June was a good time to be leaving. Most of the blossoms have given up to the heat and the heavy, wet, exhaust-filled air of summer settles on this city. I could not bear to spend another autumn here, knowing I was leaving. The poignance of those clear, bright blue days, autumn in Washington, is matched only by the fall days in Nebraska, my other home.
Leaving Washington and going home. Just the other day, a printed notice came from our dairy that it will no longer deliver milk to doorsteps. Amy and I said we might as well go home now if we can't have our milk and cottage cheese at the side door mornings.
One image in my mind is the familiar look backward in my car's rear-view mirror driving up Spout Run, with the magnificent late afternoon sun reflected on the river, on the old and comfortable arches of Key Bridge.
Another is the transplanted cottonwood growing behind our house in the Virginia woods, brought from Nebraska in a plastic bucket by my husband and United Airlines. When its leaves rustle and shine, I'm comforted. Back where I was born in western Nebraska, we have lots of towering cottonwood trees.One of ours, Willa Cather, said the cottonwood roots go searching for water and its leaves talk to God.
So much of our life here speaks of being homesick for Nebraska, yet I always insisted my heart was portable. Eight years ago, when my husband was elected to Congress, I tried so hard to convince Charley and the girls that there is also a Santa Claus in Virginia. We brought Christmas with us in the boxes of ornaments and in memories.
Now we are leaving, back to Lincoln where Charley is the new governor of Nebraska and where truly his heart always remained. Two of those three little girls who grew up here are in college, Ann at Stanford and Mary at Virginia Tech. Amy and I stayed until school was out and she finished ninth grade at Yorktown High School. The closets are cleaned out, everything is in boxes or already gone. Amy and I try to spend quiet, normal days, seeing people and doing familiar things which we will miss.
All this, I suppose, is an awkward prelude to what I deeply need to express. To tell this city how much I love her, to say a proper goodbye.
There's a great line in a story that appeared in the newspaper once, a story about living here and seeing official Washington, black Washington, ambitious Washington - all the many forms this city takes. That line said: "There are more secrets buried in the heart of the Harrison-Lee Shopping Center in Arlington than the average visitor to Washington knows."
That says to me that plain, ordinary people come here, all of us from back home. In between raking leaves and buying groceries and going to jobs and struggling with the city and helping children grow up or growing up ourseleves, we try to find that place where public daily lives can come together to give us comfort and direction and hope.
Our memory scraps are perhaps knowns to other ordinary people.
I never liked those awful fuchsia azaleas planted right up next to the red brick, the Broyhill brick in suburban Virginia, but how we loved the Park Service for its acres of flowers, carefully changing with each season. To drive along the roadsides kept up by the Park Service spoils you forever for ordinary country-sides.
The Arlington County schools educated and sometimes cared for my children. Here my daughters always had continuing language programs and friends whose parents moved a lot. They never had to be the congressman's kids. They were themselves with a lot of other children trying to be themselves, too. I'm glad Arlington County has alternative schools for young people and am proud that our county is meeting the challenge of teaching more than 20 percent of its students for whom English is not their first language. When the schools used to require the study of Virginia history, my big girls got the advantage of superb U.S. history in their junior high years.
The Potomac River has been cleaned up considerably since we first came here. Dear southern lady Lucy Jones, our first neighbor, took the little girls fown to the river one early-out afternoon to feed the ducks at the basin above the airport. She insisted they scrub like ranch-hands anyplace the river water touched their skin. Eight years later I didn't bat an eye when Amy told me of sailing one Sunday afternoon with her friends and tipping over lots.
I especially loved the river from Roosevelt Island, where I learned on a field trip with someone's class what an estuary is. We don't have many estuaries in Nebraska. The park ranger, who was happier talking just to the trees, explained that Chain Bridge marks the estuary of the Potomac - the water runs up from the sea that far. We stood up the foot of Roosevelt and watched the tide change, marveling at something inlanders know only on rare trips to the ocean.
I'll not forget that first January I drove the girls here from Nebraska, going diectly to their father's office in the Longworth Building before we found our Virginia house. For nearly 15 minutes, their incredulous voices filled the car - and my mind - with the wonder and amazament and excitement of seeing the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the White House, the Capitol. The instant of those things becoming real for us has stayed speical for all of us.
One Sunday afternoon we slid across the ice of the Reflecting Pool and rode the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument. I'm ashamed to say that the beautiful white obelisk reminds me of a Klansman, sheeted, red eyes blinking in the night.
