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Avatar Paul
Posted Feb 14, 2008 - 3:54 AM:

As an appropriate-for-today followup to In the House Where I Was Born. You'll notice I've cut large sections, so it goes.

The little towns, I never see them anymore. Pekin, Delavan, Bloomington, Galesburg, Lewiston -- all the little towns above the river with the cobblestones going down to the steamboat landings. The little towns under the hills. The shocks of corn standing lonely and snow-covered, like the teepees of old Shabbona's people. I can only think of them, and remember them, for I never go far away from here.

It is restful here, and I think I have earned rest, for I've come a long journey. My work was finished long ago, so I rest. Sometimes, in the night, I walk for a while... and remember.

The old house down on State Street is almost unchanged. The hands of time have touched it lightly. It's a comforting thing to go there at night, sit alone and remember. Always at this time of the year I remember the valentine.

So long ago. The little houses along the road, and the ravine that goes down to the Sangamon. Now, in early February, the ground is soft and damp with the melting snow. The watery sun shines down on the eager young trees. There's a promise of spring in the first February thaw, and the frogs are stirring deep in the cold mud under the spongy earth. The ghosts in the old graveyard smile at the first obscure signs of spring.

I remember the mean little houses, the store and the post office, and the drafty houses where the people lived. I remember the muddy road up from Vandalia, and high-wheeled buggies mired down in the low places. I remember the long, flat roads across the prairie where the grass grew from horizon to horizon. The groves of trees were small, genial islands in a sea of undulating green.

I hear her voice in the nighttime, and it is a far, far sound -- though I awake and hear it so many, many times.

I have many bitter memories and a few happy ones. I wonder what the world would think of the memories that come most often to haunt me among the echoing corridors under the ancient oaks. They think I dream of battles, of a victory won and the acclaim of men. Do they think I've forgotten the long, sweet days of my young manhood... the first, almost forgotten love that once I knew and cherished? Do they think I have forgotten the grief, the loneliness, the despair... the first of my so many sorrows?

Her valentine still exists. It is still to be seen and touched. If you ever look upon it I hope you will remember me, for only I remember her. Remember me... and shed a tear, perhaps, for lost love.

I was gone away from her. They sent me away. I was a little proud in my new clothes and with my parcel of books on the desk beside me. The grave speeches I should make were fermenting in my mind and crowding out all thoughts, even thoughts of her. A boy of twenty-five sitting in the general assembly, speaking gravely of laws and the affairs of the people, and not remembering my own.

Back at home, a girl -- lorn for an absent lover, remembering promises, and waiting and waiting. And waiting.

"Tomorrow, I'll write," I said. "Tomorrow." I sat in my lonely room and I remembered the hillside in the summertime, and the haze of the heat lying heavy on the low hills or beyond the curves of the Sangamon. I remembered a hand in mine as we sat on a hillside above the town. I remembered the homesick song of the cicadas in the orchard, and the reluctant, westering sun. I remembered what I had said to her on that long summer afternoon. Alone in my mean little room, I wept to remember... but I did not write. Today, after all the years, I weep again in remembering.

The gavel fell and the booming voice spoke: "I do now declare this general assembly adjourned." I took horse for home. Now my heart was heavy with doubt for I remembered my long silence and my mind now wrestled with the darkest premonitions. What would my homecoming be after those long months of silence?

Yes, I loved her. Must you ask? Can you remember back to the days when you were twenty-five? Can you remember what little thing can make a lovers' reuniting, or break it? Can you remember the little tenderness a recreant lover might bring to his dear one, the small thoughtfulness? The simple, humble thing that says, "I have not forgotten" and brings the happy smile that banishes doubt and wipes away the memory of unwritten words?

I remembered the pleasant saint, the patron of all of us who love. I remembered paper hearts, poesies of verse and ribbons and lace. In the pouring rain, I lifted up my head and said, "I thank you, Saint Valentine."

The morning came and I was home and my horse was tied up at the hitching post. I strode into the store, all muddy and triumphant.

"Well! Hi, there, Abe!" Jack Offutt greeted me. "We thought you was never coming back!"

"Hello, Jack! I took a real mighty long time to make it but I got here. Say, have you seen Ann this morning?"

"Um," he hesitated, "not since yesterday. No."

"How is she?" I prodded.

"Kind of peaked, Abe. Just on account of you not writing any letters to her."

"I'm sorry about that." I looked down in shame.

"You better be," he replied.

The door opened and Aunt Hannah walked in.

"Well!" she exclaimed "Abe! I sure am tickled you got back home."

"Me, too," I told her.

I turned back to Jack Offutt. "Uh, Jack, I want a valentine."

"Ain't got none." His reply carried a sharp edge, and its content deflated my hopes. "Who's it for?"

"Who's it for?!" Aunt Hannah interrupted. "Who'd you think it's for, you old fool?"

"Well," Jack repeated, "I ain't got none."

"You had some last year," Hannah countered. "Listen. I remember, you had one left. It was so dear nobody would buy it."

My spirits began to rise. "You sure, Aunt Hannah?" I prodded her.

"Well," Jack began. "Let me see. Yeah, I kind of remember."

"You wrapped it up in brown paper and you put it up there on top of the shelf above the dried peaches. You look, Jack."

Jack walked over the shelf and climbed to the top, muttering softly to himself. Finally he found the valentine and brought it down.

"That's it!" Jack showed it to both of us. "Pretty, ain't it?" He set it down on the counter.

"It's just the thing," I said, certain that Ann would love it.

