When I was in the eighth grade, I let my mother do my homework for me. Well, only once. It wasn’t for a grade or anything. And it was less that I let her do my homework for me and more that she insisted: she sat down, wrote out what she wanted me to turn in, and told me to copy it in my own handwriting.
It was for an essay contest. We were preparing to go on a class trip to Washington, D.C., and among the many, many patriotic activities planned was a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, where we would observe the changing of the guard and a wreath-laying ceremony. Four lucky students, winners of the aforementioned essay contest, would get to actually participate in the ceremony. My mother desperately wanted me to be one of them.
At 13 I hadn’t thought much about the meaning of war or the sacrifices it demanded. There were, perhaps, two notable exceptions: in my second-grade journal, I wrote that “millions” of troops were in Kuwait because of Saddam Hussein and I “missed them.” I didn’t know any of the soldiers, of course, but I definitely missed them. Earlier that eighth grade year, after sobbing my way through the end of the Glory, the 1989 film about one of the first all-black volunteer Union regiments in the Civil War, I wrote in a reaction paper that I didn’t care if it was “saucy” to say so, but that “war is hell.” I could parrot other people’s feelings about war and, I suppose, by extension, the United States, but I didn’t really have any of my own. That was OK, it turned out, because my mother wanted to have them for me.
Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an unusual and special experience, one I did not deserve to have.
There are two things you should know about my mother: She was something of a bully, and she loved history, especially military history, and most especially the history of the Civil War. (Once, when I was mad at her, I decided to hide the two things I thought she cared about most: her jar of Tasters’ Choice coffee crystals, and her copies of Shelby Foote’s three-volume series about the Civil War—those doorstops that sold briskly after Foote’s appearances in Ken Burns’s The Civil War.) I guess there’s also a third thing you should know about her: She never got to have much of a life of her own. She had her first child at 16, her fifth child at 39, and died at 61. She spent her entire life taking care of children. She was a brilliant, funny woman, but she did not get the education she deserved, and she spent a lot of time trying to give her children the experiences that she herself wanted. This was one of those.
She was probably making dinner in the kitchen and listening to me struggle with patriotic platitudes when she decided to intervene. Nearly 20 years later, my only memory is of her writing that U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs turned Robert E. Lee’s front lawn into the restored Union’s national cemetery. What she wrote was very beautiful, but it wasn’t mine: It was stuff I didn’t know, words I wouldn’t use. But when she told me to copy it in my own handwriting, I couldn’t really refuse, partly because she was so excited and I didn’t want to ruin it. She was using the same voice she would later use when she would exhort me to “Study computers!” So I did it. I turned the essay in.
You know what happens next. I won.
The Tomb of the Unknowns lies beneath a white marble sarcophagus on the eastern steps of the white marble Memorial Amphitheater. The memorial dates to 1921, when Congress voted to honor the war’s unidentified dead by interring in the plaza of the newly constructed amphitheater an unidentified American serviceman killed in World War I (then known as “the Great War,” of course, because they didn’t know that a second was coming). In 1956, the corpses of unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War joined the lone warrior from World War I. The Vietnam Unknown was interred in 1984, though DNA testing successfully identified the remains as those of Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie in 1998, and the body was returned to his family.
The tomb is guarded around the clock by soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, for whom this duty is a highly coveted and competitive honor. Depending on the season and the time of day, a ceremonial Changing of the Guard occurs every half-hour, or every hour, or every two hours. This is sometimes followed by a wreath-laying ceremony, like the one I participated in; members of the public are entitled by law to request them. I gather it’s a regular stop for eighth-grade tours of the District.
Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an unusual and special experience, one I did not deserve to have. Yet there I was, in my plaid uniform skirt and an oversized blue blazer and my Payless shoes. I wish I could tell you that the moment was transformative, that something swelled inside me as I recognized the importance of the ritual and how lucky I was to participate in it. Maybe I just don’t remember that part. Mostly it was something my mom wanted me to do.
But I wonder if it can ever be much more than that for an eighth grader, especially one who didn’t have any family members in the service. In any case, this is how it usually went when she lived vicariously through me: I never felt what I was supposed to feel, because the dream wasn’t mine.
I still wince when I flip past wreath-laying ceremonies on C-SPAN. I’ve come to understand that when we participate in expressions of patriotism we don’t understand, they ring hollow, whether we do it because it’s what our mothers wanted or what we think our forefathers wanted. It’s either ironic or entirely appropriate that I became an historian, and a U.S. historian at that: I’ve devoted my life to trying to understand the stories we tell about this country and the rituals of grief and celebration we conduct.
I’m not the kind of historian my mother would have liked—her interest in the Civil War conspicuously excluded anything about slavery. I’m not her kind of patriot, either, if I am one at all. There’s loss in these things, but there’s freedom, too: It’s a relief that my beliefs aren’t simply hers, copied into my own handwriting. I like to think, in spite of everything, that she’d be proud of that, too.
Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.
Lead photo: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Jason Maehl/Shutterstock)