We were invited to an early dinner. My wife’s cousin Mary had definitely married well. Oh, he was just a country lawyer when they met and married in 1842. An ordinary appearing man, rather unattractive with that damn wart on his cheek and a stringy body. He was very strong, though and I’d learned not to compete with him in ax wielding and tree chopping. The man was motivated beyond anyone else around and that’s probably why he got where he is now. Who would have thought that our Mary would have done so well, raised in a slave-owning family and all? Her closest friend was that black seamstress Elizabeth Keckley!
We had an early dinner, just the four of us and knowing that the President and Mary loved books, we often read to one another when by ourselves. I recall that evening bringing a book of verses by Ralph Waldo Emerson written a few years ago. The president always liked to hear the “Concord Hymn” with its wonderful opening lines:
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world”
Of course, with his fabulous encyclopedic memory, Abe, I mean the President could quote the entire poem, but he sat respectfully listening as I read to them. Our families were not at Lexington and Concord, but it seems every American feels a kinship to those embattled farmers. I know I do!
The dinner was in a private room of the Willard Hotel, a rather ornate place built in 1850, had gilded ceilings, elegant appointments and conveniences, many mirrors and of course the grand piano. The president had stayed in a grand second floor suite prior to his inauguration and was a frequent visitor, often entertaining foreign guests, like the recent Japanese embassy.
My wife and I never went there except when we met Mary and Abe…it was much too expensive, although they always paid for us, knowing our limited budget.
The meal was delightful. I don’t recall exactly what was served; we were too wrapped up in conversation, but I am sure it was a gastronomic masterpiece, it being for the president and all. Although we had our own dining room, both for privacy and for security (the guards were always around), I always enjoyed glancing at the famous celebrities seen in the place; actors, congressmen, wealthy men and fancy women. The Willard was definitely the center of elegant social life in Washington, and now that the War was over, there were always officers and their wives celebrating from dawn til dusk under the many candles and with a small chamber orchestra always playing somewhere in the background.
The president listened intently and smiled when I finished reading and then offered up several of his favorite Emerson poems which he recited from memory: “Uriel”, “Ode to Beauty” and the “The Rhodora” which he recited looking at his wife as he said those wonderful lines:
“Tell them dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.”
Then he leaned over and kissed Mary. They had their differences, God knows sometimes she yelled at him. But being the consummate politician that he was, he was also a romantic and I squeezed my wife’s hand under the table when we saw this brief exchange.
We went on to discuss the resolving slavery issue and the end of the war problems and he appeared to be a happy but worried man. There was always something regal about him; I admired him and was always trying to emulate his grand demeanor. But I sensed he was always alone. He was always around people, always the center of attention but seemed so very alone in his thoughts and…troubles.
We finished the early dinner and retired to Ford’s Theater. Of course, he sat in the presidential box, but we had seats in the orchestra and could glance up at him. He nodded to us as the curtain rose on the first scene of “Our American Cousin”.
A short time later as I glanced up at the presidential box, I was stunned to see and remember forever that other shot heard round the world.