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Mary McGrory

A Lady to the End

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, December 8, 2002; Page B07

Those of you lucky enough to have a good neighbor will commiserate with me in my bleakness. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I lost the perfect neighbor.

Her name was Marie Pack, and her philosophy was live and let live. She watched out for me, always kindly calling me when I left my car lights on, but she never pried. She came from New Orleans and was a fanatical football fan, and I was born a Red Sox fan, but except when I stupidly called her during a Redskins game and she icily reminded me of my gaffe, we got along in total amity for 40 years. After her retirement from Woodward & Lothrop, she spent her time being obliging. She took in packages and checked my place for leaks when I went away. She never gave me unsolicited advice.

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She was one of the most organized human beings I ever met. Her apartment was immaculate and so was she. I would meet her in the morning on her way to the trash room or the laundry, and she was dressed as if on her way out to lunch. I never saw her with a hair out of place. She died with the same dignity. Her son, Bob, and his wife, Jane, with whom she had Thanksgiving, discovered her the day after, lying on her bed, composed as ever, a lady to the end.

She had large dark eyes, and in her youth was a belle of New Orleans. She attended Sarah Lawrence College for a while, and came to Washington with the Redskins. She gave them unconditional love -- and exasperation. She always referred to them as "we." Sunday afternoons were sacred, as I said, and this paragon of southern graciousness and charm turned into -- there is no other word for it -- a fishwife. Her father had taken her to Tulane games when she was a child and taught her all the fine points.

One Sunday afternoon, I was walking with a friend past her place when the air was rent with shrieks: "No, no, no, you idiot. I'll kill you." It was followed by curses she didn't learn at the posh New Orleans finishing school she attended.

"Domestic violence?" my friend asked apprehensively. "Should I break it up?"

The sound of a roaring crowd was heard, and my friend said, "Phew, a Redskins fan." I told Marie about it later, and she thought it was funny, although not at the time.

Her other passion was flowers, and I shared it. She had a little patch just under her dining room window, and it looked like Williamsburg. It is not enough to say she had a green thumb; hers was gold. She would come home from Safeway with a forlorn miniature rose, the horticultural equivalent of a sick puppy. In no time at all, it would be blooming profusely.

Her lily, which I believe she rescued from a Giant store, was the wonder of the building. It grew taller than us and put out a veritable symphony of beautiful speckled flowers. She bade the petunias in her box to cascade and they did. She was modest about her triumphs. I called her the fine arts commissioner and consulted her closely about planting -- as I did on all matters of taste, from the proper dress for a dinner or a funeral to table arrangements.

She insisted her only secret was daily watering. My impatiens took a rest in midsummers; hers not only bloomed riotously but seeded themselves. "Volunteers," she would explain.

She would sit out on her patio in the cool of the evening and greet people coming home from work. She became the heart of the house, a sure source of pleasantness and encouragement for newcomers, dispensing reassurance, information and charm to all comers. By popular demand, she ran for the condo board. She hated bureaucracy and bickering over who should decide when the heat was to go on or off, but in her day, positive things happened. The flower beds in front, for instance, took a great leap forward.

This spring, this excellent and obliging person had a disaster. A pipe burst in the walls and she was flooded. She did not get her own niceness returned by the people in charge. We had a hard-nosed majority that brought in a new management firm. The new management showed up late and instead of help gave her a lecture about "unrealistic expectations" on the part of elderly and frail owners who were not good sports about "life's little problems."

Marie had a wretched summer, picking her way across her buckled floors and negotiating with insurance agents and painters and plasterers. She was demoralized.

In due course, order was restored. Marie recovered her spirits. She began sitting on the patio again. She was proud of her son's hardy support in her trials. We gossiped and giggled as before.

A suitable epitaph came from Felix, the building maintenance man who helped her all he could. His English isn't much, but he got the point about her. "Everybody," he told me when we went by her door, "she nice to everybody."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company