Woman Channels Capitol Hill Childhood into Memoir

Gray is shown as a young child in this undated photograph. In her memoir, Gray describes people she encountered in her neighborhood, such as icemen, newsboys and vendors.
Gray is shown as a young child in this undated photograph. In her memoir, Gray describes people she encountered in her neighborhood, such as icemen, newsboys and vendors. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

For two years, Mary Z. Gray sat at her typewriter by the big window in her cluttered den, a servant to ghosts of her past: lamplighters and icemen, newsboys and fruit vendors, ragmen and undertakers. All denizens of old Capitol Hill, clamoring for a place in her manuscript.

Now, at 90, she is finished with them, or mostly so. They reside on 228 pages in a plain maroon binder that sits, untitled, on the dining room table -- content, so to speak, with release from her memory.

They populate a work that is part memoir, part reverie about places, past and present. It is also a vivid sketch, through the eyes of her childhood, of life on Capitol Hill in the 1920s and '30s.

It was then a marvelous, quirky neighborhood where her father's funeral home had a speaking tube at the front door where people whistled for the undertaker. It was a place where an anonymous washerwoman brought clean laundry in a baby carriage with a bent wheel. And it was a place where Gray was the nearsighted little girl with a squint whom everyone called Sissy.

Gray, a retired journalist and former White House speechwriter who left Capitol Hill a lifetime ago, said she did not willingly choose this part of her life to write about.

"It was as if it was chosen for me," she said. The idea came when a search for a parking place with her daughter two years ago landed them in her old haunts. There she was, decades removed; yet the places remained, like old friends.

Once she started writing, the story poured out. "Every night when I went to bed, it came unbidden," she said. "And I couldn't turn it off."

The project was unhindered by her age. "I don't think in terms of being too old," she said. "That just is not part of the equation." And she was undisturbed by technology. She has no computer or cable TV.

So, sitting at her manual Olivetti in the house in suburban Maryland where she has raised two children and lived for 55 years, the former freelancer for the New York Times and Washington Post began.

One of her earliest memories was of a role she had as a child growing up above the family funeral home two blocks from the Capitol.

At night she would to go to a window in the third-floor apartment and see whether the light was on in the columned tholos atop the Capitol dome. If it was, she'd announce to her family: "They're in session!"

The light meant Congress was working late, and it was a beacon as evening fell over the neighborhood.


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