One day three years ago, a package arrived in the mail, a bound and edited typescript of my mother’s letters to her parents, 1961–66. A nephew assembled it from her voluminous correspondence, which had been sitting in boxes in various attics since her death in 1997. It must have been a job to sort through it, and even more daunting to decipher her small, crawling handwriting, more like Cyrillic cursive than English, though I gather that my grandparents, the original recipients, had already typed up many of the early letters. My mother’s dispatches are lively, witty, and bejeweled with detail; they offer a view of Washington life during the Kennedy and Johnson years from a self-effacing onlooker with a noticing eye. They also offer incidental views of our family life, and that has been the painful part for me.
Ten copies of this fat little paperback were produced and sent to family members. On the cover is a murky black-and-white photograph of my father’s swearing-in ceremony (drastically cropped; seventeen other appointees of the new Kennedy administration were also processed that day). He is shown against a background of shrubbery on the south lawn of the White House, squinting into the sun as Earl Warren administers the oath. My mother stands a few feet away, in profile, wearing a neatly tailored sheath in a small gray-and-black check—I remember it—with cap sleeves and a matching fabric-covered belt. She made it herself, as she did many of the clothes she wore to Washington functions. At her shoulder is a gold-and-pearl pin shaped like a pea pod—costume jewelry, but it passes the eye’s inspection. As a faculty wife making do on an academic’s salary, she had learned to substitute and improvise. She was proud of her dashing parsimony, her skill as a seamstress, and her cleverness at finding pretty accessories in the jumble bin at the ladies’ exchange. She liked to quote Arthur Godfrey: “A man on a runaway horse wouldn’t know the difference.” [End Page 89]
Her attitude as she looks on at my father’s swearing-in is tense, graceful, and demure. How slender she is! She kept her figure all her life, by dint of self-discipline and forty cigarettes a day. Next to her, also in profile, stands President Kennedy himself. The two might have been siblings, with their diamond-shaped eyes, retroussé noses, and springy forelocks.
My father was sworn in on January 28, 1961, my thirteenth birthday. I was in the audience, and so was my twelve-year-old brother, Andy. My sister, Katy, eighteen and in college, was not present because the White House had given the new appointees and their families only two days’ notice of the event. This was a recurring comic theme in my mother’s letters from Washington—these peremptory summonses and her frantic scrambling to get us ready.
I don’t remember the ceremony. I do remember the reception that followed in the Blue Room of the White House, where the Marine Band played “The Syncopated Clock.” I remember shuffling along on the receiving line, looking down to notice Jackie Kennedy’s very long feet and up to engage Adlai Stevenson’s china blue eyes. There was a cut-glass punchbowl full of something pink and frothy for the children, waiters bending to offer petits fours from silver platters. There was dancing; my brother reluctantly took a careening turn around the shining floor with me.
I was an immature thirteen-year-old, fat and abashed in my party dress and Mary Janes, still young enough to feel a child’s sense of enchantment. That White House reception, as I look back on it, seems almost magically antique and innocent, like an illustration from my old Babar book, where elephants in formal dress (not Republican elephants, of course) waltz and drink champagne in some colonial African capital. There was something colonial about that time, wasn’t there? The best and the brightest—my father and academics like him—had come swarming in at Kennedy’s call, colonizing Washington. It...