The public side of a political family is usually the only facet the world sees, and even in a town of political totality such as Washington, seldom are the families, brought here by political fortunes, ever looked upon as anything other than grinning groups spawned and hatched by voting machines.
But despite public relations men and press secretaries, political families really are quire human, and to prove this, I will share with you a Christmas story . . . a political Christmas story.
The year was 1968 and the general election of that year had rendered Richard M. Nixon the new, incoming president, and the state of Alabama had elected its first new United States senator in 22 years. His name was James Browning Allen, and he was my husband.
Suddenly, after two solid years of preparation and campaigning, it was all over and we had won, and like so many before us, we didn't know what to do next! The staggering magnitude of an entirely new realm of working and living was bewildering.
We had been sort of like Scarlett O'Hara all through the campaign about what we'd do about the law practice, the house, Jim's other businesses, when and if we won the race. You remember what that famous belle would say, when faced with a killing decision . . . "I won't think about that today, 'll wait and think about that tomorrow."
Well, "tomorrow" had come and Jim and I and our four pretty much grown-up children realized with a wrench we weren't all that sure we liked what we had gotten as our political prize, and were dismayed more than somewhat over what was about to happen to us as a family.We knew we'd never be the same again . . . not as a family, and not as individuals. What we needed was a transition team, and I was unanimously chosen! Now that Jim had won the Big One, he and everyone else turned to Old Mom to mastermind and coordinate when and how the transition to Washington would be made.
It is here that I should tell you I missed my true calling. I should be the top master sergeant of the Army Quarter Master Corps, because my family maintains I could organize and run anything , up to and including an alley cat uprising, and packing and moving the entire contents of all the Smithsonian museums in two days flat.
My first decision was that we would all assemble in Washington on Christmas Eve in the town house I had rented in Southwest, near the Capitol. Since the kids were coming in from all points, we agreed it would be a great adventure to have a new type of Christmas. A sort of barren one, maybe, with none of the lavishness of decor and traditions always a part of our Alabama Christmases.
Still it would be exciting, and after all, I thought, they're great big kids and swear they won't miss any of the stuff they've taken totally for granted for years.
Well, besides having a filing drawer mind, like most Old Moms, I also possess witchlike presentiments and intuitions about my children's feelings and outward signs of maturity. So, while everyone was vowing they didn't care about traditions, and for God's sake don't haul all kinds of Christmas junk up to Washington, and we can all go the Hot Shoppe for Christmas dinner, and don't anybody fool with gifts this year and all that sort of bravado, I hummed and smiled as the moving van and car were loaded to the rooflines.
Jim and I arrived at the small town house right before the van. Our daughter, Monie, flew in from boarding school in Vicksburg. Jimmy and Sandy, the two older boys, came by train from Birmingham, and Pittman, a Marine private about to leave for Vietnam, had wangled a Christmas pass and finally arrived from San Diego.
We made the deadline . . . it was Christmas Eve, and for the first time in many months we were all together again, but not in the huge red brick house, perched on the edge of the cliff on Lookout Mountain.
We were piled into a funny-looking, three-story shotgun house, inundated with boxes, no food, and the stores were closed, and after all the recent riots, we were afraid to stick our heads out the door! Boy, were we going to have togetherness!
I remember I watched almost with disbelief as the great sense of adventure began to dissolve, and disenchantment set in like quick cement, as they muttered rather poigant things about what they'd be doing if they were home.
So I glanced heavenward and said, "Thank you, God, for giving me a tacky, compulsive, never-take-anything-for-granted, Old Mon Type mentality!" And then, like the Little Red Hen, I set to work.
First, I put the senator-elect to bed, because he had thoughtfully come down with raging flu and the movers and I were distincly tired of walking over his 6-feet-4-inches laid out on the tiny living-room floor. Next, I dispatched the kides to the all-night People's Drug to scrounge up anything they could find in food and drink and games and magazines. This was to feed fever and keep all of them in front of the tube and out of my way.
The weather was freezing, a fact I had counted on, and I had packed several very secret boxes on board the van and in the car trunk. Flu fevers and homesickness gradually subsided and sleep replaced griping, and finally the funny little stange house in Washington was quiet . . . around the edges.
Old Mon was about to shift into high gear and pull of her Christmas Magic!
I had known I could not bear Christmas in our Stange New Land without at least a few of our traditioons, and I knew that before dawn came, that shotgun house was going to look like HOME if I had to deal in voodoo.
Well, I didn't close my eyes all night, or even sit down for that matter, when Jim and my children rather despondently slogged down late Christmas morning, they didn't believe their eyes.
The rugs were down, the draperies up, the furniture all arranged. Paintings were on the walls, ashtrays, books, Chinese bowls graced the tables, family silver gleamed on the sideboard, the dining table was set with porcelain and sterling on linen. The ice box was full and the kitchen was totally equipped. A huge turkey and everything that goes with it were in readiness.
And best of all, in front of the living room windows was a small artificial Christmas tree all decorated with familiar things, surrounded by silly children's toys.
Jim looked at me with stunned wonder and said, "But honey, I thought we all agreed that this year we just wouldn't bother with Christmas."
And I, looking wise and wonderful and marvelously satisfied with myself, replied, "Yes, I know, but aren't you all just delighted I did?"
You see, the only pronouncement my husband had handed down to me about the transition period was that I should not haul one single thing, even a box of salt, to Washington in the car or moving van that I could wait and buy when I got there. One moves by the pound, you see.
But as all wives know, men, even great senators-elect, don't always know what it takes to make husbands and kids happy, when traditional Christmas rugs have been snatched out from under them. Right?
So not only did I buy, pack and move everything we and the house needed, but I also cooked the entire Christmas dinner and froze it, and it stayed frozen all the way from Alabama in the moving van and car trunk. My secret boxes held not only half a grocery store, but things that made up beauty and tradition and happiness for me and my family.
If you're going to disobey orders, you just may as well make the crime as blazing as humanly possible!
The "grown" kids reverted to tots when they saw the toys, and I was nominated Greatest Mom Type in North America as three 6-footers raced toy cars across the floor! Monie wept over the first baby doll she had gotten in years. And Jim Allen, completely forgetting his flu and fever, became a ho-hoing Santa Claus.
I went to the kitchen and basted the turkey with tears of happiness as each of my dear ones came singly to enfold me in their gratitude. my cup ran over. And who really cared right then if our Allied Van Lines bill would be a million dollars? One can't calculate Christmas happiness in dollars, can one?
Jim was sworn in on Jan. 3, 1969, and once again our family fragmented. Pitt was soon on the way to Vietnam, and we wouldn't see him for two Christmases. Sandy and Jim married. Monie stayed the closest but eventually married as well, as did Pitt.
Jim served with distinction and great sense of service and died in office June 1, 1978.
By then the Strange New Land had become comfortable and familiar and dear, so I stayed, just as many of the newly elected families now spending their first Christmas in Washington will also stay when God or the Political Fates make lasting decisions.
So you see, political families really do have hearts, and they miss those homes they leave when they choose to come and serve. And a little fake tree and a turkey brought from home can mean more even than a vote giving you a sacred seat in the Senate. Believe me.
I wish for you, dear readers, a Christmas bright as the winking stars, a kitchen filled with delicious smells, a Christmas tree laden with your heart's desires, and warmth only love within and without can bring.