The famous cherry blossoms of springtime are two weeks gone when our plane touches down at Reagan Airport in Washington, DC, over two hours late after high winds tossed asunder any predictability in travel plans to the east coast. We stand 20 minutes in line to get a taxi, the midnight air damp with spring humidity.
We catch glimpses of historic buildings on the taxi ride, bone-white in the darkness of urban night. The taxi stops at a small white house with a red door in a neighborhood that looks more small-town than big city. We pay the driver; carry bags inside where my sister waits. We have come, Sally and I, to visit my sister’s granddaughter, my grandniece, a five-month-old who carries my mother’s name, Nettie, and in that the lineage of my family.
We sleep late, weary travelers that we are. We will meet the child later, on her schedule; a five-month-old being fairly predictable in terms of sleeping (they do that a lot) and eating (they do that regularly as well), not quite like the workday routine of punching a time clock but not that far off either. But first we will walk, bumpkin tourists in the big city.
The capitol building rises high into the late April sky, a massive structure of white stone, stately columns, a rise of stairs that seem endless and a glistening dome topping it all. It is busy on this spring day; families and groups of school children, a small gathering of people who are concerned with happenings in Korea (they seem wary and distrustful of entreaties between North and South); they carry placards and listen to speakers. A lone man in a blue sports coat and tie carries a sign suggesting that the president be impeached.
Nobody pays much heed to either the Koreans or the man with the sign, focusing instead on selfies with the grand building of the capitol as background. The sky is very blue and the alabaster dome stands starkly against the sky; the image is striking.
I feel vaguely detached from it all. Perhaps the magnificence of the capitol building is dimmed by the prevailing cynicism of the modern congress that plies its craft within; current polls show only 20% approve of their machinations.
Or perhaps it’s the grounds. I would expect that the environs of the capitol would extend as a verdant carpet of bright greenery, an unblemished expanse that would bring to mind the emerald richness of a baseball diamond or a classic golf course. Instead it looks unkempt, a mottled mix of grass and weed that brings to mind a casually neglected lawn or the shabby outfield of a small town ball field with a limited budget for landscaping.
We walk away from the capitol along the edge of a reflecting pool where any reflections are dashed on a breezy day that leaves the water in a mild chop; mallard ducklings paddle frantically under the eyes of passing crowds. Electric scooters, the bane of many cities, dart silently like swallows come to ground. I find them somewhat unsettling; they seem too swift and haphazard in their travels; the likelihood of mishap seems high.
We find refuge in a museum. Our pace slows; traces of political discontent fall away; rocketing scooters a memory. We move slowly through the rooms, works of art stunning in their quiet magnificence. I stand, struck to silence before works of master artists, images of power and life, of conflict and beauty; paintings and sculpture and photographs. I find works of familiar artists; feel like I am connected with an old friend. Find work by artists I do not know; newfound treasures. In the presence of art I feel renewed.
Is it odd that I can stand in front of painting and feel a greater sense of wonder than I do in the lawn of the capitol looking at the looming dome? That blocks of color or images both vague and impressionistic bring more to me than the stone buildings outside, noble and magnificent in their own right but not moving me in my heart? In the rooms of the art comes inspiration and wonder both though I suppose one can say the same of time in the woods under the shade of the ancient trees with the scent of duff in the air.
[A side note: Washington offers a stunning array of museums, a lavish smorgasbord of art and history and all that is reflective of the nation. And most of it free for the viewing: Your tax dollars hard at work.]
The afternoon warms. We walk back to my sister’s place, foot weary but renewed. And then we meet Nettie, my mother’s namesake, my grandniece and in that a new strand in the fabric of family history and heritage. She was born in November on a chill day in Wisconsin. I was in my deer stand and the sound of texts dinging on my phone broke the reverie of the hunt. I dug through layers of clothing to the phone, read the text; the baby was born.
Now on the late April afternoon we meet. She is, of course, radiant and perfect in every way! One need not be a parent or grandparent to realize that. I hold her on my lap; my hands seem enormous in comparison. Her tiny hands curl and unfurl like a spring flower. Her eyes look at me; big and blue and trusting. She smiles and babbles and does what infants do and of course it is all amazing to me.
I think to myself: I have seen on this day the stone cold buildings of man; I have felt the heat and the passion of art; and I have held in my hands the spirit of my past and the hope for the future.
Nettie looks at me, blue eyes meet mine; the world settles and narrows to the two of us.