The window of hope closes
When Nancy Hanks, Abe Lincoln’s beloved mother died, any meager hope within him also died. There was simply no measure for the nine-year-old’s devastating loss as Nancy had been the only tenderness Abe had ever known in his harsh world with a cruel father. It was also a world where wolves and bears were an ever present danger and giant trees and rocky soil broke the spirits and backs of men and boys. Nancy had been his only window of promise, inspiring him with stories of a world beyond the only one he knew: poverty and ignorance. Suddenly that window was closed forever and Abe could no longer see anything but the dark forest.
As desperate as the family had been before Nancy’s death, without her they were soon reduced to living like animals. With no one to protect him, Abe was constantly subjected to the unrelenting whims of his boorish, merciless father, Thomas. Moreover, the squalor of their log cabin, already an impoverished shelter, quickly turned into a nightmare. Despite the efforts of Abe and his eleven-year-old sister, Sarah, their home soon became a dark, foul place swarming with vermin. Their beds of corn husks and bearskins were rampant with fleas.
Thomas hunted to keep them alive whereas the children did all the skinning, cleaning, cooking, washing and mending, an overwhelming load for two such young children. But in time, even Thomas could not stand the filth. Washing himself in a creek, he suddenly up and left the children to go in search of a new wife. He was gone for six months!
It is near impossible to imagine how the children survived. Only once did a neighbor make the long trek to the Lincoln farm to find them abandoned and living in wretchedness. They were skeletal, caked with dirt, and existing on dried berries. Later Abe admitted he was convinced that he and Sarah would die.
Then out of the blue on a frigid December day in 1819, Thomas Lincoln rode into view with a wagon pulled by four horses. Inside was a woman and her three children. She was Sarah Bush, the woman who had rejected Thomas’ marriage proposal years before. Described as tall, attractive, vivacious and blessed with a mischievous sense of humor, she was now a widow, her husband having died of cholera.
Thomas was a man on a mission. The minute Sarah answered his knock on her door, he began. “I have no wife and you no husband. I came a-purpose to marry you. I’ve knowed you from a gal and you’ve knowed me from a boy. I’ve no time to lose. If you’re willin’ let it be done straight off.”
As the wagon neared their cabin, Abe did not run to greet his father, even after the long six months of waiting. Instead the now ten-year-old boy ran to Sarah and buried his face in the skirts of this new strange woman. Starved for warmth and a mother’s tenderness, he immediately addressed her as “Mama.” For both of them, it was love at first sight.
Sarah brought with her a wagon full of luxuries: a walnut dresser, a table and chairs, a spinning wheel, matching dishes and glasses, and a complete set of silverware. But the most astonishing items were the pillows, the plush bedding and the blankets, opulent comforts Abe, until that moment, never even knew existed.
Nothing compared, however, to the most meaningful gift of all: six books. Interestingly, Mother Sarah could not read a word! She did know, though, that Abe could. Even though he was described as a slow reader—somewhat dull and certainly not brilliant—he nonetheless soon demonstrated to her how he learned by toiling slowly but surely over his lessons. Insisting upon understanding everything, even the smallest detail, Abe studied until the information was fixed in his mind.
In no time, Sarah demanded that her new husband put in a proper wooden floor, a real door to replace the rotten hanging bearskin, fix the roof, put in a window covered with greased paper and white wash the logs. She also requested a sleeping loft for the children, as well as a headboard for their bed. Within weeks, the hovel became a home. But most importantly, under their new mother’s guidance, Abe and Sarah had become human again. The subsequent years were the happiest of Abe’s life.
Stepmother and stepson had instantaneously forged a loving bond. To Abe “she was his best friend in the world and no son could love a mother more than I loved her.” Whereas others saw only a gangly, awkward boy in the rough, Sarah recognized in Abe a diamond. A diamond with tremendous talent. To her he was a model child. “He was the best boy I ever saw,” she said. “Abe never gave me a cross word or look, and never refused to do anything I requested. He also never told a lie.”
Many years later and full of foreboding, Sarah did not want Abe to run for president as she was fearful of what might happen to him. Within four years her premonition came true. When told about his assassination, she pulled her apron over her face and cried out, “They’ve killed him! I knew they would. I knew they would.”
If life is measured by the usual yardsticks of wealth and distinction, Sarah Bush’s life didn’t make much of an historical dent. But, at a very crucial moment in America’s history, she did save a small motherless boy by guiding him to become Abraham Lincoln … the man, the President.