I sat on the grassy expanse outside the U.S. Capitol with a guy from New York and a woman from California, both of them gray-haired and a little less robust than many of the youthful faces around us.
"Do you want a muffin?" the woman offered.
"Did either of you volunteer on the campaign?" the man asked.
The camaraderie and fun that erupt almost immediately among strangers thrown together in a shared experience might be my favorite aspect of presidential inaugurations.
It was the fourth time I traveled to the city to celebrate a president's swearing-in. I watched from a spot in a sea of people on the National Mall when Clinton took the oath of office the first time, saw G.W.'s first from a ticketed section in the shadow of the Capitol and celebrated Obama's first historic inauguration in a heated rooftop pavilion with my youngest, then just four-months-old, hanging from a Bjorn.
My new friends and I met about 7:30 a.m. in a grassy area near First and Pennsylvania reserved for Orange ticket holders. Each of us planned to make our way to a separate section directly in front of the Capitol, but we were thwarted by the early, unexpected crowds. We shook our shoulders and settled down beneath a tree. So we were off-centered a little bit, our view slightly obstructed? So what.
"I'm so happy to be here at all," we told each other.
We sat like that for hours, exchanging stories about Obama, family vacations, Metro stops, everything and nothing. Cell phone service was down for all of us, so we made small talk, sat in silence, exchanged raised eyebrows when new folks stumbled into our space.
My most lasting, most visceral memory of Clinton's Inauguration was the way Maya Angelou's poetry crawled under my skin and up my spine and made me shiver with awe and hell yeah!
I remember the cold, wet misery of G.W.'s and the palpable hate of the protestors. It was a wretched event.
I jumped up and down at Obama's first and braved the windy, bone-chilling temps, with a baby beneath my coat, to wave to him on the parade route. I rushed back to the hotel after and told everyone he waved at me. "Right at me!" I screamed. It felt like it anyway, such is the power of the president.
I think what I'll remember most this time around, though, is much simpler: a few hours beneath the tree in the happy company of two strangers with kind eyes and generous hearts whose names I never learned.
"Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution," President Obama said. "We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
I didn't look at my friends much during the speech, but I could hear them whisper "Amen" or "Right on." I felt them nod when I did. We lingered for a bit after Beyonce closed the ceremony, then we smiled at one another, waved and walked on, anonymous faces in the crowd of our democracy.