About a year ago, someone gave us a book about Abraham Lincoln. The book is for a much older child, but I read some of it to my son anyway. Since then, every time we see Lincoln’s image somewhere, the boy shouts, “Look! It’s Mr. Lincoln!”
My son never refers to the man as Abe Lincoln or President Lincoln. It’s always Mr. Lincoln, which has that perfect blend of the familiar and the respectful that I find so endearing. I now also refer to the 16th president as Mr. Lincoln.
My son doesn’t really know who Mr. Lincoln was. He doesn’t fully understand the role of the presidents yet. As far as he knows, Mommy is the only Chief Executive in the world and Daddy is her office intern. Mr. Lincoln is famous mostly because his image keeps popping up in various places from time to time, much like Mickey Mouse.
In spite of his ignorance of Mr. Lincoln’s place in the world, my son has developed an affinity for the man. This became evident on our recent trip to Washington, D.C. when we spent an afternoon visiting Ford’s Theater.
We were early for our tour at Ford’s, so we went to the nearby wax museum. Every president was represented in wax. “Creepy,” my son pronounced them, and not just because they were politicians. We began taking pictures our ourselves with the figures, but the boy would have none of it. He wouldn’t be in the same frame with any of them. Washington, Madison, Jackson, Pierce, they were all just scary zombies. I don’t blame him about Pierce; I wouldn’t have my picture taken with Franklin Pierce either.
The only wax figure the boy would consent to take a picture with was the statue of Mr. Lincoln. He wasn’t especially comfortable with the idea, but he agreed to it. He knew Mr. Lincoln was a good guy, the kind of guy that would never hurt a little kid.
At Ford’s Theater, I explained to the boy that this was the place where Mr. Lincoln was shot. The shooting was, I believe, news to him. It took a while for it to sink in. We saw a sculpture of John Wilkes Booth in a room with photographs of all the conspirators. My son pointed to the picture of George Atzerodt and asked, “Is that the man who shot Mr. Lincoln?”
I guided him to the correct photograph. “This is the man who shot Mr. Lincoln. His name was John Wilkes Booth.” The boy studied the picture in silence.
The derringer Booth used was in a sealed case. Behind it was an illustration of the moment of assassination. As my boy looked at the picture he became agitated. “I wish I had that gun,” he said, “I’d shoot that guy.” He pointed at Booth in the illustration.
My first impulse was to tell him he was a few days too late, but I held my tongue. This was serious. Somebody had shot Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln, that nebulous man who somehow only existed in pictures and in wax, was familiar. He was a friend. The boy wanted to save him, even though, deep down, he realized that he couldn’t. He knew he was too late and it made him sad.
Three-year-old children can’t always explain how their emotions are affected. We went upstairs to the theater to hear a 30-minute talk about the assassination. My son sat through the entire presentation without making a peep or kicking the back of the seat in front of him. He didn’t stand up and he didn’t ask me how long we had sit here. His behavior was as unusual as it was exemplary.
My son sat quietly; I dare say he sat respectfully. I don’t think he did this for me, nor for his mother. I don’t even think he did this for the speaker. I think he did this for his friend, Mr. Lincoln.