One-hundred-fifty-six years ago today, Abraham Lincoln was struck down in the blush of youth. Honest Abe was not a babe, he was 56. His presidency was in the blush of its youth.
I am older now than he was when he went to the theatre. It is amazing for me to imagine that I have made it this far. It’s not that I have lived a dangerous life of drugs and debauchery, but that my imagination as a child—when I worshipped Lincoln because of Black friends and a children’s book depicting Honest Abe holding a friend upside down over his head so that he could walk with muddy feet upon the ceiling of Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s immaculately clean log cabin in Kentucky—could not conjure the notion of a me so old as I am today. Older than the great man himself, who was indeed very old and with wrinkles and a tall hat.
This children’s book of Lincoln also depicted him writing in coal on the back of a shovel honing his speech writing chops as a young and lanky lad clad in breeches too short for his stature. Barefoot and big-toed, the Abe Lincoln of that beloved book was an adventure seeker. He was my young mind’s predecessor to Huck Finn but without the low-brow trickster penchant for taking advantage.
Perhaps I had a crush on Abraham Lincoln. Like Grace Bedell, the little girl who suggested he grow a beard to improve his appearance before taking office, I too watched out for Abe. In shiny pennies and too-weighty-for-me library books, I sought him. I wanted to follow in his footsteps, the youthful, blushing ones not the ones in Ford’s Theatre, and become a lawyer and an orator. I wanted to write and give great speeches, ride on elegant trains, wear waistcoats, and black bowties.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Walt Whitman loved him, too. Maybe even like a little girl might do. I can see her now, not Grace Bedell, but the little girl with the children’s book, the one who wrote in cursive on smooth rocks using the burnt end of a stick at the edge of the campfire, the one whose dirty feet made prints on the sidewalk as a kind of elegy. Even today, as lilacs prepare to bloom and she queries Dr. Google about relief from menopausal arthritis or the side effects of hormone replacement therapy, that girl thinks of him she loves.