Two men, one quick, the other dead, tint the life of D.C. councilwoman Hilda Mason.
The living one, her husband "Charlie," is a slightly rumpled white-haired man who opens the front door of their home off upper 16th Street. Mildly distracted, as if his mind were somewhere else, he pushes the glass outer door plastered with the campaign poster of his wife and motions a visitor into the living room. Then he disappears. He is like air, ubiquitous around his Hilda, so much so that down at City Hall they've taken to calling him the 14th member of the City Council.
It takes time to get to know the other man, although he, too, is in the house. In the plants that fill the room, in the pictures on the wall, the sculpture squating on a coffee table. He is mostly, though, in the pool that can be seen through the living room picture window, a poll that Mason has only swum in once.
It is while Mason, who first replaced the late Julius Hobson and then ran for and won his seat on the city coucil, is talking about her long involvement in D.C. politics, in the various school board fights, and community control situations that she has seen action in that the subject of the pool comes up.She has been talking about the new Morgan School in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood with its Olympic-size swimming pool when she says of her own pool: "It is a very sad story. The pool we built for my grandson Nestor. He lived with me off and on. He died when he was 13 1/2, from leukemia."
Emotions rises up in her and she says, "Most of the time I get so filled up, that I can't talk about it."
If, as anthropologist Margaret Mead has said, whe are in an era when the old will learn from the young, then the dead Nestor Gonzales, son of her daughter Caroline, has taught his grandmother much. He has added to Mason's family legacy of service and sensitivity to justice for those who are currently called the underclasses of America.
"He used to go on picket lines at an early age," recalls Mason. "And he used to tell me that when he grew up he wanted to help people with their freedom. He taught me a lot. He was interested in everything."
What Mason's grandson had rekindled in her was the family heritage of helping others and of seeing the positive in the worst situations. It is a quality that Mason, who came to Washington in 1945 with her two daughters from what she calls an "unsuccessful" marriage, feels came originally from her parents.
Raised in Altovista, Va., and one of eight children, the 60-year-old Mason remembers a South that is fast-fading from this generation's mind. Her mother, who was a schoolteacher, and her father, who was a small-town businessman (He was in everything - real estate, scrap iron, metal"), were post-slavery blacks who as she recalls, "always shared what they had. And at that time, black people talked a lot about the effects of prejudice.
"I remember my father went all over the countryside to help people save their land. My father made a good living and he shared it. I remember my parents talking about a 13-year-old black boy who had been seen sitting on the steps with a little white girl. He was going to be lynched. Even though my parents had eight children of their own, my father felt that he had to do something about the situation.
"In the middle of the night he hied the boy away to Roanoke."
Less dramatic, though perhaps it could be seen as an economic escape. Mason and her husband have quietly provided money to various segments of the community to prevent houses from being torn down or sold out from under their occupants. They once gave $5,000 to help the residents of Seaton Place retain their houses, something that, Mason says, "My husband has been doing for a number of years in a quiet way."
Mason married "Charlie," who is white, in 1965. He is her full-time unpaid assistant in her City Council post.Both members of the activist All Souls Unitarian Church on 16th Street, Mason says of their meeting in 1964, "We kept running into one anther and we had mutual friends. We kind of courted, if you want to call it that, on the picket line.Then we decided to get married."
That her husband, who is a retired naval researcher with two degrees from Harvard and a law degree from Howard University, is white causes no qualms with Mason.
"We almost breathe the same breath." she says. "I know that's not considered good in all sections of the community, but I can't help that. He's got a very keen mind and is good with minute details."
It is Mason who encouraged her husband to go to law school because of these attributes and because "he was always concerned about the legal aspects of civil right." The two together seem to have an almost interchangeable relationship: While talking about working with the Takoma school system ("I was working at Adams school and used to take my lunch hours to go and picket at Takoma") she fumbles around for the spelling of "charette," the planning committee of Takoma community groups opposed to the city's school site and says, "I'll ask Charlie how to spell it. He'll know."
When he hustles through the room still distracted, she slows him down with. "Honey, say 'Hi' to the reporter. By the way, how do you spell 'charette.'"
He spells the word then disappears into another room, and Mason says, "Charlie was really close to Nestor. When he was small and stayed with us, he used to come down at 2 in the morning and nestle down down between us. He was a very special child. I used to hold him in my arms like this before he went to bed," she says crossing her arms across her chest. "And we would listen to the sounds and make up stories.
"He's the reason for the plants," she says, spreading her palms around the room. "He loved them. And he picked out most of the pictures and sculptures."
Plants have now become Mason's interest - she raises pineapple tops and various other bromeliads - as have comic book and Indians. Her grandson is also the reason that the Masons have a 14-year-old foster son, David Jamison, a student at Lincoln Junior High School.
"Nestor thought it was unfair that all children didn't have parents," she says. "I guess he just pushed me into it."
Mason says that her career has been made by other people pushing her. "You have to get involved in politics if you want to get what you want, so I got involved through education, becaue getting the kind of education you want involves politics. But I really enjoyed just teaching school."
She became a member of the D.C. school board. Mason said because "people just kept saying I ought to be there." She points to a picture of Julius Hobson. "Hobson kept calling me up and telling me I ought to do it I went on vacation to Vermont for a while and when I got back, I called about 200 people to see if I had any support and then decided to run.
"I just do like the old spiritual says. 'Do What the Spirit Says Do,' and like Nestor said, "Help people win their freedom.'"