Detectives restore garden for 101-year-old woman

July 30, 2011

When Prince George’s County police detectives first found Nancy Poore Tufts, she was sitting in an upholstered chair near her walker, staring out the window. She was looking, she told the detectives, at the remnants of a garden she had promised to maintain for her mother some 40 years ago.

Today, Tufts is 101. Her mother’s garden has long been buried beneath dense weeds and fallen trees. On Saturday, the two detectives who found Tufts — and several of their colleagues — descended on her Fort Washington home to clear the land and re-plant some of her mother’s garden.

“They’re angels,” Tufts said, gazing out her window after the work was done. “They just flew in to help me.”

Detectives Tammy Irons and Jennifer Ivy initially thought Tufts’s house was abandoned.

The two investigators, assigned to the Prince George’s County District 4 station, were probing a rash of burglaries and looking for places where crooks might store their loot. Tufts’s red brick mansion along the Potomac River seemed to fit the bill.

Long strands of green ivy blanketed the brick exterior, and leafy bushes covered in thick spider webs grew so high that they obscured some of the front windows. Knee-high grass covered the side yard and burst up through cracks in the driveway. The front door hung open.

The detectives went inside, calling out while they looked around. Dusty books, hand bells and Victorian figurines lined wooden tables and cabinets. Somewhere, the investigators thought they heard ‘40s music.

Then came Tufts’s call.

“Yoo-hoo!” the centenarian chirped from her seat beneath the window.

For about an hour, the detectives stood and talked to Tufts, learning about her history and the history of the mansion that has been designated a “Backyard Wildlife Habitat” by the National Wildlife Federation and a historic site by the county. They kept coming back over the next few weeks.

“It took me back in time,” Ivy said. “It was amazing.”

Born in London to American parents, Tufts’s family moved to Maryland in 1939, cutting a space for a house in Fort Washington out of land that was mostly woods. Tufts eventually earned several degrees, including a bachelor's and master’s from Syracuse University, and worked as a music teacher. She said she is sometimes known as the “panda lady” because she lets National Zoo officials harvest bamboo from her property to feed the pandas.

“I could write a book with all the stuff I’ve done over the past 100 years,” Tufts said.

Tufts has no children, and her husband, also a music teacher, died decades ago. She lives mostly independently in her home, which has no air conditioning, and she uses a walker to get around. She has a black cat named Spooky Spaghetti and a long-haired dachshund named Sir Maximilian. She said she wanted a guard dog but ended up rescuing the deaf dachshund after it was abandoned by its previous owner.

The detectives said they were moved to help Tufts not because they felt she needed them, but because in frequent visits to her house, they grew to respect and admire her.

“We weren’t doing it for pity for her,” said Sgt. Matt Barba, who is among those who have grown close with Tufts. “We were more doing it for praise.”

Tufts is quick-witted, even sarcastic at times. When Irons asked if Tufts wanted her to put an ice pack in the freezer, Tufts stuck her tongue out and playfully responded “Well, what, do you want it in the oven?” As she posed for a picture with Barba, she joked, “Oh boy, wait until your wife sees this!”

She is also well-read and in touch with current events. She inquired Saturday whether a reporter interviewing her worked for Rupert Murdoch, who she thinks is “really getting bad press.” She had scribbled “Gossip!” on two copies of Newsweek which advertised an interview with Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser.

Tufts waited inside while detectives trimmed the bushes that blocked her windows and plowed a path through the dense brush that had overrun her garden. She seemed to be asleep while Ivy and Irons filled planters with red and purple perennials and impatiens, setting them along a white banister — which Tufts said came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inauguration — that once formed the garden’s wall.

The detectives were nervous about how Tufts would react to the landscaping. Before work started, she gave them a hand-written list of the animals on her property — and a warning not to disturb any of them. She objected when she thought some bushes were trimmed too heavily. When most of the work was done, Irons stood beneath the window assessing the planters lining the garden.

“I’m thinking this is beautiful,” Irons said, standing up against the window where Tufts looks out. “I’m hoping she’s in awe when she looks.”

Afterward, as Tufts gazed out the window at the now cleared garden lined with planters, she seemed to give her approval: “Oh, it’s just marvelous,” she said.

The detectives filled her bird feeder and left, promising to return to keep the plants watered.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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