Lincoln's Step-mother

Jim Watt jmbetter at
Thu Mar 14 10:45:30 PDT 2013


*Jim & Marie Watt*

*Tel: 253-517-9195 - Email: jmbetter at*


March 14, 2013

 “*HE LOVED ME TRULY” – Lincoln’s Step-mother.*

*By Bernadine Bailey & Dorothy Walworth*

*The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. (February 1945 issue)*

 *THE BRIDE rode with her husband on the high front seat of the jolting
wagon. She was 31 years old, and, in 1819, that was middle-aged, for most
pioneer women died early. It was a December day, cold for Kentucky, and
they were headed north toward forest country. “I reckon it’ll be fine
weather,” she said, for she was the sort to make the best of things.*

 *Yesterday Tom had arrived on horseback, all the way from his Indiana
farm, at her house in Elizabethtown. He had come straight to the point:
“Miss Sally, I have no wife and you no husband. I came a-purpose to marry
you. I knowed you from a girl and you knowed me from a boy. I’ve no time to
lose. If you’re willin’, let it be done straight off.”*

 *That morning they had been married at the Methodist parsonage. The
preacher wrote down that she, Sarah Bush Johnston, had been three years a
widow and Tom’s wife had died last winter. The horses and wagon Tom had
borrowed waited outside. The wagon was piled high with her household goods,
so that there was scarcely room for her three children. Tom had two
children of his own; he hadn’t told them he was bringing back a new mother.
There was a shadow in her blue-gray eyes when she thought about that. Maybe
they’d feel she didn’t belong.*

 *A raft ferried the wagon across the half-frozen Ohio River. The air
sharpened; the wheels sank to their hubs in snow. After five days they came
to a log cabin in a small clearing on Little Pigeon River. It had no
windows, and the door was only a deerskin-covered opening. A stick chimney
plastered with clay ran up the outside.*

 *Tom hallooed and a little boy ran out of the door. He was thin as a
scarecrow, and wore a ragged shirt and tattered deerskin pants. But it was
the look in his eyes that went to Sarah’s heart, although it was a look she
couldn’t put a name to. She got down from the wagon, opened her arms and
folded him close.*

 “*I reckon we’ll be good friends,” she said. “Howdy, Abe Lincoln.”*

 *She had never been in the wilderness before; she had known small-town
comfort. This was a one-room cabin, with no real floor, only packed dirt.
The bedstead was a makeshift of boards laid on sticks against the wall,
with a mattress of loose cornhusks. The bedcovers were skins and cast-off
clothing. Ten-year-old Abe and his 12-year-old sister had always slept on
piles of leaves up in the loft, to which they climbed by pegs fastened to
the wall. The furniture was some three-legged stools and a table axed
smooth on top, bark side under. Dennis Hanks, an 18-year-old cousin of
Tom’s first wife, Nancy Hanks, was living with the family and had been
trying to cook with the help of a Dutch oven, one battered pot, and a
couple of iron spoons. Although she must have expected a place far better
than this, all Sarah said was, “Tom, fetch me a load of firewood. I aim to
heat some water.”*

 *This new stepmother with the rosy face and the bright curly hair wasted
no time. As soon as the water steamed, she brought out of her own
belongings a gourd full of homemade soap. Then, in front of the hot fire,
she scrubbed Abe and his sister and combed their matted hair with her own
clean shell comb. When the wagon was unpacked, little Abe, who had not said
a word, ran his bony fingers over such wonderful things as a walnut bureau,
a clothes chest, a loom and real chairs. And that night, when he went to
bed in the loft, he did not find the leaves; she had thrown them outdoors.
He had a feather mattress and a feather pillow, and enough blankets so he
was warm all night.*

 *In a couple of weeks, a body wouldn’t have known the place. Sarah had
what folks called “faculty”; she worked hard and she could make other
people work, too. Even Tom, who meant well but was likely to let things
slide. She never said he must do thus and so; she was too wise and too
gentle. But somehow Tom found himself making a real door for the cabin and
cutting a window, like she wanted. He put down a floor, chinked up the
cracks between the logs, white-washed the inside walls. Abe couldn’t get
over how sightly it was. And she wove Abe shirts out of homespun cloth,
coloring them with dye she steeped out of roots and barks. She made him
deerskin breeches that really fitted, and moccasins, and a coonskin cap.
She had a mirror and she rubbed it bright and held it up so’s he could see
himself – it was the first time he had ever seen himself – and he said,
“Land o’Goshen, is that me?”*

