Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Flowers for Jennie

"Oh, that's Jennie's dad's grave. I put flowers there for Jennie."

The 8-year-old and I took a detour from our projected route to walk over to the decorated grave. A few pale flowers leaned over the vase. The bright-eyed, curly-headed child knelt down to reposition the flowers. She explained to me the story about Jennie writing a letter a long time ago, requesting "some little girl" place flowers on her papa's grave. This child piped in "I am probably the first little girl to do so." We then continued down the long row of graves. She was likely right.

I spent Memorial Day week at Andersonville National Historic Site, volunteering alongside the interpretive staff with visitor services. On my last morning before I rolled out of Georgia, I helped with the removal of the flags that had been placed throughout the national cemetery. Something around 20,000 flags were not going roll up and store themselves. One ranger made a comment about the idea of remembrance: it is easier to start and often unfinished business. He referred to the idea that hundreds help set up the flags on Saturday and only a couple dozen return to remove the flags on Tuesday morning. The quietness of the Tuesday allowed for a calmer process. It proved a solemn activity, stripping the cemetery of the flickering red, white, and blue. In the same way Saturday's placement of the flags served as an active form of remembering, removing them seemed a silent way of putting that act to rest. The quiet and solitude also allowed for more time to reflect upon each grave. The placement activities on Saturday happen so fast and involve so many people that there is little time for reflection. I knew of some stories and thought of those buried as I helped pull flags (like a veteran of Iraq buried who wasn't more than three months older than me). I thought about the reason the cemetery had been established and the crowded rows of thousands of Civil War soldiers. I thought about those who have visited over the last fifteen decades or so.

It was a ranger's daughter, joining volunteers for the flag removal, who brought one of the names engraved on a headstone to life. Bouncing curls pulled back in a pony tail, mismatched baby and adult teeth, and bright eyes characterized what an average 8-year-old might look like. This child, however, was not your average 8-year-old. Obviously raised by a historian (or a park ranger who loves history), she could drop some serious knowledge about the site. I had heard this particular story about Jennie (it is also posted on the park's website), but the modern-day's child personal connection to the story reminded me of the humanity contained within each engraved piece of limestone. She reminded me of those left behind to grieve their loved ones. She reminded me of how youth could be impacted by war (and still in some ways be shielded by it). In 1864, Jennie was 8-years-old, just like this ranger's daughter. Little did this a 12-year-old girl from Lafayette, Indiana realize when she wrote that letter, requesting "some little girl" be kind enough to place flowers on her papa's grave realize how it would impact individuals nearly 150 years later. Memorializing the death of her father was in a simple act of placing flowers on his grave, an act Jennie would not be able to do. What would Jennie think if she knew her minor request was honored nearly a century and a half later?

**Opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Park Service.

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