It used to crack me up when I was younger that the world celebrated Presidents’ Day by having White sales. It seemed so funny–like we were saying that these were two really awesome white men and/or that we should stock up on sheets for a rally in their honour. “Celebrate Lincoln with bedsheets!” just seemed twistedly funny to me.
I was a weird kid.I have always loved Abraham Lincoln and been more than half in love with him since as far back as I can remember. I’m an Indiana girl and Lincoln featured prominently in my upbringing. We even had a bust of him in our “big bathroom” that we four children shared. Whether you were brushing your teeth, having a necessary evacuation or bathing, Abe was always there looking at you wisely. It was a small bust, though, so you never felt like he was looming. More like he was a shrunken head with some toothpaste drying on the hairline.
Until just a few years ago Lincoln National Life Insurance was based in Fort Wayne–my home town–and the Lincoln museum was there too. Every year had a field trip where we saw countless rare pictures and drawings, eyeglasses and pens and other artifacts of The Great man, the grisliest of which was perhaps the bloodied pillow from the house across from Ford’s Theatre, on loan from the Petersen house.
When I was 8 or 9 or something like that…maybe 10…we loaded up the family motorhome for one of our Educational Vacations. We toured Springfield and saw Lincoln’s house.We toured New Salem with giant walkie talkies that spewed prerecorded information about the various rustic cabins and ended that day with a play about Lincoln in an outdoor theatre. I got very sick (what are the odds?!?) and lay in the camper that night having fever dreams, all starring Lincoln who was sometimes the Lincoln of the museum and sometimes the Lincoln of the bathroom and sometimes the Lincoln of the play. In those dreams we were married and I was Mary Todd and I’m sure there were giraffes drinking tea or other fever dream apparitions. But from that dream forward I’ve been ardent about Lincoln in a scary way.
It was harder to care about Washington. Much harder. Lincoln was Midwestern and poor and I understood him and the land that shaped him. Of course we went to Mount Vernon too. (If it’s historical, we went there.) What sticks in my mind about that trip was the kingly wealth of Washington’s home. And the slave quarters. Those slaves were such a deal breaker for me; I couldn’t worship Washington or Jefferson fully when visits to the estates of their lifetimes showed plainly the palatial splendor of their homes and the grubby outbuildings for the people they owned. As a child chills went down my spine seeing how unequal the division was. It was just so right there in your face and at that moment standing in front of a tiny buildingfor a slave family (which had more people than Washington’s family) the injustice of it made me sort of hate him. I softened a bit on trips to Valley Forge but it wasn’t until reading Chernow’s biography of Washington last year that I made any sort of peace with the man. I quite respect him and have reached a sort of detente with the slave thing. But it’ll always be there, and it will always colour my opinion.
Today is for both of them, the man who made the country and the man who had to oversee the great bloody dissection necessary to excise the country’s foulest tumor. My thanks to them both for answering the hard and merciless call to serve.