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Joye Brown: 3 generations witness history on Mall

I stepped up onto a raised sidewalk manhole cover at 19th Street and Constitution Avenue yesterday in the midst of a record-breaking Inauguration Day crowd, when my cell phone finally gained sufficient strength to ring.

"Mom, where are you?" my daughter said.

The words came through loud and clear for the first time since we'd started our separate journeys toward the National Mall.

My daughter was lucky, because her dorm at The George Washington University, my alma mater, is a few blocks from the White House. She and a group of friends, determined to see the swearing-in ceremony, met at 3:30 a.m. to begin a trek toward the Capitol side of the Mall. The sun had yet to rise when the group spread blankets to sit on the frozen ground.

My trip was different.

I'd boarded an 8 a.m. Metrobus crowded with visitors, D.C. residents and suburbanites, rolling the dice and hoping we'd see something.

Somehow, I ended up on the Lincoln Memorial side of the Washington Monument. I was nearly equidistant between the Capitol, where Obama would take the oath of office, and the steps where Abraham Lincoln's statute looked out on a frozen gray mirror of a Reflecting Pool.

I settled in next to a woman from Michigan who'd boarded a plane near Detroit to get to Baltimore to take a train to Union Station.

Kenneth and Karen Parry, who'd defied the crowd and cold warnings by bringing their 17-month-old son, Kenneth Jr., on their trip from Raleigh, N.C., settled in near me as well.

And in the silence that swept through the crowd just before Obama took his oath of office, I realized something.

To my right stood the Lincoln Memorial, where on one warm day my mother, Catherine, the first in her family to attend college, stood listening to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To my left stood the U.S. Capitol, where my daughter - my mother's namesake - stood awaiting the words of the nation's first African-American president.

Three generations, in one place. And each had helped to pave the way for the next, as Dr. King had paved the way for this moment.

My mother didn't talk much about that day in 1963 at the March on Washington. What I remember is that my parents were nervous about going and left us at home with a baby-sitter. They could not know whether they'd be home or, like other civil rights marchers that night, in jail.

I said nothing about my mother later, when I looked up from my cell phone to see my daughter waving excitedly at me from across the street.

We hugged, and walked together up 19th Street to her nearby dorm room. We talked about the Mall, the crowd, the moment. She told me she liked the speech, though she had none other to compare it to. We talked about Michelle's dress, and Aretha's hat. We talked about how cold it was.

Back in her room, I watched her sleep.

And later helped her get ready for GW's Inaugural Ball.

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