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I was disappointed not long ago when my 21-year-old son, John, turned down my invitation to see the movie Lincoln.
“I am not into politics, Dad,” he said over the phone. “Forget politics – think history,” I responded.
“Dad, I already know where this is going, but Lincoln freed the slaves 30 years after the British,” he said. “And only after the Civil War engulfed him.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “So, what are you doing?”
“An assignment on St. Augustine’s confession.”
“Lincoln’s a saint to many.” I figured I might as well give it one last shot.
“Peter’s into history,” he said. “Ask him to see Lincoln with you."
The swooshing of Katyusha rocket fire invaded the room. Ah yes, Remembrance Day on TV. I picked up the remote and flipped from the Second World War movie to news of Barack Obama’s latest presidential actions. Honest Abe’s ghost must be celebrating with the better angels of his country’s nature, I thought, glancing at a picture of my sons beside the television.
“They were only 4 and 5,” I mumbled. “Where did the time go?”
There was no trouble getting them to watch The Lion King in those days. They slept with Timon and Pumbaa toys, and sang Hakuna Matata all day long. Toy Story came next, and Buzz Lightyear became John’s bosom buddy. The toy astronaut’s non-stop spurring everyone “to infinity and beyond” had been annoying after a while, but now I longed for it.
Then, the world slipped quietly into a new millennium. Movies brought out my sons’ creativity – Peter’s drawing of Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas was as real as a Polaroid. Then, the swift current from Sept. 11, 2001, swept us along a tributary of Armageddon-themed news about terrorism. But soon we were back on track, thanks to Shrek. Donkey was our favourite.
There was a crisis when we moved to a new neighbourhood and John’s grades plunged – he said he missed his old friends. Luckily, I had attended many seminars where consultants in $1,000 suits preached the benefits of thinking outside the box.
“Mrs. Francis,” I said to his sixth-grade teacher, “I’m going to buy a present for John every week. I’d like you to give it to him, please, at the end of the school day each Friday – but only if he performs well. Let him think it’s coming from you.”
“I never heard such a thing,” said the teacher. “Is that allowed?”
“Of course,” I assured her. “Just call him into your office when no one’s around and give him the present.”
Two Fridays later, John burst into my home office, handing me the $5 3-D puzzle I had bought and gift-wrapped for him a few days earlier. He shouted with his last ounce of breath; “Dad, look what I got today! Mrs. Francis said I did great this week!”
While I was helping improve John’s grades, Peter discovered Middle-Earth after reading The Hobbit just in time for the release of the first Lord of the Rings movie.
“Boys, I have tickets!” I shouted one chilly Friday in December, 2001. We sat on the edge of our seats, grinning and crunching popcorn as Frodo, Sam and the gang inspired the crowded theatre to bursts of cheers. Two years later, I bought tickets for the final instalment, The Return of the King – but my freshly minted teens decided to go with their friends. They’ve never looked back.
I could still persuade them to come along on my Civil War battle-site trips during their high-school years. Our trip to Gettysburg was a hit. We walked the Confederate Line, climbed over the rocks at Devil’s Den, stood on Little Round Top and gazed at the grassy clearing where 15,000 Confederate soldiers charged the Union Army – to their destruction.
Next, we visited the Virginia Monument, where General Lee sits atop his horse Traveller. I scribbled a note and left it at the base: “You not winning this here Gettysburg battle freed my ancestors from slavery. You did well, General.”
Later, we stood beside Lincoln’s statue and read his Gettysburg address. A curator with a professorial voice transported us to those days in July, 1863, so we could smell and touch the bloody battle.
“Imagine 50,000 dead and wounded scattered everywhere,” Peter mused.
“Now I know why Lincoln’s face is so sad,” John remarked.
“If the Union had lost at Gettysburg, Lincoln would’ve surrendered a busted-up country to the Confederate States, and slavery would have continued,” I told them as we drove home to Canada.
These memories filled me again recently as I headed to a crowded theatre in Toronto. A chill was in the air, but I discovered a warm surprise – Peter and John, grinning at me in the lobby.
“What are you boys doing here?”
“We have Lincoln tickets, Dad,” Peter said.
“You boys planned this all along?”
“Do you really believe we would let you watch Lincoln without us?” asked John.
Moments later I sat with my sons, on the edge of my seat, crunching popcorn – just like at The Lion King – and waited for President Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator assassinated inside Ford’s Theatre 148 years ago, to come back to life.
Jeffery Wright lives in Toronto.
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