On Thanksgiving day 1963, my father and I were in People’s Drug Store at DuPont Circle, in Washington, D.C. The store hushed as the radio blurted out President Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation that Florida’s Cape Canaveral would now be known as Cape Kennedy. (Ten years later the Floridians changed it back.) I was visiting my father on break from my third high school, Walsingham Academy, in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Washington sputtered in the aftermath of the assassination – its only crowds advanced to JFK’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. At seventeen and without a driver’s license I capitalized on my father’s somber distraction to hone my driving skills using his Cadillac to visit friends who were also home for the holiday. I learned to navigate Rock Creek Parkway, the notoriously confusing Pierre L’Enfant circles, Key Bridge and Pennsylvania Avenue. I knew to stay in the northwest part of the city, that there was something sinister in southwest, southeast, and northeast Washington. I cruised by the white-brick colonial home on Foxhall Road that I’d occupied with my parents and two sisters in the early ’50s, before my parents’ drinking turned us all into gypsies and eventually landed us in the Chicago suburbs.
The next time I visited Washington, I was with my second husband and my son, 9-year-old Joe, for Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration. Carter took the oath of office in 28-degree weather with the Bible opened to the defining passage, Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I remembered enough geography to land a handy parking spot, and after the ceremony we wound our way around the Capitol to the National Gallery of Art, for the nation’s first blockbuster museum exhibit, King Tut.
Sixteen years later I moved from Chicago to Washington to work in the Clinton administration. My cousin Therese with her children, Peter and Melissa, visited often from their home three hours away in New Jersey, sometimes at the drop of a hat: “Therese, if you can get down here tomorrow afternoon, we can go for a tour of Air Force One!”
One summer Peter was one of the lucky few 12-year-olds to be accepted as an intern in the Smithsonian Institution’s summer camp. It was across the street from where I worked at the Department of Education. He freewheeled around the museum in the afternoons before we drove home together. In the evenings he briefed me on where to find Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St.Louis and Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat.
My trips to the capital city are infrequent these days. When my grandchildren, C.J. and Kirby, were 10 and 12, we flew from Chicago and braved the 20-degrees with 1.8 million others for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Two years ago Peter retrieved me from the Washington Hilton in his new car, a spiffy bronze Fiat. He’d been working in Washington after a stint in the Peace Corps. He drove through Rock Creek and around the neighborhoods–Adams-Morgan and DuPont Circle–pointing out all his favorite spots, just as he had 20 years earlier, as if he were my guide to places I’d never been.