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Illustration from What is the Full
Moon Full of

Shulamith Levey
Oppenheim

Cricket Stories

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.......

 

"Hurrah for Mr. Davis! Hurrah for Mr. Lincoln!"

Pa held out a telegram.  His face was graver than usual, these war days.

“Emilie is at Fort Monroe, in Virginia, with one of her children, Katherine.  She refuses to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.  The officer in charge asks me what to do?”
My father looked down at my mother who stood holding his arm.  Then he looked at me.  His voice was as strained as his eyes.

Emilie was my mother’s half-sister.  She came from Alabama, one of the states that had seceded from the Union.  And what a problem this has been for Pa., right from his becoming President “of all the United States,” he’d say again and again.

No, it’s been more than a problem for Pa and Ma.  It’s been a great ache in their hearts.  I could see this, looking at each one looking at each other.  Torn inside, they were.  It’s terrible when a family takes sides, specially in wartime.  Three of my mother’s half-brothers had already been killed fighting for the South, and . . . .

My mother’s pleading broke my thoughts.  “Her husband Ben is buried in Atlanta, Father.  You know he died at the Battle of Chattanooga.  You must let her come here.”  Ma put her head against Pa’s arm. He smoothed her hair with his free hand.  Pa was always trying to soothe her.  She got so upset these days after my brother Willie died last year.  Willie was eleven, a year older than I am now.

Times I feel it’s Pa needs the soothing even more.  Not so long ago he told me he blamed himself for this war.  “If I hadn’t been elected President, Son, perhaps the South wouldn’t have broken away and then we’d have none of these terrible killings.”  He told me he had to keep the country together, even though he hated slavery.  I remember when he told me.  We were playing outside with our dog Jip.  “Oh, my,” I thought, “now Pa’s got a really big problem, and now this trouble with Aunt Emilie!”

“Two years ago, Mother, I offered Ben Helm a high post, paymaster in the army with rank of Major.  I begged him not to join the Confederacy.  I admired him and have always loved your beautiful little sister.  What do you think I should do, Tadpole?”  He waved the telegram toward me.

I had to smile.  Thank goodness, Pa kept his humor.  I was baptized Thomas, but my head was sort of large for my body when I was born so I became Tad, short for Tadpole.
“Well,” I looked at Ma who’d raised her head up from Pa’s arm and was looking at me, firm and sad.  Then I looked at Pa who’d raised his thick, black eyebrows.  I felt as divided as these United States.
“Well,” I almost said, “it’s mighty lonely here since Willie died.  Even with the animals and the War Room,” but I caught myself.  I know I should catch myself more often.  Right now, good thing I did.

“Well,” I started again, “I think Ma and Aunt Emilie would like being together again, and I never met Katherine.  I could show her round and . . . .”
“Then she shall come!”  Pa lifted up Ma’s chin and bent to kiss her cheek.  “I shall send a telegram: Send her to me!”
I gave Pa a great bear hug round his legs.  “Some day I want to be just like you, Pa.”  Then I added to myself, “Without so many problems, if I’m lucky.”
“But without such troubles, Tad.,” and Pa smiled just a smidgin, “without such troubles.”

Ma hurried to the door.  “Thank you, Father.  It will be all right.  You’ll see.  It will be just fine.”
Pa flopped down on the sofa.  With a sigh, he stretched out on the long, deep couch, something he did after a day in the War Office or back and forth from the Telegraph Office.  “I have to have minute-by-minute news of our troops, the battles, the wounded,” he told Ma when she begged him to “please slow down, Mr. Lincoln.”  We all worried about Pa’s health, and Pa worried about ours.  Made a circle, it did.

Pa gave one of his great sighs.  “I hope your mother is right, Tadpole.”  He motioned to me to sit beside him.  I settled on the floor with my back against the sofa.  “You and I know how your mother has been slandered by both sides.  The Confederates say she’s betrayed her Southern roots and our Union says she’s a spy for the South.    In the White House. Your mother, a spy!”  Pa chuckled and rolled his eyes.  He could make his face do anything.  “A spy.  I’d soon call our goat Nanka a spy!”

