After walking through Lent to Easter, a journey in which time stretches out like a path leading us somewhere, I came across an interesting list yesterday of things that all happened on April 14, making time feel more like a totem or a sculpture where the different blocks are stacked one on top of the other. The list is courtesy of The Writer’s Almanac:
- On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
- It’s the birthday of the woman who taught the blind and deaf child Helen Keller how to communicate: Anne Sullivan, born in Agawam, Massachusetts (1866).
- Shortly before midnight on this date in 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic.
- It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath was published.
I’ve been turning the list over in my mind for these couple of days, intrigued by the date they share in common, these two tragedies and two births, if you will. As one who shares a birthday with Gustav Flaubert, Edvard Munch, Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick, Jennifer Connelly, and Yuvraj Singh, I realize grouping by a date on the calendar is rather arbitrary and I’ve stayed intrigued by what the assassination, the sinking, the birth, and the novel might have to say together.
For someone of my generation (and perhaps others, too), all four things are larger than life. So much has been written and said about Lincoln, particularly our politicians trying to claim some sort of connection, that the man we think of now when we hear his name is probably not the same man shot in the theater that night. The tragedy of the Titanic has been romanticized and retold into an epic metaphor of disaster. Anne Sullivan is the one who was able to help Helen Keller, well, become Helen Keller. And Steinbeck’s book, which is sure to see a resurgence thanks to our current economic times, gave us Tom Joad, one of the great characters of American literature (and, by the way, you can watch the whole movie here for free), and his immortal words:
I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be ever’-where – wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.
Here in the story of a day we see those who dreamed big, worked hard, failed enormously, died unnecessarily, and simply survived. None of the principals involved in the events I mentioned knew how the day would go. Lincoln was going to a play. Those on the Titanic were on the maiden voyage of the best ship anyone could imagine. As Anne’s parents held her, they had no idea who she would grow up to be. Steinbeck warned his publisher that the book wouldn’t be popular.
And I wonder how the rest of the days might have been different had Lincoln seen the end of the play, the Titanic finished its voyage, had Anne Sullivan not been born blind, or Steinbeck given in to his skepticism about his novel. Would Lincoln have handled Reconstruction differently? What metaphor would we use for futility instead of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”? What might have happened to Helen Keller? What else would be on high school reading lists?
But they did happen. All of them. On April 14th. And they helped to make the world what it is. And on April 15th, during the last half hour of a quieter than usual night at the restaurant, Ginger and Cherry came to dinner and Abel and I came out from the kitchen and sat with them, along with a couple of the servers, and we talked and laughed and learned a little more about each other. Our little gathering will never make The Writer’s Almanac list, but it will take its place, adding to the metaphor of time as a mosaic, each small glistening moment essential to the bigger picture.