Thursday, November 11, 2004

Commonwealth Avenue.

At lunchtime I will often walk Newbury Street. Up one side to the Public Garden, back down the other. I register minor changes in store window displays, the colors of the falling leaves, tourist demographics. Walking Newbury is like watching television while walking. There is enough there to keep my mind occupied while I get my air-taking out of the way.

Then sometimes, like today, I get wistful. "It's New England in the fall," I say to myself. "At this time of year, it's one of the lovliest places in the world." So I decided to walk with my head up, and forward, for once. I skipped my look-ins at Marc Jacobs and Camper, and I walked back to the office via Commonwealth Avenue.

Supposedly Commonwealth Avenue was, in a city that looks mostly like a shrunken version of a London high street, inspired by Paris. Beaux-Arts rowhouses succomb to ivy and American-style potted gardens on the stairs. In the middle of the road, dogs romp past statuary, under elms. The boughs lean over the wide road, couching its grandeur with coziness, and the shutters on the windows hide fires inside. And I was met with a police cordon.

I hadn't forgotten it was Veteran's Day, but I did not expect the parade. There was no buzz on Newbury that suggested a sweep of people was moving one block toward the river. Four horses shook themselves out into an orderly row, and behind them, flags, and pipers.

I'm not Irish. But somehow the Celtic wails of a bagpipe speak to my soul and I cannot help but get drawn in to their mauldlin wailing. The sound makes me feel somehow more American, which, in my first-generation, Blue state world, is a feeling I have started to lose touch with.

And then the soldiers came, from the USS Constitution, the Air National Guard, the Marines. There were years behind this feeling, I thought as I grew more melancholy. As my family sat on schooner decks or in chestnut groves, in the old country, my identity was simultaneously being grown here. Here, by these people who I was never related to and would never meet. Although my blood was in Italy when the old Constitution was built, my soul was looking to these coasts for what I was to become.

The uniforms, the flags, the determined stride, the Celtic drum caught me--it was mine, it was part of me, and I felt proud.

I looked at faces, as they glided by. It became easier to look at their backs as they walked past me rather than meet their gazes as they approached. I watch soldier after soldier walk away. And I started to cry. And the more soldiers I saw, the more I cried. I cried for them, their fates, their families. I cried for us, and our fate, and our families, and our past, and future, and our place in the world.

Then came the World War II veterans, and tears became sobs. My grandfather was a veteran, and in him I could pinpoint when my family and my country's history crossed, and became one and the same. When we became American, when what happened to America also happened to us. And what is going to happen to us?