 *Sometimes, in the early mornings, when Sarah laid a new fire in the
ashes, she got to thinking it was queer how things come about. When Tom
Lincoln had courted her, 14 years ago, she had turned him down for Daniel
Johnston. Tom had been 12 years married to Nancy Hanks, who died so sudden
from the “Milk sick.” And now, after all these years, Tom and she were
together again, with his children and her children to feed and do for.*

 *The cabin was 18 feet square and there were eight people under its flimsy
roof. Sarah was taking what was left of two households, along with the
orphan boy, Dennis Hanks. Somehow she must make them into a family of folks
who loved each other; she wanted them to feel like they had always been
together. There was plenty of chance for trouble, what with the two sets of
young’uns who had never laid eyes on each other till now, and all the
stories Abe and his sister had heard folks tell about stepmothers. Those
first weeks, Sarah felt mighty anxious. Especially about Abe, though he did
what she said and never answered her back. Once she saw him looking at her
real serious when she was putting some johnnycake into the oven. “All my
life I’m goin’ to like johnnycake best,” he said suddenly, and then scooted
through the door. You couldn’t figure Abe out. As Dennis said, “There’s
somethin’ peculiarsome about Abe.”*

 *Maybe, if it hadn’t been for her, he wouldn’t have lived to be a man. He
had always grown so fast and never had enough to eat. But now, when he had
eaten enough johnnycake and meat and potatoes that were cooked through and
not just burned on top, he stopped looking so pinched and putty-color. And
he wasn’t so quiet any more. Now he had some flesh on his bones, he wasn’t
solemn. Why, he was fuller of fun than anybody. He learned to tell yarns,
like his father, but he tried them out on Sarah first, and she laughed in
the right places. She stood up for him, too, when he’d laugh out loud, all
of a sudden, at things nobody else could understand, and Tom thought he was
being sassy. “Abe’s got a right to his own jokes,” Sarah said.*

 *Sometimes Sarah thought, all to herself, that she loved Abe more than her
own children. But she didn’t really. It was just that she knew, deep down
in her heart where she told nobody but God, that Abe was somebody special,
who didn’t belong to her but was hers to keep for a while.*

 *When Abe was little, Tom hadn’t minded his walking nine miles to the
“blab school” where the scholars learned their letters by saying them over
and over out loud. But now Abe was older and stronger, Tom didn’t see why
he shouldn’t stay home and chop down trees and cradle wheat or hire out to
the neighbors for husking corn at 30 cents a day. Of course, he felt kind
of proud when the neighbors came to have Abe write their letters with the
pen he had made out of a buzzard’s quill and the brier-root ink. But Abe
was “reachin’ too fur” when he kept reading books instead of clearing
swamps; Tom told Abe you didn’t need to know so almighty much to get along.*

 *If Sarah hadn’t taken Abe’s part against his father, Abe wouldn’t have
got as much schooling as he did, though goodness knows it wasn’t much. He
learned, as the folks said, “by littles.” But through the years she held
out against Tom, no matter if Tom said she was plumb crazy.*

 *Abe would rather read than eat. He’d read in the morning, soon’s it was
light enough to see; he’d read in the evening when the chores were done;
he’d read when he plowed, while the horse was resting at the end of the
row. He walked 17 miles to borrow books from Lawyer Pitcher at
Rockport. Aesop’s
Fables. Robinson Crusoe. Pilgrim’s Progress. Shakespeare. The Statutes of
Indiana. When his borrowed Weeks’ Life of Washington got rained on, he
worked three full days to pay for it. Once he gave a man 50 cents for an
old barrel and found Blackstone’s Commentaries at the bottom of it, and
you’d think he’d found a gold mine. He began reading late at night by the
fire, and when Tom complained, Sarah said, “Leave the boy be.” She always
let him read until he quit of his own accord, and if he fell asleep there
on the floor she would get a quilt and wrap it gently around him.*

 *He did his ciphering on a board, and when the board got too black, he’d
plane it off and start again. If he read something he liked a lot, he’d
write it down. He was always writing, and was most always out of paper.
He’d put charcoal marks on a board, for a sign of what he wanted to write,
and when he got paper he’d copy it all down. And he’d read it out loud to
Sarah by the fire, after Tom and the rest had gone to bed. “Did I make it
plain?” he always asked her. It made her real proud when he asked her about
his writing, and she answered him as well as anybody could who didn’t know
how to read or write.*

