As I stood on a stool at work today, I started thinking about Mary Todd Lincoln. She was the same height as me, and I wonder how often she had to drag a stepladder over to retrieve a book from a shelf or grab a can of tomatoes from the pantry.
My height is not something I think about much. Usually I can reach whatever I need, and stepping on something to get there is second nature to me. The only time I notice my height is when I’m talking to someone tall, which sometimes makes me feel like the kid among the grownups.
Like Mary, I once dated a tall man. Jeff was 6’5” to my 5’2”, and there were times when we walked hand in hand and I felt like a Brownie going out on Dad-Daughter Date Night. All my boyfriends have been taller than me, although I know that not all good men are. Michael J. Fox, who seems to be a terrific guy, is exactly my height. I’m told by friends who’ve seen U-2 in concert that Bono’s a lot shorter than they expected, and wears platform shoes to compensate.
Women like me are referred to as “petite.” I happen to be petite all over, with 5” wrists and a ring size of 3. It can be a pain to have to shop in the children’s department for gloves. I remind myself, though, that I delivered two healthy children the natural way. So there. I’m no pipsqueak.
Still, I’ve been thinking about Mary Lincoln a lot lately. We spent two days in Springfield on Thanksgiving weekend, arriving just in time to tour the edifice at Oak Ridge Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln was buried after his tragic death. Before the warm November sun went down, we drove over to the neighborhood where he and his family lived, now a National Historic Site. A dozen houses are preserved as they were in the 1800’s, including the Lincolns’, which is open for tours. So we were able to enter the home where Abe and Mary raised their boys.
The rooms are small, but the ceilings quite high. A steep stairway connects the public rooms downstairs with the private bedrooms overhead. Behind the master bedroom and its surprisingly small bed is a second one, Mary’s room, where, as the guide informed us, she could retire alone on nights when he stayed up late reading and strategizing his run for the presidency.
Draped over the bed in that room is one of Mary’s dresses, a green silk extravaganza. It made me think of the ways she was criticized for spending too much money, on fashion and other frivolities. Touring the spectacular Lincoln Museum the next day, it became even clearer how much her every move was scrutinized and judged. A whole room is given over to headless mannequins wearing dresses, each one labeled with its owner, each one a “social rival” of Mrs. Lincoln. Good grief. How could anyone stand up to that?
Yet stand up she did, all sixty-two inches of her. I imagine her holding her own, in political debates and private conversations. Lincoln was, after all, captivated by this woman. She gave birth to four sons, orchestrated state dinners, and handled the endless other chores that fall to a First Lady to this day.
But the public role interests me much less than the private one. At the museum – which you really should go and see; it’s that amazing – one tableau in particular stopped my heart. Having viewed life-size depictions of young Abe in his log cabin, Abe and Mary courting, a heartbreaking slave auction, and legislators (plus a sinister John Wilkes Booth) loitering outside the White House entrance, we came to a very private moment in the lives of the President and his wife. There they were, inside their son Willie’s bedroom, stealing a moment from a big party to visit their sick child. Abe stood in the doorway, his son’s favorite toy in his hand, a worried look on his face. Mary sat on the bed, putting a cool cloth on her son’s fevered forehead. From the signs, we learned that he would die two weeks later.
It took a strong woman to bear up under that grief, a grief compounded, no doubt, by the earlier loss of their son Edward, who died when he was almost four. Mary may have been petite, but loss doesn’t discriminate according to size; it will fall upon your shoulders no matter how broad or tiny they are. It must have seemed unbearable, and yet she bore it, going on to resume her role as mother to her remaining two sons, another one of whom would die at age 18, and as a wife who would be widowed in the most shocking way possible.
And yet I did not leave Springfield mindful only of Mary’s losses. Instead, I thought about the family’s early years in that simple, two-story house. There was love under that roof, and certainly romance. When I got home, I wrote a poem that begins, “The stairs were steep, but so was he. / What they don’t tell you on these tours / is how I would start upstairs at night, / having blown the candles out, and pause / until he did the same. He on a lower stair, / I two steps above, perfectly / aligned for a kiss, an arousing embrace.”
Did they do that? Well, why not? I’ve done it, and I’m human. And so, I learned on this trip back in time, were they.