We live pretty near the Maryland/Virginia border but we don’t go to Virginia often. We’re more often in the District, where Beth works and where our doctors and dentists are. However, in the past week, we’ve visited our sister state twice, or at least June and I have.
Late last Saturday afternoon we drove forty-five minutes to Potomac Vegetable Farm, our traditional source for jack-o-lantern pumpkins. There are certainly closer places we could get pumpkins or pumpkin farms with more bells and whistles in terms of activities, festivals, etc. But we started going to Potomac Vegetable Farm before the kids were born because the family of a friend of ours from college ran it, and now it’s a sacred tradition. We’ve only missed one year when we all had a stomach bug.
On the way there I noticed Northern Virginia is Clinton/Kaine country, if yard signs are any indication. And that’s good, because unlike reliably blue Maryland, Virginia is a swing state, or it often is, in a normal year. (It went for Obama twice, but Bush twice before that.) It’s looking pretty safe for Clinton at the moment.
Noah was working on the script and storyboard of his dystopian trailer before we left and it was hard to pull him away from it, but I’m glad he agreed to come because it turned into a pretty fun family outing. We picked out some decorative gourds and our jack-o-lanterns—I opted to go with a white pumpkin this year—took the traditional pumpkin farm photo of the kids, and stocked up on cider and fall produce. I got beets, squash, a sweet potato, and some late cherry tomatoes to cook with and Beth got a couple green tomatoes, which would supplement our garden tomatoes when she made her signature fried green tomatoes for dinner on Sunday.
From the farm, we headed to Sunflower, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant we’ve never tried before and which we all enjoyed. If you go, I recommend the fake shrimp. I also appreciated the owners’ commitment to sunflowers in the décor. There were real sunflowers growing outside the restaurant (dead now of course, but I’m sure it was pretty when they were in bloom) and sunflowers decorations everywhere you look inside.
As we finished our meal, we discussed dessert options. June’s been wanting to try bubble tea for a while now and Beth looked on her phone and found a (mostly) Asian dessert place nearby that carried it. June got mango and I got coconut and Beth and Noah went for chocolate cake and raspberry cheesecake respectively. As we drove home, sipping our sweet drinks and listening to Halloween music and catching glimpses of the enormous full moon that kept popping in and out of view, I felt deeply content. Over the next week, whenever I glimpsed the little pumpkin and yellow and green gourd on my desk, it kept reminding me of that pleasant day.
Almost a week later, on Friday, I chaperoned a fifth grade field trip to Mount Vernon. I signed up because the last field trip I went on to Saint Mary’s City last spring was fun. But as happened last time, I didn’t really expect to be chosen because there are often more parents who want to chaperone trips than there are slots. But when June came home the next day with a form about a new online training about child abuse and neglect all school volunteers have to complete and I asked if I could wait to see if I was chosen before I did it, she said, “Oh, you’re in.”
So I did the training, and it was kind of annoying, because near the end I lost all my progress due to a computer glitch and then I had to start over. But I persevered and Friday morning found me at June’s school.
We almost didn’t go on the trip because on Wednesday at recess June twisted her ankle and on Thursday morning she still couldn’t put any weight on it, but she really wanted to go so we decided to give it a try.
We got a ride to school with Megan’s mom, who was dropping off her younger daughter. The buses left the school at 9:40 and crossed the Maryland/Virginia border about twenty minutes later. It was a pretty drive. The leaves are just starting to change and we passed the Washington Monument, National Airport, and drove through charming Old Town Alexandria with all its colonial architecture. I noticed some water birds in the Potomac. And then about 10:35 we arrived at Mount Vernon. As we disembarked from the bus, Zoë noticed the Clinton button on my backpack and said, “I like your button.”
Chaperones were allowed to wander with their groups until our tour of the mansion at 11:30. I was sharing a group of eight girls with the father of one of June’s friends, but it soon became clear June couldn’t keep up on her crutches, so I told him I was going to peel off with her so we could go at her pace. We made our way slowly toward the mansion, stopping to rest on benches and to read short bits of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows while her classmates went to explore the farm and gardens.
