Sisters discover a new Washington all by themselves


She has come to visit me just about every year for 17 years, but for 16 of them we have done Washington the way you do Washington when friends and relatives visit with children. The National Zoo. The Air and Space Museum. The frantic search for bathrooms and food vendors.

This time, she came without children, and we did Washington the way two women would do Washington. Museums, art galleries. Tea. Lingering. Laughing.

She left her home in Pittsburgh papered with lists. The matrix of the activities of four children cross-referenced.

"My oldest said, after rolling his eyes at my fifth set of reminders, 'Mom, you know this place runs itself,' " Cynthia said. "I almost smacked him. Instead, I'm having that chiseled in stone."

We met for breakfast at the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House and the words poured out of us like steaming coffee. We have talked long and often over the years, but always within earshot of our children. The result is we have never completed a thought, must less exhausted a topic.

I would like to say that we talked politics and world affairs -- something suitable for a power breakfast in the nation's capital. But I can only say that we did not talk about our children. Or our husbands. Or our mother. We talked of hemlines and clothing labels and then the waiter brought more hot water for our tea and we talked of movies and books.

"I wanted to see what women wear here," she said, gazing around the dim, whispery room at the Old Ebbitt. "Hats. I have seen all these hats. I didn't imagine anyone wore hats except on Easter Sunday."

We toured the White House, and I told her of an interview I did there with a "senior domestic policy adviser." I told her that I spilled coffee all over the blue suit I'd worn to look the part, and she laughed that laugh she has that makes me feel like I am so funny. The miles between her kitchen table and my job melted away.

Then we did the galleries. Wore the headphones. Listened to the curator tours. We were lost in learning things we knew we did not need to know, but loving the process. Remembering when learning was something we did, instead of something we make sure children do.

"No one is ever going to ask me about the first 100 years of photography unless they need it for a school report," she said.

She was impressed, she said, with all the public buildings in Washington and how beautifully they were maintained. "My tax dollars at work," said this Republican woman with a shrug of resignation. "I understand it better now. I want there to be a security guard beside Salvador Dali's 'Last Supper.' "

But the street people upset her. There are plenty in Pittsburgh, and she has parceled out dollar bills all over downtown at the behest of her tearful children. But she did not expect to see them sleeping in the lobby of the Kennedy Center. She could not resolve the incongruity.

She asked -- delicately, the way you might ask the maitre d' where the restrooms are -- why so few people in Washington spoke English. She wondered why all the street vendors sold ties.

I thought the Metro might eat her alive. The unspoken courtesy of leaving the left lane on the escalator open for those who want to climb quickly almost got her trampled. This is a woman who gets vertigo getting up from the dinner table. She would never race up an escalator that looks like it is climbing to the clouds.

Besides, we are used to a different kind of hurrying. Not the kind with a briefcase in your hand -- the kind where you are getting everybody else out the door in the morning.

We took a cab to the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown for afternoon tea, and the little, old driver played classical music on the car radio. "I like to play nice music for my ladies," he said. Cynthia and I were quiet. Lost in thought.

We drank port, ate finger sandwiches and sipped tea while a handsome man in a tuxedo played a Steinway nearby. There was no one with us who would soon get bored, soon crane his head for a waiter and a check.

We lingered as the soft cushions of the terrace garden couches drew our tired bodies deeper. Contented, we seemed to be all talked out. Funny, it only took 17 years.

My eyes burned when we said goodbye. "When you come again," I said, "we'll do the zoo and the Air and Space Museum."

And she laughed that laugh she has that makes me feel like I am so funny.

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