I’m a pack rat.
I preserve my heirlooms meticulously — upstairs, in a fancy, cedar-lined mahogany chest. But the basement is a different story: There’s muck and mire, cobwebs and crud and creeping things. It smells damp. So it was with trepidation that I suited up recently to tackle the dusty, musty Mount Olympus waiting for me.
I descended the stairs slowly but with resolve, an armful of empty garbage bags labeled “Purple Heart” and enough cleaning supplies to open a maid service.
I wasn’t looking to transform the place into the Taj Mahal. I really only wanted to empty the boxes, clear the cobwebs, turn on a light.
As I popped open boxes, I began to wonder: Are the cherished trinkets, heirlooms and baubles of a Washingtonian any more interesting than, say, the baubles of a Buffalonian or a Boca Ratonian?
I’m not being a basement snob. I’m just saying that an old baggie containing clumps of dried dirt and yellowed grass from the White House Rose Garden (more on that later) might hold more interest than, say, Uncle Ned’s 30-year-old, beer-stained, moth-eaten mohair sweater from his sophomore year at State. And because our D.C. collectibles are perhaps a bit more, shall we say, collectible, the case could be made that our basements and our attics and our home libraries are in essence miniature Smithsonians, with deeply personal significance.
Laura B. Randolph, a close friend, native Washingtonian and writer, tells me she recently came across an old Woodward & Lothrop hatbox that had belonged to her mother, Anna W. Randolph, who passed away last January at 91.
The vintage hatbox, by her estimation, is at least 40 — “black, shiny and round,” as she describes it, “with all the city’s monuments etched on it in gold — the Smithsonian Castle, the Capitol and the White House.”
“Every year,” Laura remembers, “my mother would take my sister and me down to the huge flagship store on F Street for back-to-school shopping. Garfinckel’s was for our Easter outfits, but for school clothes, it was always Woodie’s.”
When Laura stumbled across the hatbox recently during the painful process of going through her mother’s belongings, she made another discovery: Inside the box was an old invitation to “Jazz on the Lawn” at the White House, which she’d attended with her mother during the Clinton administration.
“I’d warned my mother that there wasn’t a chance in the world that we’d get to meet the president if we did go to the event.”
But Laura’s mother had other ideas.
“I remember shortly after we arrived, I heard my mother call my name and I turned around, and she said calmly, ‘Take a picture of us, Laura,’ and there she was, standing there arm-in-arm with President Clinton.”
Scott D. Hatch, managing director at the law firm of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips, is a former Capitol Hill staffer and a longtime friend. “I still have boxes tucked away with the original tracking sheets from my days as the chief [House] floor assistant,” the Annapolis resident recalls. “These were the big votes from the first years of the Republican majority when [Newt] Gingrich, [Richard K.] Armey, [Tom] DeLay and [John A.] Boehner were running the U.S. House of Representatives in the late ’90s.
“There are dozens of spreadsheets with [my] handwritten notes on the side columns of each vote — including those who said they would vote one way and went the other.”
Only in Washington.
And where else would you find a plastic baggie filled with blades of grass and dirt clumps from the Rose Garden? Yes, I’m guilty of grass theft. One rainy afternoon many years ago when I worked in the White House (is there a statute of limitations on the theft of White House grass?), I trucked back to my office in the Old Executive Office Building after a particularly soggy Rose Garden event and changed out of my poor pumps, the heels of which were covered with mud and wet grass. When I went to clean them off, a little inner voice whispered: “Don’t ditch that dirt! You might want to show it to your kids one day!”
I’m glad I held on to my clods, because I came face-to-face with them again during Operation Basement Cleanup. Stumbling across that old mud in that old basement box filled my old heart with joy — when I finally realized what the heck it was.
Down in my basement, I began spending more time peeking and poking than cleaning and clearing. I found the first issue of USA Today – Sept. 15, 1982 — signed by the editor and the Opinion Page staff members. As a member of the launch team, I’d forgotten how excited we were on the sparkling first day it published, how we scooted around signing each other’s papers like high school seniors signing yearbooks.
And here was my daughter’s peanut-butter-stained Barney backpack. It might not have merited space in the Smithsonian, but it served as a poignant reminder of the day I escorted her on a class field trip to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It was a stark-yet-subtle reminder of not only how fast time goes (my daughter is a Capitol Hill staffer today) but how the things you forget are often the things you should work to remember.
In another box from my White House days, I stumbled across an old transcript of my then-boss, President George H.W. Bush, addressing newspaper editors. One editor asked him whether he thought we’d ever see a black president. Bush had responded affirmatively.
The event, for me, had been symbolic and poignant, and I’d coordinated it with care: The president of the editors’ group had been my mentor at USA Today. Standing there with him and the president had been an honor I never wanted to forget. And the journalist who’d asked about a black president had been largely responsible for steering me into journalism. I remember that on my last day of work at the White House, the president gave my son a set of presidential yo-yos. I rediscovered them while sifting through a box marked “WH,”containing old White House memorabilia.
“These are for you, son,” the president said. “Take them. Believe me, we’ve got plenty of yo-yos around this place.”
Sitting in my basement, I flashed back to a sunny morning in my childhood when I’d asked my father that same question. I was a curious young black girl standing with my handsome papa in our basement in Detroit, my heart brimming with hope and my mind burning with possibility. I remember how he’d been kneeling down, picking through his tackle box. I remember the sudden stillness of his shoulders when he heard my question.
Most of all, I remember just how happy I was, how relieved and proud I felt, when my father rose, handed me a wiggly worm — his favorite fishing lure — and told me yes, of course, we’d have a black man or a black woman as president one day — and although it probably wouldn’t happen in his lifetime, he predicted, it might very well happen in mine. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see it happen — but his daughter did.
The thing with memories is: Unless you open them up every now and then, they’ll wither and die.
Taylor is an author and communications consultant. She was director of White House media relations under President George H.W. Bush.