Like many school children in America during the 40’s and 50’s, I grew up with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They kept an eye on me in every classroom I entered.
I remember radiators hissing comfortably, chalk dust sifting from erasers, art projects parading walls—and George and Abe on high, supervising.
I knew their heads intimately: Washington’s pulled-back hair and big nose floating on a cloud of white because the artist didn’t finish his assignment; the expression on Lincoln’s thin face reminding me of my father when he worked too hard and worried too much.
I also knew their stories: Lincoln reading by candlelight, holding a young boy upside down to make muddy tracks on the ceiling of his stepmother’s cabin, storing papers in his stove pipe hat; Washington confessing misuse of his hatchet, clacking his false teeth, and standing as he crossed the Delaware in a boat — which must have irritated the rowers.
Though I felt well acquainted with them, I didn’t perceive them as people like the rest of us until I visited their historic sites years later.
The day I toured Valley Forge, the sun filtered through high clouds and warmed ground once covered by snow-drifted tents and unfinished huts. I thought of the soldiers who died in the cold, imagined Von Steuben drilling confidence into underfed men, and pictured the tall general walking among his troops.
But it was as I wandered through the small, two-story farmhouse that served as his headquarters that I felt the humanness of George Washington, beyond anything I had learned from books.
I remember leaving the second floor where the officers met and hearing the stairs creak at each of my steps. I thought they probably did the same under Washington. I reached out and placed my hand on the round knob topping the banister post at the bottom. My fingers tingled. Surely Washington had placed his hand here as he turned toward the small room, as naturally as I did. In that moment, I knew him as a fellow human being.
Lincoln became real to me in a grander setting.
I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in a frozen world at 6:30 AM the day before Thanksgiving in November 1969. An overcast sky prolonged the darkness; the air moved humid and cold about my face.
Except for two military guards, who seemed impervious to the frosty temperature and our awed presence, my former husband and I stood alone with Lincoln in a silent city. I studied the massiveness of the seated statue, the unruly hair above eyes that gazed directly into mine, the gangly hands, and the care-lined, familiar face.
He seemed alive.
As I read the lines of his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address carved into the walls of the interior, I imagined his voice intoning the words. I wondered if such magnificence sprang from him full-blown, or if he reread and revised his words multiple times, as I always did.
It seemed likely to me that Lincoln made revisions; he was a real person, as real as Washington: two men who struggled to do right and good things for our country.