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Grief and Hope

Avard T. Fairbanks’s Winter Quarters Monument in the Pioneer Mormon Cemetery in Florence, Nebraska.
James C. Schaap
Avard T. Fairbanks’s Winter Quarters Monument in the Pioneer Mormon Cemetery in Florence, Nebraska.

In Rome’s famous Borgese Galleries, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's David is an immensely commanding presence that isn't just to look at. As the shepherd boy winds up for Goliath, you know you're in a battle because the boy is coiled like an Olympian, sling in his hand. He’s a moment away from leaving an indelible mark on a giant forehead.

Bernini wanted you to feel the story, to experience its life-and-death drama. Reformation renegades were upsetting the church's applecart. Something had to be done. Bernini and other baroque artists claimed you couldn't just idealize biblical characters on some Renaissance flannelgraph. People had to feel Bible stories, had to be there. If you want to understand what the term baroque means, step into the room with Bernini's David. You’ll know. The kid is soon to fell a monster. David is no illustration; he's a 600-year-old marble action figure.

You don't have to tour Italy to see impressive work. There's a piece just off the road to the Omaha airport that'll take your breath away.

Avard Fairbanks’ Tragedy at Winter Quarters is a sculpture that has none of the naked beauty of Michaelangelo's David, or the mercurial action of Bernini's. What this sculpture in the cemetery at Omaha’s Mormon Trail Museum is meant to commemorate is not who but how they suffered--and how suffering, how grief along the trail west, required a preposterous level of hope, so much so as to overcome even the death of a child.

They’re young, these two grieving parents. No clinging children, just a baby lying in a makeshift open-casket beneath their feet is their first and only child. The two are standing on uneven ground. He tries to keep balance in a striking wind that heaves his coat away while he holds grimly the broken woman he loves.

Their faces are darkened, as if our staring any closer would be unseemly. But then, we don't need to see their swollen eyes to know what it is they feel. Still, there’s more sadness because soon enough, they will leave that beloved bundle behind and, in 1847, likely never return. They know very well—and so do we—that the two of them will walk away but never leave.

We live by grief and hope. That’s here in Fairbanks’ marvelous sculpture.

It’s here because it has particular meaning in the Winter Quarters cemetery, where only three graves remain from the dozens who died here while LDS faithful were waiting for winter to abate.

But Tragedy at Winter Quarters is not just a Mormon thing. I come back every once in a while, because the artistry reaches beyond time and place.

When for the first time in months he’s with his mother, a jailed addict, at her bond hearing, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee boy named Sequoia in Brandon Thompson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking, says that when he saw his mother’s smile, he couldn’t help but realize something he’d never considered before. “It struck me then how strong grief and hope were.” He sees it in the mom he’s loved even when she appeared to have forgotten her little boy. “Grief and hope,” he says to himself, “are our anchor.”

There's just something about the sculpture that brings me back time and time again. It's just so very telling.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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