Mr. Lincoln and me

For my family, the school year ends in late June.  Classes always begin after Labor Day, which turns Memorial Day into a day off from school, but not the beginning of Summer that is for many families.

It might sound like a drag to keep the school routine going for a few extra weeks each year, but it does have its benefits too. Perhaps the best one is that the end of classes can be parlayed into an immediate, pre-Fourth of July vacation. And that’s exactly what we did two years ago. We hit the road a day early (figuring that an unexcused absence and actual attendance on the last day of school aren’t much different from each other) and drove from Chicago to Ohio. Our final destination was the Outer Cape in Massachusettes, but driving there in a single day isn’t something I would advise (but please send me an email if you can pull it off. I’d love to hear about it).

After a night of rest, we got up early the next day to begin the long haul to the Cape.  Ohio soon bade us farewell, and Pennsylvania kept us for about as long as it takes to wait in a crowded drive thru at McDonald’s. Then it was onto New York, which would have been more exciting had it been the final destination. But, for this trip, it was more like the wall on the Superstars obstacle course from the 1970s TV competition. You had to first get over the wall before you could run through the tunnel, push the blocking sled, run through the tires, jump over the water hazard, clear the high jump, jump over the two hurdles, and then cross the finish line. It’s strange what you can remember sometimes, isn’t it?

Once we made it past Buffalo, we wanted to get gas and then stop for lunch. We had our GPS on, and set it to find a gas station nearest to our exit. As we came to a juncture off of the exit ramp, the GPS identified one gas station 1.4 miles away on the left, and another one 1.5 miles away on the right. We took the shorter distance and turned left. And then serendipity caught up to us in a big way.

The gas station was closed, and looked like it had been for some time. Apparently no one had informed the GPS people of this, though. We felt like we had been led astray, but with a week in Cape Cod upcoming, how upset could we really be?

Rather than doubling back toward the highway off ramp, we kept going the same way that we were already headed. And soon enough, we found ourselves arriving in the town of Westfield, New York. It was a quiet, picturesque town, and we wanted to soak it up for a little while before continuing on our journey.

After eating a picnic lunch under a shady tree near a gazebo, we were gathering up our things to leave when I noticed a statue off in the distance. I’m not sure why, but something drew me to it. I had some garbage to throw out, and I told my wife I’d catch up with her in a moment. I then walked in the direction of the statue and noticed it was holding something in its left hand. It looked like a stovepipe hat. I thought to myself “A Lincoln staute? Here? What for?” So I went to have a closer look.

It turns out that Westfield, New York has a part in one of the more well-known stories of the Lincoln lore. It was the home of Grace Bedell, who wrote a letter to Lincoln as he was running for president in 1860. She suggested that he should grow whiskers on his face, because they might improve his appearance. Since Lincoln took her words to heart, the beard and the stovepipe hat are part of the mental image that we have whenever we think of Lincoln.

The rest of my family came over to join me, and we spent a few minutes looking at the statues and posing for pictures with them.  There are actually two statues, one of Lincoln, and one of young Grace Bedell. She is holding a bouquet of flowers, and one of the flowers has fallen out and is attached to the brick sidewalk that surrounds the site. The statues are supposed to recall the moment when, at a stop on his train ride to Washington to assume the presidency in 1861, Lincoln asked that Grace Bedell be brought forward. He told her that he had grown the whiskers on her advice, and thanked her for suggesting it to him.  It’s a credit to Lincoln that he would give credit to Grace in the first place. Otherwise, her name might have been lost to history.

As we walked back to car, I recognized that I  had something of a “teachable moment,” and so I went for it.

“That sure was an interesting story about Grace and the letter she wrote, wasn’t it girls?”

“Yeah,” my six year-old replied. “I liked looking at her statue.”

“Can you imagine Lincoln without his beard?”  I asked, knowing what the answer would be.

“No,” replied my 11 year-old.

“So she did him a favor by writing to him and suggesting that he should grow a beard.”

“She sure did,” the six year-old agreed.

“Do you think anyone told her not to waste her time sending Abraham Lincoln a letter like that?”

“Probably. Nobody ever listens to kids,” my 11 year-old chimed in.

“Grace was 12 when she wrote that letter,” I continued on. “She didn’t think it was a waste of time, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” That’s about as close to agreement as you can get from an 11 year-old.

“So if anybody tells you you’re wasting your time with something, but you believe in it, what do you think Grace would say?” I knew this was my last chance to get the point across.

“She would say to just do it, anyway.” With that, I hoped that the lesson of Grace Bedell would take root inside my daughters, and help them grow into the strong women I want them to become someday.

We set off to continue our journey to Cape Cod, and the summer fun that we knew would be waiting for us there.  I was happy that the GPS had let us down, but I trusted that it wouldn’t ever happen again.

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