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A Cold Evening in Camelot

My grandmother, Lillian Mackenzie Loeber, had one sister, Mary Clarke. Mary was married to Frank Clarke who, after the Great Depression abruptly ended his career as a gentleman farmer in Carroll County, Maryland, purchased an upholstery business in Georgetown (Washington DC).

I never knew Uncle Frank, who died before I arrived on the scene in 1950, but Aunt Mary was a real favorite whose company I always cherished. As two little girls in Oella, Maryland, Gran and Aunt Mary worked as a team on a cloth loom to support their two aunts who had taken them in when their mother died, and their father left. She and my grandmother remained very close, and Gran, also a widow, would take the train from Relay, Maryland to visit Aunt Mary in Georgetown and stay for weeks at a time.

Mary lived on N Street, NW in a stately stone townhouse and had supported herself after Uncle Frank’s death by taking in boarders (including Jimmy Dean, then a radio announcer on WTOP Radio, and later a TV personality and maker of “fine sausage”). In later years, Mary rented rooms to elderly women and assisted them in a private nursing care capacity. She was an institution in that part of Georgetown for decades and even baby sat the likes of William A. (Billy) Martin (now famous in his own right as the former owner and father of the current owner of Billy Martin’s Tavern at the corner of Wisconsin and N Streets, NW). The restaurant booth where JFK proposed to Jackie is memorialized there with a small plaque.

Mary, much like my grandmother, had a formal, Victorian air about her, despite her modest upbringing and lack of education. Always impeccably neat (even when in a “house dress” as they were called in those days), Mary was a devout Catholic whose faith was a big part of who she was. She always had a twinkle in her eye and was a purveyor of great wisdom. She had a self-sufficiency born of her mill worker and farm wife past and though very “lady like” she could handle horses, wagons, and “prairie tasks” with ease. My mom used to tell the story of Aunt Mary driving the wagon back from the store to Uncle Frank’s farm when the old dray horse dropped down lame in the road. Aunt Mary calmly started my mom and the other kids walking toward home, circled back to the wagon, and shot the suffering old horse in the head (with a rifle that the kids never knew was in the wagon box). All in a day’s work.

My most vivid memory of Aunt Mary’s Georgetown home was on the evening of November 27, 1960. I was 10 years old and had gone with my parents to visit Aunt Mary on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. It just so happened that 19 days before, her neighbor Senator John F. Kennedy had been elected President of the United States. His N Street home was diagonally across the street from Aunt Mary’s. Though she and Senator Kennedy were only waving acquaintances, she had met Jackie and enjoyed many conversations as the young Senator's wife pushed baby Caroline past the house in her stroller. For my Aunt Mary, the election of the first Catholic President of the United States was a big deal.

When we arrived that day, the street was abuzz with excitement. Since the election, Aunt Mary’s parlor had become a warm place of shelter and a reliable cup of coffee for the small Secret Service detail assigned to guard the President-elect. There was a permanent rope-line on the south side of the narrow cobblestone street and a constant crowd of spectators observing what was then affectionately known as “The Red House” (whose occupants, of course, were on their way to the White House).

Aunt Mary had learned through her Secret Service guests that it was Caroline’s 3rd birthday, and the family would be gathering that evening for a celebration. My dad (a committed “New Frontiersman”) and I joined the small, shivering crowd at the rope-line to get a better view of the comings and goings at 3307. As predicted, the cars began to arrive, and I got my one and only in-person glimpse of Robert F. Kennedy emerging from one of two cars carrying his throng. After emerging from the car, he went around to the trunk, pulled bags of gifts out for Caroline, and then disappeared into the house. Every time the front door of the house opened, the crowd shouted out and cheered in loud adoration.

When the traffic quieted down, someone in the crowd suggested that we sing Happy Birthday to young Caroline. Like carolers in the night, our breath visible as we serenaded, the group of strangers became a mighty chorus and sang the familiar tune over and over. Finally, someone came to an upstairs window, pushed back the curtains, and waived to the crowd below…to sustained cheers and applause. Though the adult at the frosty window was not clearly visible, every one of us on the street that night was convinced that it was JFK and that we had had our moment of Camelot. Whether it was him or not, I have just chosen to believe that it was for all these many years.

In 1978, Aunt Mary at 90 years old moved to Minot, ND. She lived with her grandson, March Clarke, who owned a very large cattle ranch. Mary cooked breakfast for the ranch hands every morning until she was 98. She passed away in 1993 at 105 years old, and is buried in a plot next to Uncle Frank in Sykesville, MD.


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