On a cold january afternoon we found Washington's title Chinatown. It was the Year of the Bear and I loved the dragon heads (not bear heads?) waving from second-story windows. We followed the processions in the streets and alleys, freed for a few minutes of the fear of a new place, especially a place where our current wisdom said we must be afraid.
One of my favorite memories is dropping Mary and a friend off at the White House for one of those early Saturday morning special tours. If I was late, which I usually am, they were to walk across Lafayette Square to the Hay-Adams. I gave them $5 for a light breakfast.
They seemed especially delighted to see me come into the Hay-Adams dining room. They needed to be rescued from the bill. Orange juice and English muffins don't come cheap at the Hay-Admas. But they loved their waiter, who kept their blue water glasses filled and carefully arranged their coats on their chairs.
The girls and I brought ourselves and our belongings and soon our hearts to this place. Their father, like so many of his kind, came here to do a job that required him to leave his soul back in the First Congressional District of Nebraska - mainly as ransom against succumbing to the fevers of Washington.
We tried to get everything fixed back home - cars, teeth, souls. The girls often complained that their lives were circumscribed by Washington and the First District of Nebraska. "We never go anywhere, we're always going just those two places." The district - our home district - was final and demanding, like the drummed cadence of the "corps" in Douglas MacArthur's farewell address.
But I also had Potomac fever.
We came to do different things as they years went on.
We never got over the special jou of having supper atop the Key Bridge Marriott, where we could look over this city we've loved. We also cherish finding just the cheese fondue we wanted (albeit at $7.50 a serving) at a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenus late one Saturday afternoon.
Lunch at the Tombs in Georgetown between Christmas and New Year's became one of our special "things," if two years can make something a tradition. There we were, "the girls," together all of us older and wiser.
I'm convinced that the fierce and confusing traffic here makes most people thoughtful drivers - usually letting another car into line and sympathizing with the driver caught three lanes away from his turn. I love the "every car let another car in" rhythm which is clearly in effect as cars turn off Key Bridge and merge with parkway traffic.
I can still see Amy and her best friend from home running around the flower-bed curbs on top of the Kennedy Center. That same day we stumbled onto the kite-flying contest on the Monument grounds, a Norman Rockwell vision of America in sharp contrast to city crime statistics.
I felt surprise and relief when Annie learned how to use the subways and buses through her high school and was startled and delighted the first time Mary let me know she knew how to drive home from town without my instructions. Using public transportation does not come easily, I hasten to remind you, to people from the sparsely populated plains nor to a family used to having a car.
This Easter, Mary and Amy and I worshipped at crowded St. Mark's on Capitol Hill, sitting on the floor near the altar, happy to be together and enjoying the pastel-colored balloons of celebration that filled the church.
Mother's Day, that dreadful commercial concoction of guilt and love, brought for Amy and her best friend and me a kaleidoscope of our time here.
We drove into town, knowing only that we were going to spend some hours sightseeing, maybe going to a movie, just being together. It was the kind of day we never got wet, despite gray skies and frequent downpours.
We started with an old favorite - the Interior Department's aquarium in the basement of Commerce. (Where else?) My baby Amy, now 15-going-on-25, didn't remember being there on the trips in the "early days."
I bought a beautiful book about whales and watched the young lovers run crazily across Constitution Avenue after an ice cream vendor.
We remembered how much we like spending hours in the Museum of Natural History's bookstore. I've never gotten the names straight. To me, there's the new building, the old building, the castle buildings, the round sculpture place and, of course, Air and Space. The Smithsonian never lets you go, I thought happily upon seeing a "Bathrooms of Early America" display at a restorm entrance. We repeated our eternal debate about how the great pendulum works.
I remember the first Vietnam veterans' march on Washington. We'd gone to the office on Sunday afternoon, paranoid about the people in the streets. We felt helpless and angry that our oldest daughter, clad in a surplus store army jacket, thought it funny to mutter something about a bomb in the halls of the Longworth Building.
I had very little compassion then for the people gathered in Washington that day. Nor did I choose to look closer to home at a teen-age daughter about to explode with anxiety and conflict, a need to find herself and someone who understood.
From our northern European roots in Nebraska, we found our way into the care of a Greek doctor who ministers to the soul as well and a Cuban dentist who is our beloved neighbor.
Not only have my children had their world expanded here, their horizons broadened by this place, by the very act of moving from one school and one town, but we, too, have become a little less parochial, less rigid in our beliefs that only one appearance or one form of behavior constitutes acceptable.
Now we go home, older, wiser, remembering that we found ourselves in your beautiful city. CAPTION: Picture, The Thone family - Mary, Ruth, Charles, Amy and Ann.