I took this photo about 7 years ago, maybe exactly 7 years ago, at the perimeter fence of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. It may have been the day of the remembrance ceremony on the anniversary of the April 19, 1995 bombing, or it may have been some weeks before, when my students and I came to help preserve and curate some of the objects and messages visitors would leave there. Thousands of people, for 25 years now, have returned to that place and left a piece of themselves as they attempted to mark what it means to them.
Hair ribbons, plush animals–often golden retrievers to honor the search and rescue dogs who sought life in the rubble (and found mostly death), Bibles, flags, PEZ dispensers, poems, wedding bands, Narcotics Anonymous key chains . . . messages of recovery and hope and whimsy and grief and patriotism and anarchy.
I was captivated.
For 14 years my students and I were privileged to serve as deputy curators and researchers in the Memorial Museum’s archives. One of my students logged the contents of the wallet of McVeigh’s co-conspirator; it contained a Boy Scout photo of his son. I learned to read the semiotics of the fence: verbal and nonverbal references to individual stories of the 168 people killed and those who came after.
The experience changed me. Some moments it felt like the work I’d trained my whole life to do, others it felt like a thing I’d never get right enough. It mattered–still matters–so much. And so much of what haunts me is the stories I didn’t get to hear, or the ones I might have helped recover.
On the 25th anniversary of the bombing we are everywhere “sheltered in place” (a term that always meant something different to those of us who lived in tornado alley) viewing video tributes on screens. I wonder who drove or walked to the fence today, encountered a barrier, and attempted to leave a memento anyway, somehow. A tangible thing. Even an attempt at placing that thing, surreptitiously, not as an authorized tribute on social media but on the fence or near it or on a telephone poll down the street. Because there’s something about the making and placing of things that gives us ceremony when we need it. A way of saying we were here. We are here. We are still here. Mattering.
A couple years ago I found a few dozen photographs (out of literally hundreds I can’t seem to find) of the memorial fence and attempted to sequence them into a digital story, a spontaneous narrative that might help me connect the dots between my attempts at meaning-making then and now.
I viewed it again today, with its snapshots of the fence, and found its things still speaking to me, telling me the same story: that my work isn’t finished; that I’m still making the plushie on the fence more important than the memorial. And I ask myself again: what am I missing?