Illinois: You'll do, miss. You'll do.
I get asked sometimes about the kind of people I meet when I travel. Mostly because I always seem to come back with stories of the people that I didn’t intend to meet, but somehow managed to bump into, anyway.
When I travel alone, I ask a lot of questions. Telling perfect strangers that you’re a writer is almost tantamount to asking them for the story of their life; stand there quietly, perhaps with a pen and a piece of paper, and the world opens up to you. The next thing you know, you’re sitting on a park bench with someone who formerly looked like everyone else (but who now is suddenly very interesting), and they’re telling you the story of their life, their loves, and why they live where they live.
It’s fascinating, and it’s very, very addicting.While in Illinois, I took two day trips to Springfield. The first I devoted mostly to Lincoln-related sightseeing.
I had visited the Lincoln Memorial (I’m in the middle, sitting down) when I visited Washington D.C. in 2000, and I wanted to visit Lincoln’s home and do a small amount of related touring while I was there.
After visiting the house and the surrounding houses, I felt that I’d seen enough. I’d been to the Memorial and to his home; for some reason, I didn’t want to visit his tomb. There was something about driving to a churchyard and paying respects to a man I hadn’t known that felt both wrong and … obtrusive, somehow.
But it was late in the afternoon on a beautiful, clear day, and it seemed a shame to come so far and not drive the last three miles. So I picked up my Springfield map and headed north, away from the numbered streets of Springfield’s downtown, and headed to the cemetery.
The tomb wasn’t hard to find; it was the enormous, fantastical monolith at the top of the hill. There was no mistaking it for what it was—a tomb that was supposed to tower over everyone else who had the courage (or the meekness?) to be buried there.
But what startled me most was that I walked inside the tomb and was greeted by someone. I had expected to be alone, and I think the astonishment showed on my face. He instructed me to go to my right, gave me some particulars about the structure, and admonished me to respect the wishes of Mary Todd Lincoln and to be silent in the crypt itself. He thrust his hands in the pockets of his suit as I rounded the corner.
Which I did—mostly. I had nothing, really, to say to Mr. Lincoln that hadn’t already been said by people infinitely more suited for the task than myself, but for some reason I found myself drawn to Mary’s section of the crypt. I touched the lettering on her stone and looked down the row, seeing the etched names of the boys that she buried.
No matter what she was like, she buried more loved ones in her lifetime than any person should ever have to. I ran my fingers over the name: t-o-d-d l-i-n-c-o-l-n, and asked the stone very quietly, “I wonder, if you knew what we know, if you still would have married him.”
I walked out, back to the front of the tomb, and there he was again, repeating a different version of the same speech to the newest visitors, a middle-aged couple speaking in vaguely Indian accents. When they turned the corner to go into the tomb, he reached into his pockets again. This time, he pulled a small object out of his pocket—a counter—and clicked it twice.
Number of visitors that day. I understood now.
I introduced myself—his name was Robert, as I recall—and asked questions about the tomb itself. He gave me some literature and recited the other answers from memory. We chatted—weather, how far I’d come, etc., and then I asked the two questions I’d been itching to ask from the moment I first encountered him:
“Does it get lonely, sitting in here all day…and how does one end up in a job like this, anyhow?”
He smiled, and suddenly, he wasn’t a tour guide. Just a fiftysomething man with dark hair, short-sighted eyes, and crow’s-feet radiating out toward his temples.
“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I think I’ll sit down for a moment.” He pulled out his counter and played with it idly, then slowly scanned the room. “I started out working here in summers, to help out with the big tourist crowds that come here after school lets out. There’s a steady stream of folk that come through all throughout the year, but this time of year [December] it’s usually pretty slow because of the weather and the holidays and all.
“I hadn’t planned on working here full-time, but I lost my job a year or two ago. It was difficult to find anything around here.”
Then he smiled.
“You have to understand, jobs like this don’t come along real often. People get in jobs like these and they just fall in love with them, and they don’t just retire at age 55. The last woman that held this job didn’t retire until she was nearly eighty. When she did, I’d been working summers for a while and…” here he looked down, and I think something like embarrassment and frustration crept into his voice—“and truth be told, we needed the money, so I applied to take on the job full-time and they gave it to me.”
“It’s kinda nice, actually,” he whispered. “You meet some really odd folks, but some really interesting ones too. Most of ‘em ask the same questions about the tomb, and they don’t make it hard on you, but every now and then, someone hits you with a zinger that you have to go digging to get the answer to. You meet folk from all over the world who want to come to Springfield, Illinois, of all places in the world, to pay their respects to a man they’d never known.
“It never gets lonely here. I can’t imagine holding another job. After all, this tomb isn’t going anywhere.
“So what are you?” he asked.
I smiled. I hate this question, because the answer is long and convoluted and really isn’t worth telling to a total stranger. “A writer,” I said.
“So what did you think?”
I shuffled my feet. To say what I really thought, or say what most people undoubtedly said? I went for my real opinion: “I think it’s lovely, and grand, and I think Mr. Lincoln would be horrified by the fuss and the grandeur. It’s more a memorial for the people who cared about him, not the man himself. For that, I think his home is a lot more representative of the kind of person he was.”
He smiled. “Then go to the bottom of the hill, and you’ll find the temporary crypt Mr. Lincoln was placed in while this tomb was being built.” I nodded. He paused.
“You’ll do, miss. You’ll do.” He nodded, slowly, to himself, and shook my hand again as a new group of tourists came in the door. He pulled out his counter and began to tick them off, one at a time, and I gathered my books and headed for the back of the cemetery to find this temporary crypt.