Mount Vernon--George Washington slept here; Martha Washington swept here
We had lunch in Washington one day in a restaurant on the mezzanine of the old Post Office building, which has been converted into a shopping center.
It was doing a lively business. People who had filled trays at fast-food counters were waiting for tables on the ground floor.
One balcony away from us we could see two silhouettes that we knew to be the backs of cardboard cutouts of the President and Mrs. Reagan. Hey, for three bucks get your picture taken with Ron and Nancy!
Los Angeles doesn’t have a monopoly on kitsch.
We walked to the National Archives to see the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the two great cornerstones of our republic.
Half the steps leading up to the classic Greek facade were under repair. Almost everything in Washington is under repair. Two great cranes were nibbling at the Capitol. The price of survival is eternal maintenance.
The declaration is in a bronze frame, under glass, at the north curve of the central hall. For many decades it had been carelessly subjected to the elements. The text is faded beyond my reading. But the title was legible: “In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled. . . .”
And the text began, with a flourish, “When in the course of human events. . . .”
Of course at the bottom I could read the name of John Hancock, a name writ so large that it has come to stand as a synonym for signature.
So it all began.
Large murals at either side of the document showed Jefferson and its other authors and signers standing in their colonial finery outside Independence Hall. Once again I was amazed that the Colonies, as small as they were, could have produced such a body of intelligent, determined and courageous revolutionaries.
That afternoon we took a Tourmobile to Mount Vernon.
It is hardly more than half an hour from the city--a pleasant ride through the colonial town of Alexandria, Va., and through fields and autumn-colored forests along the banks of the Potomac.
As we rolled through Alexandria our guide pointed out Gadsby’s Tavern, which George Washington himself is said to have frequented (though I have always thought him a moderate man), and the red brick church which Washington attended and which every President but Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy is said to have visited.
I wondered why Nixon and Kennedy had failed the tradition. Well, both of their terms were ended prematurely. Perhaps it was still on their agenda.
From the outer gate, where there is a restaurant, post office and shops, it is about a quarter-mile walk up a path to the gate to Mount Vernon’s grounds. From there one looks over a field to the mansion itself, on a rise above the Potomac. No one reared in an American schoolroom could fail to be touched by that picture.
It looks exactly as it did in our schoolbooks, though I was surprised to notice that the windows are not symmetrical. The windows to the right of the main door are farther from it than the windows to the left. (Inside the house I found that this was due to a stairway.)
The exterior of the house is of white oblong boards with beveled edges. They looked like stones. I touched one, breaking a law, I suppose, and found it gritty.
A docent explained: “He had them painted white and then covered with sand.”
There is no evidence that Washington ever had the assistance of an architect in designing and building the house.
Washington’s love of color is seen in the elegant blue large dining room, and in the apple-green small dining room. The Washingtons entertained an almost constant stream of visitors. Washington once wrote wistfully:
“For in truth it may be compared to a well resorted tavern, as scarcely any strangers who are going from north to south, or from south to north, do not spend a day or two at it.” And again, “Unless someone pops in, unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and I will do what I believe has not been done within the last 20 years by us, that is to set down to dinner by ourselves.”
Upstairs we stood in the bedroom where Washington died.
We weren’t even giving his ghost any peace.
Chairs were lined up overlooking the river on the great piazza of the east front under a roof supported by eight stately columns. We found a pair of empty chairs and sat with the other tourists, contemplating a view that must have given Washington much solace on his many trips home from the nation’s capital.
We walked around the gardens to the south, coming up at the tomb of George and Martha, and started back to meet the bus. I am always worried about missing the bus. Ours was the last that day.
At the last minute my wife decided she had to buy some seeds from the Mount Vernon gardens. I waited at the bus stop, growing increasingly anxious as the departure time neared, imagining a scenario for what would happen if she missed it. I have written thousands of such scenarios in my mind.
As usual, she made it. Barely.
“Look,” she said, handing me a small envelope.
Come spring, God willing, our yard will bloom with sweet scabious, sneezeweed, African marigold, French marigold, spider flower and sweet William.
From George Washington’s garden.