In Washington, you never know whose footsteps you walk in. Standing outside the cemetery’s iron gates, I sighed nervously. I’d never ventured to this area of DC before. I wasn’t sure a graveyard was a safe place to wander.
A dusty trail led down a slopping green hill. Unsure how I would find what I was looking for, I began wandering aimless.
I noticed a few people gathered by a grave in the distance. A car passed slowly by; I kept my head down, hoping to go unnoticed. These other visitors reminded me that I was here for the wrong reasons. I hadn’t come to mourn the dead.
Eventually, I saw a cluster of tall bushes– odd landscaping in the middle of a cemetery, but I decided to check it out.
There were no words anywhere on the statue or it’s surroundings. No artist’s name. No indication of the two people buried underneath. No nothing. Just silence. I sat down to observe.
Henry was a prominent historian and the direct descendant of both President John Adams and President John Quincy Adams. His wife, Marian “Clover” was a talented amateur photographer, but after her father passed away in 1885, she entered a deep depression and committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide (a chemical used in developing her photography).
To commemorate his wife’s death, Adams enlisted pre-eminent Saint-Gaudens to create a figure representing “the acceptance, intellectually, of the inevitable.” Adams, assisted by painter friend John LeFarge, provided photos of Buddhist figures and works by Michelangelo to inspire the sculptor.
Saint-Gaudens took extreme care developing and creating the monument. He worked with Stanford White, who designed the granite bench and surrounding setting.
Six years after Marian “Clover” died, the monument was finished and installed in Rock Creek Cemetery in 1891. Adams was out of the country (in Fiji) when the sculpture was installed, but John Hay wrote to Adams, describing the sculpture:
“The work is indescribably noble and imposing. It is… full of poetry and suggestion. Infinite wisdom; a past without beginning and a future without end; a repose, after limitless experience; a peace, to which nothing matters – all embodied in this austere and beautiful face and form.”
For Adams, the figure represented “The Peace of God.” Mark Twain visited the memorial in 1906 and famously referred to it as “Grief.” In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt described his admiration for the “the shrouded seated woman.” Adams wrote the president to clarify that Saint-Gaudens’ creation was “a little higher than sex can give.”
By 1913, the Adams Memorial was considered one of the nation’s best sculptures. After Adams’ death in 1918, he was buried beside his wife under the memorial.
A hundred years later, I visited on a whim. Of all the monuments and buildings built for giants along the mall, none compare to this one. A small space never felt so expansive. Everything else melted away – I forgot I was in cemetery, I let go of my worries and stressors. I returned home a little lighter, knowing “it” was there whenever I needed it.
And what was “it?” For me, it was a higher peace and strength, beyond the noise and clutter of my daily life. Adams would say that this is the meaning I bring to it, a mirror looking back at me. And he’d be right, as I crave peace and strength in my life.
Interestingly, I wasn’t the first to find solace here. After researching, I discovered that I walked in big footsteps.
Eleanor Roosevelt became very distraught after discovering Franklin was having an affair early in their marriage. During this difficult time, “Several times each week Eleanor drove herself to Rock Creek Cemetery on the outskirts of Washington to sit along and contemplate the remarkable statue… Eleanor found solace communing with the shrouded figure of grief and in later years would usually visit the cemetery whenever in Washington.” (1)
The day before FDR’s inauguration in 1933, “Eleanor asked her friend Lorena Hickok to meet her at the Mayflower Hotel, where she and the president-elect were staying. Mrs. Roosevelt instructed the cab driver to take them to Rock Creek Cemetery so that she might gaze upon the statue once again. ‘In the old days when we lived here,’ said Eleanor, ‘I was much younger and not so very wise. Sometimes I’d be very unhappy and sorry for myself. When I was feeling that way, if I could manage, I’d come here alone, and sit and look at that woman. And I’d always come away feeling better. And stronger. I’ve been here many, many times.” (2)
I’m a big fan of Eleanor Roosevelt. She once said: “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.”
Now, I know where Eleanor nurtured her fearless spirit. Strange that she and I found solace in a graveyard. Yet here “it” was.
Sources: (1) Jean Edward Smith, “FDR” (New York: Random House, 2007) pg. 165-166.(2) Lorena A. Hickok, “Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady” (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980) pg. 92.