Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Day 103: Visiting Lafayette's Grave
I was again not a Mormon at Oxford last week. My husband and I went to Paris to end our month vacation (full "Term" lasts eight weeks, and inbetween there are six week breaks to do work and recooperate) before I started Hilary Term and he started work in London.
Besides seeing the beauty of Paris, including the Louvre, the Musee de Orsay, the Orangie, the Eifel Tower, much of St. Germain, Notre Dame, etc., I took a little pilgrimage to the grave of Marquis de Lafayette and his wife on Rue de Picpus.
Lafayette is a bit of a hero. He was a 19-year-old early inheritor of wealth, land, and presitge in France (already married for a few years to a teenage, landed wife that he fell in love with two years marriage) when he heard about the American cause for freedom (in 1775 or 1776 I believe), and disobeyed the French king's orders by paying for his own ship and sailing to America to help. He arrived in tatters and was refused a post until Congress allowed him an in-name-only commission that would allow him to shadow Washington (with no pay). From the moment he met Washington, with whom he instantly identified as a father figure and close friend, he begged for a command. Finally, he was given the opportunity to fight, showed great bravery, and took a ball in the leg. He was thereafter approved for a small command, and again faught valiantly, funding the clothes and much of the ammunitions of his small troop out of his own pocket. He survived and sustained Washington through the darkest days at Valley Forge. After his first victory and second show of great bravery, he sailed back to France, this time a hero and, after being pardoned by the king, helped Franklin convince the French to provide money and naval support to the American rebels.
He returned back with the French fleet and lead the command in the South - in Virginia - until Cornwallis was cornered and surrendered at Yorktown. He thereafter went back to France and helped to negotiate peace.
He and his wife lost everything in the French Revolution and were imprisoned more than once. His mother-in-law was one of 1,300 + guillotiened and laid in a mass grave behind a little church on Rue de Picpus, which gave his wife the right to be buried in the same graveyard when she died years later.
Although he almost didn't come due to lack of funds, Lafayette returned to the United States upon the invitation of the President and Congress (I believe it was John Quincy Adams at that point) and toured each state, collecting soil from each under which to be buried. Although he lost the soil on a steamboat that sunk in the Mississippi (he survived), he was given soil by the citizens of Massachusetts (from Bunker Hill if I remember correctly) under which to be buried. He returned to France and died soon thereafter, buried under American soil next to his wife and the 1,300 in the mass grave at Picpus. By his request, I was told that an American flag was flown over his grave even to this day.
Well, I trugged to Picpus by Place de Nation metro stop, and knocked on the church door 10 minutes to 2:00 p.m., at which time the church would open to visitors. I happened to see a man pass through the door at that point, and was told to wait a bit. I did, 20 minutes worth, and no one came to open the door, so I tried it myself. The gated door lead into a stone courtyard, bordered by a wall, a church with a garden door to its left, and what looked like a convent to the right. Not a soul was there to greet me or sell me tourist contraptions (refreshing!). In fact, there were no signs to mark the way to the garden door but a plaque to Lafayette (pictured) just to the right of the gate.
I entered into the church's garden full of tall trees and grass, but saw no cemetary. Again, there were no signs. I wandered to the back and there, in the back wall of the garden, was an opening into a cemetary. I peered into the cemetery, not seeing any American flag. Finally, in the far distant corner, against an old wall, I saw Old Glory waving in the slight breeze.
I can't quite explain what happened to me at that moment, but tears quickly sprung to my eyes. Something about the combination of seeing a symbol of my country and knowing I was so close to the body of a great American patriot - in Paris of all places - made me weep. Luckily, there was no one around, and I was able to have my cry in private and spend a bit of time honoring an adopted son of Washington and America at the foot of his grave.