With Father’s Day approaching, it seems fitting to celebrate a father who gave the gift of patience.
“Heart in Action — Louder Than Words”
Tad Lincoln was a boy of action. Lots of action. Endless Action. To the point he drove everyone around him crazy. Except his father. One father/son action had sparked my interest in Tad—the first presidential turkey pardon. That quirky bit of tradition offered potential, but I had to find a way to take it from an interesting tidbit to meaningful story.
The heart of TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE involved going deep into character. Previously I shared a post called “Listening to Your Characters” about finding the heart of a story in a person’s words. But…we don’t always have that resource. Due to a speech impediment, few people understood Tad. Given that, and that he was a child, we don’t have many of his words. When asked why he wanted a pardon for the Christmas turkey, he said, “I can’t help it. He’s a good turkey and I don’t want him killed.”
In Tad’s words, you can see his sense of justice at work. He knew about presidential pardons. People came to his father asking for them. He’d seen Papa’s compassion in action. And here we get a hint of Tad’s.
Digging into more of Tad’s actions, I discovered a relationship between father and son overflowing with tenderness, forgiveness, guidance, joy, and humor—in which they each fulfilled the needs of the other. Yes, Tad, a 10 year-old child fulfilled the deepest need of his father, the President, during the darkest time in American history. Wow! That was powerful! It grabbed me. There was the heart!
I narrowed the focus to 1863, the year after Tad’s older brother Willie died. This was where I saw Tad’s transformation. He and his father were bonded in the loss, but also by their sense of humor, love of animals, and being the target of criticism. Others called Tad “wildcat,” “troublesome,” “stuttering Tad,” a mischief maker, and “the absolute tyrant of the Executive Mansion.” He fled from tutors, rode his “goat sled” through the White House, built chairs from the formal dining table, and hung out with soldiers on the grounds. His antics made me laugh and commend his creativity, but also cringe. I wondered WHY? Was he just “spoiled”?
When I got a glimpse of his personal issues, my teacher-heart recognized him as one of those kids who challenged me and forever stuck in my heart. Research based on Tad’s documented speech, photographs, and anecdotes concludes that he had a partial cleft palate which resulted in impaired speech and the need for specially prepared food. Also it appears he had language-based learning disabilities (he didn’t read and write until age 13). Today he’d likely be labeled ADHD with his unrelenting energy, his restless wriggle.
In Tad’s time, few could see past the behaviors. Recognizing Tad’s needs, as well as his goodness and the joy he offered, his father modeled appropriate behavior and guided his son’s boisterous, loving spirit. After seeing this father-son relationship and Tad’s personal challenges, his story felt even more important as a way to shine a light on the capableness of a differently-abled learner. And…I loved the previously unseen side of Abe Lincoln and the humanity of a family in the White House that emerged. Digging deep to find the WHY of Tad’s actions and the HOW of Abe’s response enabled me to uncover this key thread.
In the story, after Papa models behaviors for Tad, we see them reflected in his play and efforts to help. Tad’s good intentions become clearer and stronger with each scene. The twinkle in Papa’s eyes serves as Tad’s “thumbs up” and allows the reader to see the impact of Tad’s actions on his father. And when we finally get to the turkey pardon, it means a whole lot more than if that act had stood alone.
Just three more months until I can share Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle with the world! I’m hoping he wriggles his way into your heart, too.
Quote from: Randall, Ruth Painter. Lincoln’s Sons. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955.