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February is the fastest flyer in the calendar, especially when it’s not Leap Year. It seems no sooner do I go around changing calendars from January, before I’m switching them all to March – good old muck and mire month.
I suffer from a severe dichotomy during the month. The special days make me happy but part of the time I’m fighting sadness. It’s a good thing there’s only 28 or 29 days to get through.
Let’s take the happy times. When I was a kid there were two special celebrations – the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. If we were lucky and neither day was on a Saturday or Sunday, we had a day off from school. I can’t remember when the two days were melded into one Monday. This means one day off from school for kids and, in most cases, one day off from work for adults.
For some reason, Washington’s birthday was a big day for household linens retailers. One wonders how and why these events get started. I can still remember my mother’s purchases of sheets and towels at sales in her favorite stores. I didn’t inherit the habit, unfortunately. Buying a set of sheets and a couple of sets of towels every year meant a good supply of new or fairly new items in the linen closet. I chose to do what a lot of people do – put off replacing sheets and towels until everything is fairly frayed.
It’s funny how those people wise enough to give you sheet and towels as wedding presents, never think about replacing them at a later gift giving time. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the thought. The same could be said for dishtowels and hot pads.
There was a big emphasis on Washington’s birthday on foods containing cherries; Washington having become identified with that specific food thanks to the myth about his having chopped a cherry tree down and admitting his sin to his father. This custom continues. When I was grocery shopping on President’s Day, cherry pies, cakes, and cookies were on sale.
I’ve always considered it a shame that Washington has been swallowed up in the mists of myth. He was a good man and his story has to be found by study and search. It is worth the trouble. His portraits are all so formal and almost forbidding that you have to piece together a true physical picture by seeing his personal artifacts and reading accounts written by people who knew him well.
He was a big man, not just tall, but big and strong – so broad in the hips his horse and saddle had to be very wide to accommodate him. If you see his clothing, including uniforms, you can see how large a man he was.
It was with surprise that I first saw some of his hair at the Valley Forge Museum. He has been described by contemporaries as being red headed with a temper to match. We’re so used to seeing him in a powdered wig it’s almost a shock to realize that his hair was strawberry blonde – almost golden, and very wavy. I can see him in his happy home days, playing the flute with his wigless, beautiful hair, flowing down his back.
His famous false teeth were large, made of ivory and probably torture to wear, not to say something of an impediment when speaking. His temper was legendary, as was his swearing when angry. Must have been difficult with his teeth in. One could surmise that he didn’t wear them too often.
His personal life was fascinating. Most of it was kept pretty quiet until the late twentieth century. His letters are there for the reading and they reveal much that helps us know him better. I have even read his complete expense accounts, which he kept meticulously.
Lincoln, on the other hand, has been written about in great detail and, of course, we have a wonderful record of how he looked through the miracle of photography. I’ve been a Lincoln student all my life, amassing a good Lincoln library, most of which I’ve given to a grandson, also a Lincoln admirer. I once received all 12 volumes of the Yale Lincoln papers, which contain everything extant he put on paper – even his receipts for coal deliveries to his Springfield home. I read every word.
The more you know Lincoln, the greater he becomes. Thanks to my daughter, I was able to walk in his footsteps from New Salem to his tomb, the best journey of my life.
February is the month of several family birthdays, including my beloved brother, who fought the battle of Iwo Jima during the month, and was killed on March 10th. All in all, February is a big month for me. My heart is always full, which is why I’m glad for Valentine’s Day, which is my favorite “special” day.
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