Some years back, we took our two sons on a trip to the East Coast – a whirlwind tour of baseball parks, museums, and local tourist attractions. Because we lived in the same state as the Speaker of the House at the time, and because my former husband was a newspaper editor, we had backstage-pass access to all the major monuments in Washington, D.C.
We also had tickets to an historic joint session of the US Congress, in which King Hussein and Prime Minister Rabin formally ended the 46-year state of war between Jordan and Israel. Naturally, this required formal daytime attire, very tight security and, of course, exemplary behavior. As I laid out my sons’ clothes for the day, I
warned them pleaded with them to mind their manners.
After all the political hoopla ended, we ate lunch in the Congressional Dining Hall. We’d been invited by Heather Foley, wife of the Speaker and passionate politician in her own right. My sons immediately disregarded my whispered lecture about leaning their elbows on the white linen tablecloths, and they entertained themselves by ordering cheeseburgers (not on the menu) and endless soda refills from the formally attired, somewhat peeved waiters. After behaving well for several hours that morning, they were headed into meltdown mode.
Nearly a dozen other dignitaries at the table talked quietly among themselves — until Ms. Foley asked my younger son the wrong question.
“What have you most enjoyed about your trip?”
My son got a wicked smile on his face, and I knew we were headed for trouble.
Did he mention seeing the National Cathedral the day before? Did he recall watching back-to-back games at Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards? Did he talk about the special tour we took at the White House, or rowing a canoe through Central Park? Nope, he let loose with an uncensored description – while we were eating, mind you – of the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Stomach-shaped hairballs and the history of STDs, plus bone fragments from Abraham Lincoln’s skull. A mummified male torso, and pictures of corpses that were decimated by weapons of war. An encephalitic leg, conjoined twins, and a one-eyed fetus, all floating in formaldehyde.
I slunk down in my seat, completely mortified. I regretted the moment I laid eyes on the Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C., which called the exhibit “unsettling and bizarre, perfect for boys 12 and under.” Great, I’d thought at the time, it’ll be a nice trade-off (a buyoff, if you will) for
allowing them the opportunity forcing them to see some of the things in which I was more interested. Clearly, I’d made a mistake.
By this time, everyone at the table was riveted to my eleven-year-old’s ghastly and unrestrained parade of the horribles. Naturally, he ate up the attention, and his descriptions for these medical oddities grew increasingly vivid. I tried to shush him, but I couldn’t; he’d found the limelight, and he wasn’t about to let go.
Meanwhile, Ms. Foley struggled to hold on to her smile (and likely, her lunch). “My goodness,” she said, when my son finally finished, “in all my years at the Capitol, I’ve never heard of that place.” I muttered an embarrassed apology, and she graciously demurred. The rest of our vacation was unremarkable, in comparison to that particular day.
This morning, I read that President Bush is headed up to Capitol Hill, to eat lunch with members of his party. I imagine they’ll sit in that same Congressional Dining Hall. I’d like to connect the dots between our luncheon and now, but perhaps better manners should prevail.