps, from the ground in front of her to the wall next to her. She reached out here and there to steady herself but never allowed her hand to linger for more than a moment. She almost seemed to understand the somber gravity of the dark rock and the importance of the engravings found on it.
It occurred to me, as she took each ginger step, that I could see her reflection in the wall. The angle was difficult from where I stood, but I noticed her olive jacket, light-colored tights and glittery sneakers mirroring her movements. I smiled slightly as I made out the hint of her turquoise, pink and white tutu poking out from under her woolen jacket; her doppelganger clearly had the same head-scratching but adorable sense of style.
I remembered my father telling me about the wall’s design, that the reflective surface had been intentional. People looking at the wall would be looking into the past, looking into their memories, or at least, into their history books. They would see the bright stairs leading up to the statue of a man in contemplation of the situation before him, a pose he surely took frequently during his life but could have taken at almost any point since then. They would see the shining white obelisk, proudly declaring its presence and authority, while simultaneously bearing silent witness to the events transpiring around it.
They would see the names etched into the stone. They would see the list of citizens who had given their lives for their country, whether they believed in the cause or not. They would see the stark record of attendance, service, duty and sacrifice at the highest level.
They would see the greenery in the park around them, the trees which swayed softly in the breeze, bending to allow their leaves a shorter, if not exactly safer, passage to the ground beneath them.
Most of all, though, they would see themselves. They would see that the events of the past have led to the present, as they always do, that the past is not quite as far gone as we sometimes believe it to be. They would see that the names on the wall represented people just like them, men and women with families, hobbies, careers and dreams, all cut short before their time. They would see that history is actually our story,1 no matter how much some might wish it weren’t.
She continued walking, occasionally running her hand over the etchings, feeling the contrast between the smooth black granite background and the rougher beige exposed rock of each name. She maintained the same quiet reverence of the memorial as she walked along the wall. She continued shifting back and forth between the curb and the cobblestones but never broke the heavy silence around us. She finally looked up at me as she reached the end of the wall and smiled.
She couldn’t have understood, but it seemed like she did.