On Thanksgiving: the memorial that time forgot

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PLYMOUTH, MASS. -- Situated on a hilltop just around the corner from my home is an eight-story granite monument that was dedicated with great fanfare in the late 1800s. Women carried parasols on that day. Men with mutton chops and mustaches declaimed from a bunting-adorned podium.

As the years passed, houses hedged in. Trees now obscure the seaward vista. A few unimpressive signs point visitors to the National Monument to the Forefathers, and then only when practically atop it.

This is not a plea for renewed public interest in this tribute to the Pilgrims. This is an appreciation of it as it is.

Oh, it has an impressive pedigree: one of the tallest stone structures in the United States; 70 years in the making; a lithic paean to courage, morality, and education. It was planned to be twice as high, a veritable Colossus of Rhodes. Practical considerations scaled it down. Time forgot it.

The monument doesn’t do much business today. There are no tour guides, souvenir stands, or sound-and-light shows. You can walk up to it day or night, or grind around the gravel path that surrounds it, and be alone with the figure of Faith, an open Bible in one hand, her other pointing skyward.

There are only passing references to the Forefathers Monument in histories and tour books. Truth is, it is not very Pilgrim. It is heavy on allegory, oozing with symbolism and geegaws as Victoriana often is. Still, that it is now a place to stumble upon and wonder about gives it a charm all its own.

Monuments are anchors in time. Epochs pass, weather erodes, people lose interest. This cannot be helped. But patina itself is worth appreciating. Patina is the value that age puts on an object. It’s what makes an antique antique. It is experience, maturity, the soft sheen of time. Patina wasn’t present at the spanking-new creation. It comes from a life lived.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome shocked many people when restoration was completed in 1994 because of the vividness of the images. Archival research had convinced art historians that Michelangelo’s frescos were born vivid and that years of soot and grime had dulled them. This is not to make the case for soot and grime, but that dulled surface was the real Michelangelo to generations of visitors. Romantic-era images arose from this mistakenly gauzy view, just as the Renaissance mistook the white columns of ancient Greece as genuine because time had bleached the original cartoon colors.

Even a drop in status can tell a story. If you have visited the ancient Egyptian capital of Luxor, you will have experienced the grandeur of Pharaonic temples. One of the most memorable locations for me is the Avenue of the Sphinxes, a two-mile road that starts out lined with a series of the stately ram-headed creatures but peters out. The road and dozens of unexcavated sphinxes disappear under the huts of modern Luxor. Which is more genuine: the grand avenue built by Amenhotep III? The restoration by Nectanebo I, who went on to put his own face on the statues? Or the huts of  modern-day Egyptians, who for hundreds of years have lived among the ruins and played in their shadows?

All have equal claim. There’s value in original intent and subsequent use.

The Forefathers Monument is a version of the Avenue of the Sphinxes – onetime grandeur residing among the commonplace. A modern Nectanebo could restore it to its former glory. Or not. It probably wouldn’t inspire today, anyway. But granite endures. The monument’s message of faith and virtue will be waiting if a future generation should stumble upon it and extract meaning out of its Victorian ideals.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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