Memorials are not typically found in private gardens. Occasionally you see a marker for a well-loved pet, like the one below that I came across at Glen Villa Art Garden, my garden in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Stones like Goldie’s make a sorrowful statement about the past, but they also are aimed at the future, at preserving memories and transforming what used to be into a continuing part of the present.
Memorials to individuals may be rare in private gardens but they are commonplace in the public sphere. Nowadays, however, the very existence of these public memorials raises questions. Who should be memorialized, and who makes the decision? Choices that once were self-evident aren’t so any longer, now that public perceptions about right and wrong, good and bad, have undergone, and continue to undergo, dramatic shifts.
Yet memorials to individuals continue to be erected. The design of some of recent vintage, like the monument to Martin Luther King, is clearly linked to the traditional ‘statue of the man’ approach.
The design of others, like the Princess Diana Fountain in Hyde Park, eschews the idea of representation in favour of abstraction.
This minimalist approach is used much more frequently now for marking public grief, tribute and remembrance than the statues and obelisks of old. Think of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, or the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, or the 9-11 memorial in New York. This minimalist approach often uses quotations to highlight an individual’s ideas and ideals. As do many more traditional memorials. Quotations from Thomas Jefferson at his memorial in Washington play an important role in cementing the reputation of the man. Meant to be uplifting, they are as contradictory as the man himself, a slave owner who could write that “all men are created equal…” while trembling for his country because God’s “justice cannot sleep forever.”
Memorials that mark school shootings and mass deaths appear with tragic regularity. So do those celebrating military victories — although like memorials to individuals, these monuments arouse mixed responses these days.
Occasionally, decision makers will deem a positive event worthy of remembering. Melvin Charney’s tribute to Human Rights and Barbara Paterson’s memorial to women’s suffrage, both located in Ottawa, are two that come to mind.
In a private setting, the choice about what to memorialize and how to do it becomes personal. At Glen Villa, I used painted posts to remember my father, a brother-in-law and a sister-in-law.
I created a space on a wooded hillside as a memorial to my mother.
Webster’s Column represents a different kind of memorial, one that honours my husband’s career as a journalist. For many months I planned to add the dates 1959-2009 to the front panel to indicate the fifty years that he worked as a reporter, columnist, commentator and editor. Sometime over the coming months I will finally do that.
But can I do more?
The question I’m asking myself now is, can I find a way for the land itself to celebrate a single life, to show grief, to pay tribute and to remember? I haven’t seen Maya Lin’s Wave Field at Storm King, the outdoor sculpture park in New York, but the idea behind it appeals to me. I imagine walking over a gently undulating field and the pleasure that gives me: then I imagine those undulations enlarged and exaggerated, more powerfully expressing the ups and downs of a life lived together, hikes that took us to wide open views from the mountain crests and to tense, constricted gloom in the depressing moments that every marriage must have.
There is an abstract quality to Lin’s landscape that allows each of us to see what we want to see, to project our own thoughts and experiences. Yet an individual is not an abstraction. So perhaps the view onto the linden tree at the end of the Big Meadow will suffice as memorial. It is a cliché but it brings comfort, nonetheless, to know that a tree which is leafless now will be green again in the spring. And it won’t be just any green but that wonderful spring green that promises renewal and continuing life. That may need to be enough.