“Maybe it’s because Ma’s bright and quick, they think she’s passing information to the South.”
Pa mussed my hair.  “People get strange ideas in wartime, son.  But I have a piece of advice for you.  When Aunt Emilie and Cousin Katherine come, stay away from the subject.”
“The subject, Pa?”

Pa swung his legs onto the floor and sat up.  “The subject of our divided country and our divided family.  Emilie is devoted to the South and so must be Katherine, even at six years old.  We want their visit to be a pleasant one.  Why,” Pa gave a push off the sofa and straightened his jacket, “when Emilie was a young girl, and mighty pretty she was, your mother and I gave her a white velvet bonnet with flowing white plumes.  Very smart.”

I jumped up.  I’d never heard Pa speak about ladies’ clothes before.  Ma loved to dress up, and I knew Pa was mighty proud of her, but . . . .
“So,” and I could hear a command in that word, “so, Tad Lincoln, I rely on you to help make Katherine and her mother’s visit a comfortable, enjoyable one.  Is my confidence well placed?”
I nodded.  Though truth to tell, holding my tongue was not what I did best.  Even with my lisp, I do like to talk.

The next afternoon, Ma called, “Hurry, Taddy,” outside my door.  “The carriage is waiting.”  We were going to the Harwood Hospital.  I was buttoning on a clean pair of my trapdoor pants round my waist fast as I could.  The minute Ma called me, I was all thumbs.  School chums made fun of my country clothes, but I’ll bet they’re lots more comfortable than the finery they run around in, all tight and belted.

Ma went almost every day to the hospital.  I’d been with her but mostly to the Convalescent Home in Alexandria.  “It’s so important for me to deliver the food and flowers myself.”  She smoothed her skirt as we clipclopped toward the hospital.

“Most of those soldiers are mere boys, Tad.  Those suffering faces break my heart.  How your father tried to avoid this terrible war.”  She drew me close to her.  I guessed what she was thinking.  Willie had died from the fever, and Robert was twenty, just right for the war.  That is, if anyone is just right for getting shot at, getting killed.

As we stepped out of the carriage, a nurse came running down the steps.  “Oh, Mrs. Lincoln,” she took up Ma’s hands and kissed them.  “I’m so glad you’ve come.  The hospital carts brought in dreadfully wounded soldiers last night.  The surgeons haven’t stopped operating and amputating since the minute those poor souls were taken in.”
Ma looked down at me.  “I’m coming with you, Ma.  Pa would want me to.”  I waited for her by the door.  The nurse whispered something in Ma’s ear.

“Tad,” my mother crouched down in front of me, “many of the men are having their arms and legs amputated with nothing to stop the pain except whiskey and a nurse to hold their hand and wipe the sweat from their faces.  They can’t help screaming out and . . . .”

“Ma,” I straightened my shoulders as far as I could without tipping backward, “Pa’s going to take me to the front one of these days.  So . . . .”
Ma stood up and took my arm.  And we went in.

It was dark and December cold when we started back.  Ma tucked her green plush carriage robe round both our legs and up to our waists.

“Pretty awful, wasn’t it, Ma?”  I laid my head against the thick sleeve of her coat.  It was warm and smooth.  “I never imagined gunpowder and bullets made such, such . . . .”  I couldn’t find the words for what I’d just seen.  Eyes blown out.  Stomachs torn open.  Bones sticking out in splinters all over bodies, all over the place.  And for what?  I’d heard groans and screams and prayers and “Help me” and “Please let me die” coming down on us from everywhere.  Awful!

Ma was whispering, “Your Pa didn’t want this, Taddy.  ‘It will be bloody, Mother,’ he said again and again.  ‘Brother against brother.  Cain and Abel, Mother’.”

