Like many school children in America during the 1940s and 1950s, I grew up with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Their portraits kept an eye on me in every classroom I entered at my elementary school.
I remember radiators releasing a comfortable hiss, chalk dust sifting from erasers, art projects parading walls — and George and Abe on high, supervising.
I knew their heads intimately: Washington’s gathered hair and big nose floating on a cloud of white because the lazy artist didn’t finish his coloring; Lincoln wearing the look my dad wore when he worked too hard and worried too much.
I also knew their stories: Lincoln reading by candlelight, holding young boys 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 crossing the Delaware while standing in the front of the boat — which must have peeved the rowers.
Although I felt well acquainted with them, I didn’t perceive these two great leaders 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, 2-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 when Washington walked them. I reached out and placed my hand on the round knob topping the bottom banister post. My fingers tingled. Surely he had placed his hand here as he turned toward the small room, as naturally as I had. In that moment, I knew our first president as a human being, not as a portrait.
Lincoln became real to me in a grander setting.
I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in a frozen world at 6:30 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving in November 1969. An overcast sky prolonged 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 absorbed the massiveness of the seated statue, the unruly hair above eyes that gazed directly into mine, the gangly hands, and the care-lined face that still looked familiar.
He seemed alive.
As I read the lines of the Gettysburg address and the second inaugural address carved into the walls of the interior, I imagined his voice intoning the words. I wondered if such written glory sprang from him full-blown or if he revised, reread, changed a single word multiple times, as I do.
I liked thinking President Lincoln fussed about his prose. It seemed possible. He was a real person, as real as George Washington: two men who struggled to do right and good things for our country.