June was a trooper with the crutches, but she was getting tired and red-faced, so when we got to the mansion, I left her with her math teacher—I couldn’t find my co-chaperone or her social studies teacher—to go see if I could get a loaner wheelchair. In retrospect, I should have done this at the entrance, where they have more wheelchairs, but we were still trying to keep up with the group then and there was no time to stop and ask. They only had an adult size wheelchair at the mansion. The wheels were too far apart for June to comfortably maneuver it by herself but all we needed was some respite from walking for her and I could push her.
She rode in the wheelchair through the line to get into the mansion and then we stowed it outside because she wanted to go up to the second floor. During their reading about George Washington and his family she got especially interested in his step-granddaughter Nelly and she wanted to see her room, so she hopped up the stairs while I held the crutches.
There were a lot of school groups visiting that day (or maybe every day) and so they really hustle you through the house, but you can explore the out buildings at your leisure. We peeked into the smokehouse, the stables and carriage house, the storehouse, the clerk’s office, and the paint storage cellar. They used a lot of paint at Mount Vernon because even though the mansion looks like it’s made of stone, it’s really made of wood carved to look like masonry and painted with paint mixed with fine sand, to give it the glitter of mica in stone. Anyway, it needed frequent repainting. We got shooed away from the ice house because we’d gotten too close to a private tour group, so we never saw inside it.
Reading the signs, I noticed they almost never used the word “slave.” Instead it would say “enslaved gardeners,” “enslaved cooks,” “the enslaved population,” etc. It made me reflect on how this shifts the concept from slavery as a state which is continually forced on a person rather than a slave being something he or she inherently is.
I asked June what else she wanted to see and she said the Washingtons’ tomb so I pushed the wheelchair carefully down a pebbly hill to see George and Martha’s white marble sarcophaguses housed a big brick tomb that also houses the remains of other relatives as well. I would have liked to go see the slave memorial and the wharf but I was afraid of going even further downhill with the wheelchair. I learned later from the Mount Vernon website we were only fifty yards from the slave memorial at the time, but I didn’t know that, just what direction the signs said to go. It was hard pushing the chair back up the hill so when a passerby asked if he could help I accepted his offer. Thanks, stranger!
We peeked into a vegetable garden and an orchard on our way back to the museum but we didn’t go into them, as there were stairs. At the museum we toured exhibits about Washington’s childhood, the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War. It was nice to have a flat surface for the wheelchair. We didn’t have time to see the 4-D movie we later heard June’s classmates extol, but maybe we’ll go back some day.
We returned the wheelchair and re-joined June’s classmates for a late picnic lunch on the lawn near the driveway. As we ate the sky clouded over, the temperature dropped dramatically, a terrific wind kicked up, blowing leaves everywhere, and it started to sprinkle rain. By the time we were gathered to wait for the buses, it was raining in earnest. I helped June into her raincoat and urged her to go slowly on the wet pavement. (She’d fallen twice on wet restroom floors in the museum.)
We ran into traffic on the way home and there was a lot of water on the road the bus pushed up in sheets and the drive that took less than an hour getting there two hours and fifteen minutes getting back. We were an hour and twenty minutes late returning to school and the whole fifth grade missed their school buses. (Something similar happened on the way home from St. Mary’s last spring so I wasn’t surprised.) I’d been hoping to put June on her school bus and walk home by myself, but we got a ride with another chaperone. Thanks, Mindy!
During the bus ride, I asked June if she was glad she went and she said, “Yes. Are you?” I said I was glad to have gone and also to have been there to help her get around. “I wouldn’t have gone without you,” she said, leaning against me and resting her head on my shoulder. She was so tuckered out she actually fell asleep for fifteen minutes or so.
I have a piece of paper on which I jotted down these words, a quote from Washington, which were painted on the wall in the museum: “That the Government, though not absolutely perfect, is one of the best in the world, I have little doubt.”
Our democracy was far from perfect then, as I’m sure the enslaved population and many of the women would have attested, and it’s still far from perfect, but it’s gradually getting closer to fulfilling its promise and I think it’s quite a lot better than near-apocalyptic vision of one of the Presidential candidates. It was moving to visit the home of our first President near the end of the second term of our first African-American President and on the eve, I hope, of the first term of our first female President. It makes me wonder what other almost unimaginable changes will take place in my children’s lifetimes.