“The Confederate soldiers who are wounded must be in the same awful way, Ma.  Aunt Emilie’s and Cousin Katherine’s people.  Same screaming and dying.  Why, Ma?”  I was glad she couldn’t see my eyes.  I rubbed my cheeks with my sleeve.

“The Union has to stay together.  Your father swore to this.  But nothing he said or did kept the South with us, even,” Ma took a deep breath, “even assuring those Southern states he wouldn’t touch slavery, an abomination he hates.”  She patted my hand.  “Now let’s talk about Emilie and Katherine’s visit.”  She moved a bit away from me, and I sat up.

“I’m sure you already have plans to keep your cousin busy.  I’m so looking forward to hugging Emilie again and hearing news from home.   They’ll both be sad, Taddy, very sad.  Losing a husband and father and brothers.”   Ma could hardly say that last word.  Hers, too, they were.

Next morning when I came down to breakfast, Ma and Pa were already at the table. Ma smiled at me over her teacup.
“They’ll be here tomorrow, Taddy.  Good morning.”  She reached across for Pa’s hand.  “I’m so excited, Father.  To see Emilie again.  And to meet Katherine.  And to have news of home.  I wish the other two children were coming.  It’s been,” she closed her eyes, then opened them wide, “why, it’s been years since we’ve seen each other, since she was eighteen.”

I filled my bowl with oat porridge, my favorite, covered the top with sugar and sat down next to Ma.  I noticed Pa squeezed her hand, but he sure didn’t look as happy as she did.
“It won’t be easy, Mother.  Keeping our lips closed while our hearts are open.”

My!  I set down the creamer and stared at Pa.  My!  He did have a way of putting things just right.  That’s exactly what I’d been worrying myself sick about.  Keeping my lips shut tight while I was hankering to know what was in my cousin’s heart.  Her pa dead, away from home, the war.  I get such an ache in round my heart.  Last night I had a horrid dream.  I wanted to run in to Ma and Pa’s bedroom just to be sure they were both there.  Poor cousin.

“Poor Cousin Katherine and Aunt Emilie.”  I wiped my mouth with my napkin.  “They’re going to be mighty sad, Ma.”
“Your mother is well aware of that, Son.  I’m glad you are, though not surprised.”  Pa stood up.  “I must be downstairs in the War Office.  Heaven knows what news is in store for me this morning.”  He kissed Ma, ruffed up my hair – as always – and was gone.

Ma rolled up her napkin and pushed it through a wide silver napkin ring.  It was decorated with an “M” in raised silver – “M” for Mary.
“I’m having a few ladies in for tea, Tad.  Finish your lessons.  Pay attention to your tutor and don’t worry this one so.  Keep busy.  I’m going to the hospital now.  Someone sent over a case of wine and I want those poor sick men to have it as soon as possible.”

Truth was, Ma and Pa never touched alcohol.  Truth, too, even if they did, she’d be taking the wine over to the hospital.  From what I saw yesterday, wine was as good a medicine as any.
After Ma left I ate two pieces of bread loaded with honey.  Truth was, I hated studying.  Ma and Pa loved learning.  And books.  And here I was, ten years old and could hardly read, let alone write.  My brother Robert wasn’t much for learning either.  (He’d failed his exams first time round, trying to get into Harvard.)  Willie’d been the prize pupil.  Poor Ma and Pa!

I was on my way to find my tutor – I couldn’t even remember his name, they changed almost every day – well, every week maybe – when I decided I really didn’t want lessons.  So I went straight to my room to check on my goats.  Yes sir!  There they were, spread out on my bed, chewing away, happy as can be, on a couple of old rags I’d given them.

“Good old Nanka, good old Nanny.”  There wasn’t much room, so I curled up at the end of the bed.  I loved the munching sounds they made.  Next sound I heard was the lunch bell about taking my ear off.
“Stay right there.”  I blew a few kisses to my friends, smoothed my hair, and tucked in my shirt.  “I’ll be back and then we’ll plan some special treats for Cousin Katherine.”

on to Part 2...

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