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My Turn: Standing in awe of America's second president, John Adams

The day was damp and overcast as we scoured the grounds of Hancock Cemetery in Quincy, Massachusetts. Since my husband, Larry, and I — both history buffs — were vacationing in the area, we had decided to explore the burial grounds and look for familiar names.

Pronounced emphatically by locals as “Quin-zee,” the city was home to the renowned Adams family, not the folks featured in a popular comedy series during the 1960s but members of one of Massachusetts’ most distinguished dynasties. The remains of two eminent members — John and his son, John Quincy — were supposed to be interred in the local cemetery. But not anymore, we soon learned. The coffins of the two men and their wives had been moved across the road to United First Parish Church.

We headed toward the building and entered the unlocked front door. Inside, we were met by a gentleman of some vintage who volunteered to lead us to the vaults below ground where members of the Adams family lay.

The crypt was cool but not damp. Were the surroundings climate controlled? Perhaps. We moved forward along a narrow aisle and stopped in front of the first large sarcophagus. The identifying marker, etched in granite, read “John Adams.” I glanced at the next long block of stone. “Abigail Adams” was engraved on the lid of that tomb. A few steps farther, I stopped in front of Adams’ son, John Quincy. Next to him was his wife, Louisa.

I moved back to where we had started and placed my hand on the cold stone, slowly shaking my head from side to side. Our guide, who had been listing some of the family’s accomplishments, noticed my head-shaking and stopped in midsentence.    

“Did I say something wrong?” he asked. “I get that from teachers who know a lot more about these folks than I do, and I probably said something wrong. Is that it? Are you a teacher?”

“Oh, no,” I replied immediately. Not wanting to make him more uncomfortable than he appeared, I didn’t add that I was a retired teacher.

“Oh good,” he said with a short laugh and continued with his brief lecture.

Meanwhile, I made a concerted effort to stop shaking my head from side to side. What had started the head-shaking business was this: I was standing a few inches away from the remains of the man who, along with George Washington and fifty-some other men had signed the Declaration of Independence more than two centuries ago, paving the way for the succeeding American presidents who would lead this country. There had been no blueprint for them to follow.

What John Adams, his son and those who followed did, it was being done for the first time.

They had to get things right, or as right as they could possibly manage. And here I was, just a former schoolteacher whose meager contribution to society had included telling a few hundred high school students of American history about these remarkable men.

Here I was, so close to these important men in our country’s history, so close that I could imagine their remains lying a few inches beneath my fingertips. Was it a sense of awe and wonder I was experiencing? Or was it more a feeling of immense inferiority standing here in the presence of these great men? Perhaps a bit of both.

I took a deep breath, sighed and considered uttering a silent "thank you" before leaving their resting place and heading above ground.

Irene McCoy,
Rockville Centre

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