My grandfather told me stories about Lincoln's youth when I was a child, and then gave me his own books about the president to read as soon as I was able. Thanks to my grandfather's tutoring, I was as enamored of President Lincoln as he was. He took me to Lincoln's home in Springfield for the first time when I was eight. It was a wonderful trip, and I have returned to visit twice since then.
On my first trip to Springfield, we saw an exhibition of sculptures related to Lincoln -- including several busts of the president -- by my grandfather's friend, the artist John Frank. Mr. Frank resided in Missouri. We visited his studio there a couple of times during my childhood, and each visit he sent me home with a gift. I treasure the small bust of Lincoln he gave me, and remember vividly my excitement when he let me pick out any print I wanted to take home from his studio. That print of a winter scene, as well as the sculpture of "The Prairie Lawyer" are fantastic mementos of my youth. Although I was young, I knew that my grandfather greatly valued his friendship with Mr. Frank. My grandfather always enjoyed conversing with others who shared his love of history, and who could offer their perspective on history.
In my grandfather's den, he had a plaque hanging on the wall with a Lincoln quote. I now have it hanging in the farmhouse kitchen so that I see it every day. It reads: "I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him." My grandfather was very good at living that sentiment. I am working on it, and I have thought of that phrase often while on my winter task of organizing & cleaning the farmhouse.
My personal favorite quote of Lincoln: "I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday." That line reminds me that it is incumbent upon us as humans to keep moving forward, keep striving, keep improving . . . And to a certain extent, to be forgiving of our yesterdays because we did not yet know what we do today. It may be small victories or it may be something grand, but integrity is built upon a willingness to be a better person. Sloth is easy, improvement is hard -- but it is much more rewarding.
I spent my Presidents' Day feeding animals in the cold, and then continuing my cleaning process for the farmhouse. My personal victory today: I took apart the Oreck sweeper, figured out why it was not working properly, and successfully put it back together all by myself. Certainly a very small victory in the scheme of the world, yet I am definitely wiser today about vacuum cleaners than I was yesterday. I suspect that for Lincoln and for my grandfather -- Giants though they are to me -- there were likewise plenty of days with only small victories. What made them great was that they persevered, they kept going even when the going was tough, and that prepared them to be men of character. Reading and observation taught me that my grandfather and Lincoln both struggled in life, both wrestled with melancholy & disappointment, and both grew to be men of integrity despite these challenges. They inspire me.
I hope that on Presidents' Day, all Americans take time to reflect on the leaders of our nation. They were all just individuals like us, with all the frailties of being human. Yet men like Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson rose to the challenge of their executive office and left lasting legacies. Presidents' Day is not about sales at stores or the fun of a day off work. It is about people like us who dedicated their life to serving our country to the best of their abilities. It is about honoring their noble qualities -- and learning from their failures. It is about taking their examples to be the best American that we can personally be every day . . . Whether it is in a small way or in a grand way, we can aspire to be a better American (and a better person!) each and every day.