Aunt Hannah pointed out the window and grabbed my arm. "Hide, Abe! Annie's coming up the road. Get behind the shelves here."

I hid myself and held quiet as the door opened and I heard footsteps approach. Finally I heard Ann's voice.

"Whose horse is that tied out there?" she asked.

"Was you expecting somebody, Annie?" Hannah asked.

"Well," Ann replied, "of course I was. I was hoping he'd get back for his birthday yesterday but he didn't. I know he must have tried to and I hope... oh, Jack! A valentine!"

Jack managed only an "Eh?"

"The valentine," she repeated. "I was hoping you'd have one. I'm so glad."

"Well," Jack began nervously, "I don't exactly like to sell ya that one."

"It's tore, honey," Hannah added.

"Oh, he won't mind. How much is it, Jack?"

"Sixty cents," he admitted before catching himself. "Well, ah, I was aiming to keep it. It's the only one I've got."

"I've got to have it," Ann pleaded. "Sixty cents, you said. I'll give you sixty-five."

Aunt Hannah tried to intervene. "Don't you sell that old ragged valentine to this girl!"

Ann turned to her. "Aunt Hannah, I must have it. I didn't get a thing for his birthday and I just hoped I'd be able to get him a valentine. It'd be a kind of birthday present, too." She turned back to Jack. "Can't I have it, Jack?"

Jack let out a sigh of defeat. "What do you say, Aunt Hannah?"

"Oh," Hannah conceded, "sell it to her, Jack."

"Thank you, Aunt Hannah." Ann was smiling broadly. "He'll be so pleased with it. I really have to get it for him, because I kind of expect he'll bring me one from Vandalia. They must have wonderful ones in the big stores down in Vandalia."

Ann handed over her money and Jack handed her the card. "You want to write onto it, Ann?" he asked.

"Write?" She was puzzled. "Write what?"

"Aren't you going to write down that you love him?" Aunt Hannah prodded.

"Why, he knows it, Aunt Hannah. I know it. The whole world knows it. Must I write it down?"

The days are many and the nights are long since that thirteenth of February in the little store on the Sangamon River. I have seen many places, the little towns and the mighty ones. I have seen cities happy and jubilant, cities forlorn and grief-stricken. I have known hope and gladness and exultation in my time as well as tears and sadness. Never in all my years have I felt the gladness, the simple overwhelming joy of that moment when I heard the words of this girl I loved. Thus today my grief is the greater.

I followed her out of the store at a little distance. I followed her up the ravine and up the hillside until she came to the old trysting place. I think it is very much the same today as it was then in the time when I came to her empty-handed after the long empty months.

When she came to the place, she turned. She held out her arms.

"I knew it was you following me," she said softly. "I knew it, and I wouldn't turn and look because I wanted to see you first up here on the hillside."

"Ann," I managed. "Darling."

"Darling," she returned. "You've been gone so long."

"And I never wrote to you," I noted sadly.

"But you thought of me," she stated.

"I thought of you," I stated.

"I've thought of you every single minute while you've been gone. Kiss me, darling."

We kissed. We stood there a minute after, looking at each other.

"You've changed," she observed sympathetically. "You're sadder."

"I'm older," I conceded.

"Your birthday. Yesterday. I've got a birthday present for you. It's a valentine, the very last one that Mr. Offutt had in the store."

"I know," I observed with sad irony. "I was gonna get it for you."

"Oh." The dissapointment was plain on her face. "Well, I don't need a valentine. Tell me you love me. That'll be my valentine."

I searched for words, but instead I found a song: "I love my love and well she knows / I love the grass whereon she goes / If she on earth no more I see / My life will quickly leave me"

"Oh, darling." She cried softly. "You didn't write me. I was so afraid."

"I could never forget you, Ann. As long as I live, and forever."

"But you didn't bring me a valentine."

"What can I do?" I pleaded. "I'm so sorry."

"I love you," she reassured me. "Valentine or no valentine, always and always and always."

"Always and always," I echoed. "We'll always be together.

"Hold me," she implored me. "I'm so cold suddenly. Always hold me."

"Always," I echoed again as I held her.

We sat for a long, long time in the sudden chill of the afternoon. We were so in love, Ann and I. We spoke no word for the longest time, we only sat there and dreamed of the rosy future. There was nothing but happiness, happiness, happiness.

"I love you so," Ann told me again. "I'll love you wherever you go."

"In the little towns and the big towns?" I asked.

"You'll be a congressman and you'll love me," she replied.

"I'll be president and I'll love you," I returned.

She distanced herself for a moment. "This isn't just valentine talk?"

"Ann!" I exclaimed, surprised.

"I'm sorry, dear." She moved back into my arms.

"Wait." An idea came into my mind. "You ask if it's just valentine talk. Do you remember last summer when we sat up here together?

"I remember. It was a hot, hot day. The heat haze was on the hills. You sang to me."

"Do you remember the stone, Ann? Wait, I know where it is. I put it in the crotch of that old apple tree, right there."

I ran off to the tree, retrieved the valentine from where I'd left it and it and brought it back to my love. "Here's your valentine, Ann darling."

"I remember what you carved on it," she said excitedly as I handed it to her.

We read it aloud togeather: "On this spot, in New Salem, Illinois, on July 4th, 1833, Ann Rutledge and Abraham Lincoln were betrothed."

The cold winds howl tonight in Oak Ridge around a tall monument. Gently, they touch the outlines of a little mound on the graveyard above the Sangamon. Only the stone, the stone valentine, remains to testify to our love.
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