I am a big fan of historical exhibits. I love immersing myself in another time, another world. So when the Titanic exhibit in New York opened up earlier this year, I knew that I had to go. Finally, along with my friend Beth, I decided that last Saturday was the day. We could barely contain ourselves, we were so excited.
Now I know that the Titanic will, for better or for worse, always make me think of the movie. It’s just the reality. Let’s be honest, I tend to think of movies or plays in most circumstances so why would this be any different. I accept this and decided that it would simply be another part of the experience; maybe it would also be a test of the film’s accuracy. I had been told that when you enter they give you a boarding pass which contains the identity of a real passenger from the Titanic’s voyage. Beth had been joking for days that I was going to be third class steerage because of my Irish ancestry and that she would be a first class passenger, being of German lineage herself. I’m scrappy so I wasn’t worried but imagine my secret delight when we both ended up as third class passengers. Take that.
I was given the identity of Miss Bridget Delia McDermott, a good Irish girl traveling to St. Louis to visit family. The best part of the boarding pass was a little section with more information. It said that before she departed on her travels she was told that while her trip would bring tragedy, she would be spared. We’ll get to my thoughts on that later. The exhibit is amazing. They have thousands of artifacts, hauntingly displayed, which remind you that this began as a boat trip with no implicit designs to become immortalized in epic gallery rooms and convention halls around the world. They’ve built full replications of hallways, elegant staterooms and a third class cabin (where Beth and I imagined being housed). The hallway was the most powerful for me, perhaps because it felt real. I could imagine running down the hallway on the way to the dining room with the unmistakable smell of the sea all around me.
The only part of the exhibit that shifted me out of my own movie into the more famous one (with a more celebrated redhead in the cast) was the full version of the grand staircase. We stood there with chills, imagining Leo waiting at the bottom of the staircase. Maybe that’s a testament to the power of the film because regardless of your opinion of it, it lives in this corner of your heart where you believe that love survives a sinking ship, that something beautiful lives on past inconceivable tragedy. You could have the overly chipper photographer man take a picture of you standing on the steps but we decided that 1) it could never compete with the historical or cinematic images in our heads and 2) that two girls smiling like idiots on the grand staircase would probably look ridiculous.
As you move on through the exhibit, and the timeline ticks towards the iceberg moment, the sounds of the unsettled ocean grew. There were signs on the walls with quotes from passengers, words that were spoken as the events unfolded and memories recounted by those who survived. The artifacts shift as well. No longer champagne bottles still filled with liquid and sealed with a cork, now they were pocket watches or pieces of jewelry. Things that reminded you that people died. It is significantly harder to forget that when you are looking at a shoe vs. a soup bowl. It’s not this romantic sunken ship, it’s a tomb.
Not to go off on a tangent (especially because I will rapidly become blisteringly incoherent when discussing this subject) but it reminds me of the most horrifying and haunting part of the memorial buildings at Auschwitz. I walked through the camp alone, leaving my traveling companions out in the snow. They couldn’t stomach it and I felt I didn’t deserve a buffer anyway. I didn’t deserve someone to make it easier. And no matter how much you learn about the Holocaust, the details and the facts about the devastating loss of life, nothing prepared me for the rooms filled with glasses and teeth and clothing. How can you deny that this happened? How can anyone say that… I think nothing is quite as haunting as the possessions, the personal artifacts that remain. I always imagine that to be the hardest part of dealing with death, all the stuff you have to see and touch and deal with after the person is gone. Things that make it impossible to ignore that a life is lost.
Okay, that is something I am not prepared to elaborate on in any context, I feel inadequately prepared now (or ever) to write or speak articulately about such pain and loss. The Titanic, yeah that’s what we were talking about…. Funny how the Titanic seems like a lighter subject now. So back to giant icebergs causing mass causalities…
In the last room of the exhibit there are signs on the walls listings all the passengers according to class. But they are divided even more into those who Survived and those who were Lost. Beth and I frantically scanned the names for our corresponding identities. I quickly found Miss Bridget. And, as I had predicted, she lived. I found out during some independent research later that Bridget, the brave Irish lass that she was, jumped from a ladder into Rescue Boat No. 13. She was going to survive. Apparently she then lived out most of her life running a boarding house in New Jersey until she died in 1959. Beth’s woman, Alma, unfortunately died. And we did take a moment to mourn her loss. I was really hoping that she would make it; after all she was traveling with four little children to meet her husband who was already settled in America.
Besides simply being happy that Bridget survived because of the rivalry Beth and I developed in our Titanic-exhibit planning or the joy of the Irish spirit in general, I thought about the story mentioned on my boarding pass. The story about Bridget being told that while tragedy would occur, she would survive. Now that could simply be a strange twist of fate, but it did somehow make me believe that she would be okay. Because I wanted her to be okay. And a fortune teller’s words make me feel better. And maybe they gave her strength; maybe she trusted the words of a stranger too. And maybe it’s because I want to believe that there’s reason behind it all, a reason why this woman survived and a young mother with four children died in that icy tomb.
I want things to make sense. And the truth is they never really do. So what do we do with that information? How do we get dressed and leave the house when you just never know… You cannot know. Maybe we have to simply accept that there is no rhyme or reason. There is no soothing the loss, no comfort. Tragedy happens. And we cannot adequately prepare. We might have to jump into a lifeboat (or some more appropriate version of this act) and we might have to be the one left with a loved one’s empty shoes.
But that’s not going to stop me from starting each journey with hope. From believing, despite all odds. If someone else wants to go see the exhibit (I’ll go again, call me!) I will take that boarding pass filled with faith that my adopted identity will survive. Because I don’t think I can journey through the beautifully designed rooms, or through my life, in any other way.
“What is to give light must endure burning.”
Dream Role: Hermione in A Winter’s Tale (someday…)