Houses and Graves

Of the famous homes I’ve visited, I liked FDR’s best. Of course I did.  I go for writers’ homes mainly– Poe, Dickens, Hugo, Keats, Thoreau– but I went up to Hyde Park, New York, to see FDR’s as well.

I’ve also visited some famous graves.  Chopin’s was the biggest deal to me, although Queen Elizabeth’s was pretty mind-boggling.  She knew Shakespeare.  She beat that Armada!  And she’s right there!  That was a kick in the head.

I went to Chopin’s grave as a thank-you.  I love those piano preludes.  I brought flowers, yellow gerber daisies.  It was March in Paris, so cold it wasn’t romantic or cute, and it took me forever to find him.  My feet hurt, I had a huge zit on my forehead, and I was starving.  I was pinching euros and freezing and malnourished the whole time I was there.  They don’t have whole-wheat bread or Mexican food in France.  Other than that, I loved it.

There were fresher graves than Monsieur Chopin’s in that cemetery.  It wasn’t strange that I had flowers.  A child had recently left a crayoned note on one tomb.  When I finally found Chopin, other people had left little scrolls of sheet music sitting there.  I am not musician enough to have identified the melodies.

It might have even started to snow, but I think that is a handy detail I added when I used this story in some fiction I was working on.  So, let it snow or not snow in the Parisian cemetery, on the grave of the great Romantic composer who has a white marble lady plucking a harp carved over his final resting place– whatever makes you happy.

No one else on the FDR home tour was about to wet herself with excitement like I was.  He sat in this room!  That was his lamp!  He pulled himself up this dumbwaiter!  (He did– even long after electricity, both to keep himself in shape and to assure himself he could evacuate in case of fire.)  Inside the house is neat– but you have to stay with your tour guide to make sure no one spits on the floor.

Outside the house is better.  I sat on the side porch for a while, sheltered from the misty rain, eating red jelly beans and admiring the gentle, sweeping view of the Hudson valley hills.  Then I walked down the driveway.

Here’s the thing about the driveway: Roosevelt promised himself he would learn to walk again, and he chucked himself down that driveway every goddamn day because he was going to walk again, and that was that.  He did this for seven years.  He tried and tried to make it all the way down, to the gate, to the road.  For seven years.  You know the man couldn’t walk, right?  And then he died.

FDR’s driveway is one of my favorite stories of all time.  It’s the saddest story and the happiest story.  It’s deluded and optimistic and tough and crazy and wrenching.  The most powerful man in the world (except Stalin, right?) has a driveway he wants to walk down.  He has a driveway he tries to walk down.  And he just tries and tries.  While he’s slipping arms to Britain and then turning the U.S. from a backwater to a 500-pound gorilla.  And taking a little time to look over his stamp collection and enjoy a cocktail or two.  He’s trying to walk down this driveway, and all he does is fail.

I felt really sappy about it, so all I can tell you is (puts arm over your shoulder), Son, we’ve all got driveways to walk down, don’t we?  Everybody’s got a driveway.

You can also see the graves of Franklin and Eleanor on the grounds of their Hyde Park estate.  I didn’t leave them flowers, since I have the social welfare safety net to remember them by.

Visiting the grave is a thank-you.  You hope someone will visit your grave, someday, so you can exist for a while after you die, and it will mean that they appreciated you.

Visiting the house is taking on the person.  Breathing them in.  Grasping their bannisters and sitting on their porches to weave your story in with theirs.  Knowing a famous person as a physical presence, a person who lived in a physical world as you do, and had to live by its rules.  Who wasn’t a symbol or a character or an idol.  Just a guy trying to get down his driveway.

This is the Place

In two weeks, I am flying to Rome.  I’m going because if I died without seeing Rome, I’d be pissed.  I am also going because I am very legalistic and proper, and Rome is the third in the tier of European cities that are must-see.  And lastly, I am going because I am strongly identified with Western Civilization, and I am a Christian by heritage, tradition, and my own love and practice.  Rome is, both physically and psychologically, where Western Civilization and Christianity were baked.  You can frost it or garnish them a lot of different ways, but they are what they are.

More than seeing Great Masterpieces (although I love that), what has blown me away about visiting Europe is being in the same place as someone I love… someone I love who has been dead for a long time.  

In Paris, I visited Chopin’s grave and Hugo’s apartment.  As much as I may try, listening to Chopin’s music and reading Hugo’s books in humble Kansas City, it is hard to believe that Frederic and Victor were real people.  Just people.  People who like all people had beds and noses and then needed graves.  There are a bazillion other graves in the cemetery with Chopin.  I know this because I had a hard time finding his, and I walked past a lot of them.  People are still living in apartments on either side of where Hugo lived.  There was a car parked out front with a carseat  and a sign that said, “Bebe a bord.”

I went to the Globe mock-up in London.  I thought it would be interesting and kind of silly, like a Renaissance festival, but instead it nearly brought me to tears.  All these plays were written by a person, and he (whomever he was) ran around right here in this neighborhood, quite a while ago.  I was happy just standing on the ground that Shakespeare had stood on.  It made me proud to be a human, and relieved me of any worry or competitive angst as a writer.  I didn’t need to be Shakespeare, because Shakespeare had already done that!  And he had done it so well.  I could just be myself, a bad writer, or a sometimes good writer, or give up writing entirely, I mean, whatever I felt like doing was fine.  

So other than eating European food (somehow automatically superior to everything on our continent) and drinking red wine with every meal without looking either indulgent or alcoholic, I am going to Rome to be where St. Paul was stewing in prison, writing fervent letters.  To be where Martin Luther was climbing stairs on his knees and wondering if that kind of penance was necessary or useful.

I am going to be where Keats and Shelley were.  I am too old to love like Keats, and too coarse and cynical to write like Shelley, but there they were, in love and political and Keats sick and probably sweating a great deal.  And writing and writing material for generations of flakes and English majors to swoon over.

There are a lot of dead people to visit.  The good news is that they don’t care if you visit in 1500 or 1890 or 2009.  The bad news is that so many people have lived and died in Rome that I think I will be quite busy.