Melissa D. Sullivan
t was raining the day they unveiled the tombstone. They had moved the body in the night to avoid the publicity, and only a small group would see the grave finally revealed: his wife, his brother, a few of his closest advisors and President Johnson. Compared to the internationally televised memorial three years earlier, this felt intimate, as much as the burial of a president could be intimate.
She – Mrs. Kennedy – stood straight and silent at the edge of the flag stones, each over a hundred years old, their corners rounded by handheld chisels. It was important for the grave to be simple, I’d told her. Simple yet dignified.
“Jack wasn’t a simple man,” she’d told me, sipping her drink.
The rain turned colder as the Army Chaplin raised his hands over the grave.
“Let us pray,” he droned.
Bobby, as usual, stood next to Jackie. Every few minutes, he touched her arm, lightly, as if to reassure her. But she didn’t need it. The whole nation now knew that, despite her soft voice and the newly unmoored nature of the world, Jackie Kennedy did not crack, especially where others could see.
The Army Corps of Engineers had not approved of my design for the President’s grave. The pipe necessary to run the gas for the Eternal Flame presented a hazard, and permanent memorials were not officially allowed in Arlington. But Mrs. Kennedy was set on it. She had seen the solemnity of the visitors at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.
“The people need saints, John. Real or imagined.”
An architect of twenty years, I felt ill prepared to take on this particular task. I researched for months, visiting the graves of other great men, drawing and discarding one idea after another, and calling on my colleagues in barely hidden desperation. But with every book I opened and mausoleum I visited and every phone call I placed, I kept coming back to the same question: how could I build a place for eternity when I could still remember Jack looking out on Arlington’s green fields, saying how peaceful it made him feel?
In the end, I decided it needed to be about the man. In delivering my final report, I enclosed a letter to Mrs. Kennedy, where I stressed that we remember we are dealing with a grave. “Throughout the land there are and will be many other memorials,” I wrote. “There is a time and place for each of these expressions, but the grave will have its own distinctive character.”[i]
The design was revealed at the National Gallery to near universal acclaim. Mrs. Kennedy herself came the night before and gave her official blessing to the proposal. Eventually, some changes had to be made, of course. The retaining wall was removed to allow the vista of Arlington to spread behind the grave, and in order to provide enough support for the expected crowds, workers had to dig by hand around the great roots of a nearby oak tree. Finally, the bronze brazier for Mrs. Kennedy’s Eternal Flame was replaced with a man-sized fieldstone set level with the earth.
That day, the day of the final consecration, I had an urge to stand next to her, so I could see what she saw when she looked out over what we had created together: her, out of her desire to canonize an imperfect man, and me, out of my desire to show the depth of my heartache.
But when I saw her that morning, with her white, impervious face over her husband’s grave, I knew that I should not stand by her or maybe even look directly at her. Since that night, when she had come to see my final proposal and had accepted a glass of my good whiskey and sat on my office couch, her legs folded beneath her, I could not pretend distance.
“Do you think it’s enough?” she’d asked.
“It’s the most any man could ask for,” I’d told her. “To be so visibly loved after he’s gone.”
“Loved,” she’d repeated. “Yes, I suppose it looks like that.” She’d raised a cigarette to her lips, the one she never admitted to in public. “Do you have a wife, John?”
“Do you think she knows you? Really knows you?”
“As much as any person can.”
She set down the glass. “Well, I knew Jack. And knowing is not loving, John. But it might be more important. Because they love him. But they don’t know him.” She had sounded so forsaken, speaking out of some deep, hollow place, that I had reached out to touch her, which had been my mistake and then ours.
So that day of all days – the day her husband’s body would finally come to rest forever in the place of plain stone I had envisioned for him – I could not permit myself to get too near her. Because for me, though I hated myself for it, the knowing and the loving had become the same.
I had already taken one stupid risk, months before she came to me, when I wrote that letter to her. Not the contents. Those were safe enough. But I had addressed the letter to her, to Jacqueline – not to Mrs. Kennedy, the former First Lady, or to Jackie, the icon. I had written it to Jacqueline, the small, dark woman who had visited me one night and let me console her, if only for an hour while the shadow of her husband’s memorial lengthened over us.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the Chaplin said.
“Amen,” Mrs. Kennedy said.
[i] Excerpt from a letter from John C. Warnecke to Jacqueline Kennedy, dated April 6, 1964.
About the Author
Melissa D. Sullivan is a writer, journalist, attorney and recipient of the 2016 Parent-Writer Fellowship in Fiction from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Recently, her work appeared in the Adelaide Literary Magazine and Unlost Journal. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with her family.