Lindy Boggs was a woman no one was ever likely to forget-least of all the man who married her daughter
My 50-year love affair with my mother-in-law, Lindy Boggs, did not start out well.
It was the spring of 1963. Lindy’s daughter Cokie and I were driving from Boston to Washington for a political meeting, and our car broke down. After we found a gas station on Connecticut Avenue to help us out, Cokie went with the tow truck driver to retrieve the vehicle while I stayed behind in the garage. When Lindy came to pick us up and discovered this arrangement, she was not pleased. What sort of boy was that unchivalrous?
Lindy should have known she had raised a take-charge child. She was that way herself, after all.
That night I was staying at the Boggs home on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda. I had a bad cough and at some point I heard a knock on the door. It was Lindy, dressed in a peach-colored, off-the-shoulder negligee. “Darlin’, ” she said, “you sound terrible. Drink this.”
What she offered was a “little restorative toddy,” as she put it, no doubt heavily laced with bourbon. The joke in the family is that I fell in love with Lindy first and eventually got around to Cokie, and there’s a lot of truth to that.
I am writing this just a few steps from the room where Lindy won my heart half a century ago. When she died in July at 97, I thought about all the ways, over all the years, our family has connected with this house and this community.
Lindy Claiborne was born on a plantation in Louisiana and met her future husband, Hale Boggs, at Tulane in New Orleans. Hale was first elected to Congress in 1940, and after losing a race for governor of Louisiana in 1951, he decided to focus his political career on Capitol Hill and move the family here full-time. Lindy described what happened in her 1994 memoir, Washington Through a Purple Veil (Harcourt):
“One cold day we went to see a house out on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda, Maryland. I drove such a long distance that I felt I was on the other side of the planet, but the neighborhood was within striking distance of my children’s schools [Georgetown Prep and Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, both on Rockville Pike]. We found a pretty white brick house with Southern-looking columns across the front, set in a large well-landscaped yard. Guarding its entrance were two enormous weeping willow trees; if you squinted, their branches resembled Spanish moss hanging from Southern live oak trees.”
Inside, however, the house was all wrong. The bathrooms, closets and dining room were too small. But Lindy hadn’t reckoned with her youngest child.
“When I returned to the living room,” she wrote, “there was Cokie, who was eight, still in her snowsuit, sprawled in the middle of the floor. She announced, ‘I like it here. I feel at home here. I want to live in this house, Mamma.’ ”
And so they did. Like immigrants who settle in a new country, the Boggses raised a flag in Bethesda and others followed—cousins and friends, godchildren and in-laws. Today our guest list at Christmas dinner tops 50 and keeps growing; the next generation, Lindy’s 18 great-grandchildren, have not even started to reproduce.
Hale was a country boy from Mississippi, and much to Lindy’s dismay, he planted a large vegetable patch right by the road. My in-laws were always generous hosts, but Hale’s expansive impulses could cause problems.
“During the times of the year when the corn in his garden was ripe, Hale had a tendency to invite scores of people out to the house,” Lindy wrote. “He always assumed he had much more corn than he did, so I would have to dash out to the Farm Women’s Market in Bethesda and buy the same species as his…and get home to cook it before he realized what I was doing.”
Three and a half years after my first visit to Bradley Boulevard, Cokie and I were married in the yard. The guest list ballooned to 1,500 people, including President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. Lindy cooked for the entire crowd, relying heavily on the goodwill and freezer space of her neighbors. Food for that many people can’t be prepared overnight, and for weeks before the wedding you’d walk into the Boggs kitchen and see a sign on the oven: “I’m a turkey, take me out at 5.”
Cokie and I then left Washington for 11 years, as my assignments for The New York Times took us around the world. When we returned in the fall of 1977, much had changed. Hale had died in a plane crash five years before and Lindy had taken his seat in Congress. She was living on Bradley Boulevard by herself and commuting to her district on weekends. The large house was quiet and lonely.
We moved in for what we thought would be a few weeks. We’re still here today. We bought the house from Lindy, who relocated to a more convenient apartment downtown. Our daughter, Rebecca, occupied Cokie’s girlhood room and I took over Hale’s vegetable garden. The family homestead filled again with life and laughter.
My brother Glenn moved to the area and we introduced him to a friend, Kitty Ferguson, at a party in the garden. They were later married on that same spot. Rebecca got married in the yard as well, and I transplanted the potted crepe myrtles used for the ceremony. I can see them in the front yard now, blooming pink and purple, through my window.
Lindy eventually moved to Rome as the ambassador to the Vatican and then back to New Orleans. But after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she returned to an apartment in Chevy Chase, a few minutes away.
My mother, Dorothy, came to town as well, and in one of my favorite memories, she and Lindy are sitting together in our garden, holding hands and holding court. After Mom died three years ago, I often told my mother-in-law, “I’m still so glad to have an old lady to hug.”
I’ll miss those hugs. But Lindy’s spirit remains strong and loving and all around me, in this white-brick house on Bradley Boulevard with the weeping willows in the front yard, the place her daughter picked out so long ago.
Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to email@example.com.