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Peggy Keener: My angel mother

“All that I am or ever hope to be I owe to my angel mother.”  These are the words Abraham Lincoln used to describe his beloved Nancy Hanks.

Born out of wedlock, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy educated landowner and Abe’s poor uneducated grandmother, Nancy grew to be a woman of great kindness and forbearance with a ferocious love of God.  She was also held in high regard as …. you’ll never guess …. a wrestler!  Not only could she throw down a man, but there were rumors that she occasionally sought intimacy and tenderness from her sparring partners (after she pinned them to the ground!), qualities sorely missing from her life.

Abe’s father, Thomas, was turned down flat when he asked his first love, Sara Bush, to marry him. Rebuffed, he turned to Miss Hanks.    With no father to give her away and no dowry to offer a husband, Nancy had little to bring to a marriage except her skills as a seamstress, her ability to read … and, of course, her prowess as a wrestler.

Their first child, Sarah, was born well before the requisite nine months.  Like a wind storm, rumors spread as the gossips whispered how Nancy was shamelessly taking after her wanton mother.

The Lincoln’s first farm proved unfit for agriculture and life. Their home was an 18 x 16 foot lean-to with no windows and a dirt floor.   Two years later a log cabin was completed just in time for their second child to be born. Neighbors reported that Nancy slept on a mattress of leaves and corn husks, held up by poles—a necessary precaution to ward off the numerous rats and snakes.

It was on this bed, on a frigid snowy Sunday morning, that Nancy Hanks, the illegitimate seamstress from the backwoods of Kentucky gave birth to quite possibly America’s greatest president.  As she labored under a bearskin blanket, the wind whistled and the snow blew through the cracks in the log cabin walls. Periodically, a weakened Nancy would reach out to brush the snow off the covers.

Nancy had a beautiful singing voice.  It utterly thrilled her when the Methodist camp meetings took place where hundreds of folks came down from the hills to partake in singing and eating.  Few of them ever had visitors nor had they ever heard more than two banjos played at once. It was reported that the intensity of their music (which often dealt with the hereafter), caused the very earth and trees to vibrate. With much bravado they fearlessly dismissed death when bolstered by the power of their collective voices.

In 1816, the family moved to Indiana, where they confronted the harshest of any conditions that America pioneers ever faced. Completely isolated with only three people per square mile, their first years were unexpectedly cruel. With no land yet prepared for crops, the family existed on wild game.  If Thomas got sick, even for a day, they did not eat. Their home was a three-walled structure built into the side of a hill with a roof of sticks and brush. There were no windows or doors because they weren’t necessary.  The fourth side was completely open.

Their first winter proved to be the worst on record.  Completely exposed, the family of four suffered from the merciless wind, rain, snow, sleet and hail.  They slept on bearskins, curled up like dogs.  Wild animals were all around them making it necessary for a fire to always be burning. If it became too hot or the wind shifted, it could consume the lean-to and their lives.  If it died out, they could freeze or be devoured by the prowling bears and wolves.  This was surely the lowest point in the lives of this impoverished family.

Nancy escaped the misery by taking refuge in her faith.  Young Abe memorized entire portions of the Bible simply by listening to his mother as she repeatedly mumbled them while she worked. Her labors never ceased, they only continued after short rests.  But, then a small miracle happened. During this time, the most crushing period of her life, Nancy heard about the opening of a school. Seizing control from her husband, she insisted that both Sarah and Abe attend.  Meanwhile, Thomas sneered at the folly of the two walking eighteen miles a day for nothing.

School represented a window of hope; a chance to break from their endless cycle of the poverty and misery which smothered any dreams of a better life.  Abe remembered his mother scrubbing his face and ears, her excitement barely contained.  “You larn all ye kin, Abe,” she told him as, hand-in-hand, the children began their nine-mile trek through the forest to the tiny school.

Learning was achieved through constant recitation.  Under a tumultuous din of noise, the students, lacking writing materials, spoke aloud their lessons, thereby calling them “blab schools.” It was easy for the teacher, with a whip in hand, to know who wasn’t studying. Abe’s education wouldn’t last long, however.  Later, he figured that his entire schooling totaled up to just one year.

About this time their new home—an 18 x18 foot log cabin—was completed.  There was a dirt floor, no windows and a hanging bearskin serving as a front door.  Still there were four walls. Between them and the school, Nancy felt they had surely received God’s benevolence.

One day shortly thereafter, Nancy was aghast with disbelief when a wagon suddenly appeared. Cows were trailing behind it.  No one had ever passed the desolate Lincoln cabin for it was the end of the trail, a trail never meant for wagons.

The travelers were Tom and Elizabeth Sparrow and their teenage nephew, Dennis Hanks. The three were Nancy’s closest relatives and dearest of friends.  It was Elizabeth who had taught Nancy how to read and sew.  The trio quickly moved into the three-sided shed the Lincolns had just abandoned.  From then on there would be neighbors—loving neighbors—and milk to drink!  Ironically, the milk would almost kill them all.

Flourishing in that part of Indiana was a tall, luscious, poisonous plant called snakeroot.  The cows loved it, passing on its venom in their milk.  In the fall of 1818, Nancy nursed a neighbor lady who had fallen ill.  There she witnessed the telltale white mucus on the woman’s tongue, sharp stomach pains and violent vomiting.  On the seventh day the neighbor died.  Nancy seriously considered her own mortality.  What would become of her family if she, too, were to die?

As if an evil omen were clinging to them, shortly thereafter young Abe was kicked in the head by a mule.  He lay bleeding and unconscious.  Later when his speech recovered, he claimed he had been “killed for a time.”  Nancy, knowing God would do what he would do and nothing could change it, told Abe afterward, “It was not your time.”

Next the milk sickness struck Tom and Elizabeth Sparrow.  Within a week they both died.  Gone were her loved ones who had traveled so far to brighten Nancy’s days, then stayed so briefly, finally dying in her arms.  But providence was not yet finished.  Within days Nancy, too, became sick.  She knew she had only a week to live. Suffering through her worst fits of retching, she whispered Bible verses to her children until she was so weak they read them to her.  Running her clammy fingers through Abe’s hair, she spoke with barely audible words.  “Be kind and good to each other and to your father. Worship God.” Minutes later, Sarah and Abe clung to their mother’s lifeless body, crying out, “Mammy, Mammy!”  Their misery was indescribable.

It was the worst possible thing that could have happened to nine-year-old Abe. Alone now with no mother to cushion the emotional and physical wounds his father inflicted upon him, he silently cried as he whittled the pegs that would hold her coffin together.

(To be continued.)