by Libby Sternberg
It’s odd to write a “Thank God it’s Wednesday” post on such a sad anniversary. But I try to view every day of life as a blessing, so even these sorrowful ones have a measure of grace in them.
On this horrible day in 2001, our family was as shocked as the rest of the country. We went through the same sense of disbelief as we watched the towers fall, the same sympathy for the lost and their families, the same horror at the hatred that triggered those ghastly actions.
That evening, we attended an impromptu church service, led by clergy from several parishes. We prayed, we joined in hymns. One thing we didn’t do–sing patriotic songs. I remember waiting for someone to announce a song about our country–I knew they were in the hymnal. And to this day, I regret not finding the right page and just beginning to sing one myself. I’m absolutely positive the congregation would have joined in heartily.
The song that kept coming to my mind was this one, America the Beautiful. Ray Charles has famously interpreted it on several occasions, including at a baseball game shortly after the attacks on September 11. He always starts on a later verse, and it’s hard not to think of those firefighters and policemen going into harm’s way–or the many who heeded their country’s call and went into battle in foreign lands after–at the words “who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life.”
But the line that always sticks in my head and that repeated itself in my mind that awful day was this: “America, America, God mend thine every flaw…” For me, this line summarizes the humility of this big, classless, noisy, burly, raucous country of movers and shakers and “don’t tell me we can’t do that” citizens. Yes, we’re bold and brassy and sometimes outré, but we know we’re not perfect. We know America is always a work-in-progress. Here’s a good source for the full lyrics to the song. (I apologize in advance for any ads that pop up at the beginning of these videos.)
The other patriotic song that I wish we sang more was the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Its lyrics are soaring and poetic. Yes, they have a distinct warlike thrust to them, but the line that always resonates with me (and is accented in the melodramatic arrangement below) is this: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me/ As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free…” Die to make men free…
Finally, I include our rousing National Anthem. If you’re ever in Baltimore, I recommend you stop by Fort McHenry for a tour. When we visited years ago, there was a short film about the writing of the words to the anthem. At the end of the film, one of the choruses of the military services (perhaps it was the Naval Academy chorus) sings the National Anthem. As we politely stood to show our respect, a curtain to our right slowly opened. There, through the window, we saw the flag over Ft. McHenry flapping in the breeze. If the filmmakers’ intent was to have the audience experience a hint of what it must have been like to see the flag from Francis Scott Key’s perspective, they succeeded. Here is a Mormon Tabernacle Choir rendition, with some photos of the Fort interspersed:
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.