On Presidents Day, we took my daughter Libby and her best friend Katie to do a whirlwind Lincoln tour of Washington, D.C.
The girls are both third-graders at Green-Fields, and Libby has recently become enamored of our 16th president. Apparently she and her classmates in Mrs. Elliot’s class have been studying Honest Abe, who has now been deemed as “the greatest president who ever lived” by my daughter.
“Were you alive when Lincoln was president?” she asked me, excited about the possibility.
She seemed a bit disappointed when I pointed out Lincoln was president in the 1800s and I didn’t show up until a century later. But her question depressed me just as much as my answer did her. My birthday was fast approaching, and I was feeling pretty darned old. After all, the presidents of my childhood—Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and such—were just like Abe to my daughter, just notations in a history book. Ancient history, just like I was feeling.
“I have an idea,” I said, trying to lift both of our spirits. “Let’s go to Washington and let you check out everything Lincoln.” And we agreed that Presidents Day would be the perfect date for that journey.
Our first stop was the Petersen House, better known as “The House Where Lincoln Died.” The girls were sufficiently reverent walking through, making note of the pillow Lincoln rested on and the chair where the first lady sat in vigil.
Next door, the recently opened Center for Education and Leadership offered a view of Lincoln that was a lot less solemn. Most surprising was the tower of books—more than 7,000 of them—that represented just some of the tomes written about Abraham Lincoln since his assassination. A placard informed us that there were actually some 15,000 books about Lincoln, and that he was the most-written about person in history outside of Jesus Christ.
We crossed the street to Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot while watching a performance of Our American Cousin. We were able to sit in the actual theater and watch a two-man show about the aftermath of the assassination. I saw the girls steal an occasional glimpse up at the Presidential Box, still decorated as it had been on that night in April 1865.
Afterward, we walked a few city blocks, then through the grassy mall area heading toward the Lincoln Memorial. I know the girls were taking in a lot that day, and were eager for this hands-on approach to the subject. But while we walked toward the marble monument, I heard them sharing a glimpse of the future as well.
They stood transfixed once the White House came into view. We were across the street and very far from the White House, but I could see the girls studying it, thinking about the many important men who had lived there.
Finally, Katie broke the silence. “When I get older, I want to be the first girl president.”
“And I will be your bodyguard,” Libby volunteered.
“And my mom and dad and your mom and dad will come live with us at the White House,” Katie added. “And my sisters and your brothers, too.”
Libby nodded, never averting her gaze from the White House. Then she announced, “And we’ll paint it pink and sparkly.”
“That,” Katie declared, “is a great idea.” Then they took hands and ran ahead.
I watched them go, giggling and dreaming and planning, and I realized that was what I had been missing. As we get older, we seem to accept the routine we’re in. We get up and go about our business, and we try our best to keep things status quo. And then we end up wondering how we ever got to the place we are, and what we missed along the way.
Twenty years ago, I took a job that I thought I’d be at until I found what I really wanted. And now, two decades later, I’m looking forward to retiring. That stop-gap job has become my career, and though there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s certainly nothing I ever planned for myself. When I was their age, I planned to be a writer and a teacher (and, OK, maybe one of the Pips). And now there are 15,000 books written about Lincoln, but not a single book written by me.
And I realized that, no matter how far removed we are from our dreams, they always have a way of tracking us down. They remind us of the people we were. If we’re particularly lucky, they’ll tell us it’s not too late.
That night, driving home, I listened to the girls plan their pet-training business. Hey, a girl has to do something until she’s old enough to run for president, right? They talked of whistles and websites, colored jump suits with name tags and business cards.
And as their voices rose in excitement, I heard the old dreams rattling in my head. I began planning to travel more, to do new things, to start my book. After all, this journey is about more than just putting one foot in front of another. Suddenly, for the first time in days, I wasn’t dreading my birthday.
In fact, I had the overwhelming urge to paint something pink and sparkly.