 *They told each other things they told nobody else. He had dark spells
when nobody but her could make him hear. Spells when he thought it was no
use to hope and to plan. Abe needed a lot of encouraging.*

 *In 1830, Tom decided to look for better farm land in Illinois, and the
family moved to Coles County on Goose Nest Prairie. There Abe helped his
father build the two-room cabin where Sarah and Tom were to spend the rest
of their lives. The place was hardly built when the day came that Sarah had
foreseen, the day when Abe would leave home. He was a man grown, 22 years
old, and he had a chance to clerk in Denton Offut’s store over in New
Salem. There was nothing more she could do for Abe; for the last time she
had braved out Tom so’s Abe could learn; for the last time she had kept the
cabin quiet so’s Abe could do his reading.*

 *At first he came back often, and, later on, after he got to be a lawyer,
he visited Goose Nest Prairie twice a year. Every time Sarah saw him, it
seemed like his mind was bigger. Other folks’ minds got to a place and then
stopped, but Abe’s kept on growing. He told her about his law cases, and,
as time went on, he told her about his going to the state legislature and
his marrying Mary Todd. After Tom died, in 1851, Abe saw to it that she
didn’t want for anything.*

 *When she heard Abe was going to Charleston for his fourth debate with
Stephen A. Douglas, she went there, too, without saying a word to Abe. It
would be enough – it had always been enough – just to watch him. She was
one of the crowd on the street as the parade went by. There was a big float
drawn by a yoke of oxen, carrying three men splitting rails, and a big
sign, “Honest Abe, the Rail Splitter, the Ox Driver, the Giant Killer.” Was
that her Abe? And now here he came, riding in a shiny black carriage, and
tipping his tall black hat right and left. Was that her Abe? She tried to
make herself small, but he saw her and made the carriage stop. Then, right
in front of everybody, he got out of the carriage and came over and put his
arms around her and kissed her. Yes, that was her Abe.*

 *She wasn’t the crying kind, but she cried when he was elected President.
Alone, where nobody could see her. In the winter of 1861, before he went to
Washington, he crossed the state to see her, coming by train and carriage
in the mud and slush to say good-bye. He brought her a present, a length of
black alpaca for a dress; it was too beautiful to put scissors into; after
Abe went she’d just take it out and feel of it once in a while.*

 *Abe looked tired, and he had a lot on his mind, but they had a fine talk.
Even when they were silent, they still said things to each other, and he
still set store by what she thought. When he kissed her good-bye, he said
he’d see her soon, but she knew somehow that she would not see him again.*

 *Four years later, they came and told her he was dead. The newspapers
wrote the longest pieces about his real mother, and that was like it should
be, but some folks came and asked her what sort of boy Abe had been. And
she wanted to tell them, but it was hard to find the words. “Abe was a good
boy,” she said. “He never gave me a cross word or look. His mind and mine,
what little I had, seemed to run together.” And then she added, “He loved
me truly, I think.”*

 *Often, during the four years that remained to her, she would sit of an
evening and think of Abe. Being a mother, she did not think about him as
President, as the man about whom they sang, “We are coming, Father Abraham,
three hundred thousand strong.” She remembered him as a little boy. She was
baking johnnycake for him; she was weaving him a shirt; she was covering
him with a blanket when he had fallen asleep over his books, trying to keep
him safe from the cold.*

 *Sarah Bush Lincoln was buried beside her husband in Shiloh Cemetery. Her
death, on December 10, 1869, passed unnoticed by the nation. For many years
she was not even mentioned by historians and biographers. Not until 1924
were the graves of Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln marked with a suitable
stone. More recently, their Goose Nest Prairie home site has been made into
a state park, with a reproduction of the two-room cabin which Abraham
Lincoln helped to build. And only in the last few years have Americans come
to know that, when Abraham Lincoln said, “All that I am I owe to my angel
mother,” he was speaking of his stepmother.*

 *NOTE: So how does the above touch you? It shows a side of Lincoln that is
most real, and that meant much to him – to the depths of his being. I trust
it touched you as deeply as it touched me. Jim Watt*

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