• John Constance

Aunt Mary's Window on Camelot

November 27, 1960

My grandmother, Lillian Mackenzie Loeber, had one sister, Mary Clarke. Mary was married to Frank Clarke who had been an unsuccessful gentleman farmer in Maryland and after the First World War purchased an upholstery business in Georgetown (Washington DC). Telephone reception wasn’t great in those days, and there is a famous family story about the phone call between my grandparents and the Clarkes just after they bought the business in Washington. Uncle Frank told my grandparents that he had bought an upholstery business, and through the crackling phone they thought that he had said “green grocery business”. They were quite surprised, needless to say, when they finally visited the first time, and a bit disappointed when they travelled home with no fresh produce.

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. She and my grandmother were very close, and Gran would take the train to visit Aunt Mary in Georgetown and stay for weeks at a time. Mary lived on N Street, NW in a stately brick 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) where JFK proposed to Jackie.

Mary, much like my grandmother, had a formal, Victorian air about her, though born and raised in very modest circumstances in the cotton mill town of Oella, Maryland. She and my grandmother worked as a two-child team operating a cloth loom at the Dickey Mill. Mary would pull the appropriate colors of cotton yarn based on a pattern card, and my grandmother, standing on a wooden box so she could reach the treadle, would operate the mechanical loom. Both girls were largely self-educated, having had to drop out of grammar school in 1904 to support themselves and their two unmarried aunts. Aunt Bertha and Aunt Lizzie raised them after their mother died in childbirth and their father abandoned the family.

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 the 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, Senator John F. Kennedy had been elected President of the United States and his N Street home was diagonally across the street from Aunt Mary’s. Though she and Senator Kennedy were only waving acquaintances in the Washington tradition, the election of the first Catholic President of the United States was a big deal for Aunt Mary.

Needless to say, 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 Kennedy’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.

John Constance

Raleigh, North Carolina

(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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