Arvonne Fraser is sitting amid the tumult of dismantling a household after more than 18 year -- the half-filled boxes of papers from her husband's eight terms in Congress, from her own nearly two decades of work, unpaid and paid, for women's rights . . . and of course the books and clothes and abandoned paraphernalia of children grown . . . and closets emptied for the first time in years . . . mementos, memories. . .
Last night she was honored for her contributions to the 10 major national women's organizations she founded or helped found or served or inspired or sponsored, and she was surrounded by grateful friends. But even as she was packing on Tuesday, at least one friend was with her all the time. Nothing organized, of course, but it seemed that as one left, another just happened to show up.
And her 18-year-old Yale sophomore daughter Jeannie was there too, helping, in and out, a presence.
It is not an easy time. The end of a job, the wrench of the move and all these sharpened emotions overwhelmed by the enormity of personal heartbreak -- the suicide last week of Arvonne and Don Fraser's 26-year-old daughter Lois, the one the family called Yo-Yo, 15 years, almost to the day, after their 8-year-old daughter Annie was struck by a car and killed as she walked home from school. The then 11-year-old Yo-Yo had been supposed to walk Annie home, but somehow didn't. Her family says she never quite came to grips with her role in that tragedy.
Arvonne Fraser is going home to Minnesota; her Carter appointment as chief of the Office of Women in Development of the Agency for International Development has expired and she will rejoin her husband, who preceded the move home by two years to become mayor of Minneapolis.
In typical Fraser fashion, she refused any sort of goodbye party unless it was a fund-raiser for the women's organizations with which she is identified, and there was no question of its being canceled or of her not being there.
"You learn," she says softly, "that you have to sort of celebrate life."
"I had real trouble when I came here," Arvonne Fraser was recalling. "I was very depressed because I had to give up my career in Minnesota. Everybody thought it was so wonderful that Don was elected, but I was a party officer and on the Minneapolis Board of Public Welfare and I had a real career going there.
"I resented terribly once I got here that everybody thought it was so wonderful. . . I remember thinking it was sort of blecchh."
The women's movement was just beginning, and Arvonne Fraser remembers her first group was called "the Nameless Sisterhood" because "some reporter in Minneapolis wanted to know what our husbands did."
They read Betty Friedan and their brown-bag meetings attracted speakers like Bernice Sandler. And somehow Arvonne Fraser, between mothering six children, running all of her husband's congressional campaings, supervising his congressional office and running their homes -- first on Chevy Chase Circle and, after Annie's death, the house on 4th Street SW -- found herself on the cutting edge of women's rights.
"Of course," she says, "I couldn't have done it without a supportive husband." She pauses. "Sometimes I think maybe we don't appreciate them enough. . . Maybe we should have an affair honoring supportive husbands."
At one point during the Carter administration, when Arvonne Fraser was already working at her job at AID, Rep. Fraser ran into a friend at a White House social event honoring Carter's women appointees. The friend recalls that the congressman said to him, "Do you know why I'm here? I'm here because my wife is a somebody."
In 1978, Don Fraser gave up his House seat and his position on the Foreign Affairs Committee to run for Muriel Humphrey's Senate seat. He was defeated in a bitter primary by businessman Robert Short, which devastated the 30-year-old Minnesota liberal movement headed by Humphrey and led by the Frasers and former vice president Mondale, among, others. (It was Fraser's first campaign, a friend points out, not run by his wife.)
He was not happy in Washington after that, Arvonne Fraser recalls, and when the decision about running for major came along, it had to be made in a day.
"He kept calling me at the office asking me if he should run and I finally said, 'Look, I'll come home and we'll decide.' I walked home and we talked and talked and I finally said, 'Well, if you can do this, you've got to get on a plan.' And he said, 'There's a plane at 10 o'clock to New York and I can get a plane from there at. . .' And I knew that was it."
So for the past two years, the Frasers have flown back and forth between Minneapolis and Washington, stirring some chitchat about the state of their marriage -- but not among anybody who knows them, say friends. "They have the kind of relationship that could withstand the kind of comment you get when she's here and he's there and people ask the usual questions," one friend said.
The family drew together tightly in the face of their recent loss, and Arvonne Fraser admits to some anticipation about going back home to live. "I'm ready," she says.
She will participate in her husband's campaign for reelection to a term that, thanks to a recent charter amendent, will be four years, and she will join the Hubert Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs to continue her work in the international women's movement.
The phone rings. It is a condolence call.
And she talks a little about Yo-Yo, a troubled young woman who had never forgiven herself for not waiting to walk Annie home from school the day the younger girl was killed. One small consolation is that she was very close to her family. "She always came home," her mother said.
"She just couldn't find her niche. She was a concert pianist, with a master's in English, but she wanted to get into filmmaking. This is a tough time.
"She had been depressed. . . I thought she'd been making progress, but she couldn't put it together. . . . It's a tough time for young people. I had just clipped a piece by Henry Fairlie to send to her. He wrote how terrible the world is when it can't give its young people something useful to do.
"I think the ones who find a group or a cause, something outside of themselves that they can believe in and work for . . . and that's something she didn't have."
Last night at the farewell party she told the 100 or so guests that "the fact that one has a cause and one has friends is what one going."
Lois Fraser left a note expressing her love for her family and a tape describing the tranquillity she felt at the end.
"She loved to swim and described herself going swimming, and then drying herself off, and putting her clothes back on and then laying down in the sunshine, watching the clouds and going to sleep. And there's her voice, after she's dead, talking to us and in a way, it's very consoling. It helped us. A lot.
"But," says Arvonne Fraser, "I think she was afraid to get too deeply involved, because when you got involved, the world seemed to fall apart. . . In the tape people aren't even mentioned."
At 55, Arvonne Fraser is a strong, warm person. They are, says the friend, who knew them when Don Fraser was a state senator, "typical of Minnesota politicians -- sensitive with high standards and always interested in something beyond themselves."
At her party last night on Capitol Hill, Arvonne Fraser was smothered by a seemingly endless stream of well-wishers. Only once did she choke -- and then only for a moment -- when she told the group that "if I didn't have other things to cry about, I'd cry tonight" at the outpouring of affection.
But when the bewailing of the loss of Fraser from the Washington scene got particularly gloomy, she grinned and said, "Hey, I gotta tell you, Minneapolis is still in the United States."
Even some members of "the Nameless Sisterhood" were there last night, along with a number of Carter women appointees, including Esther Peterson. Most of Fraser's international admirers had feted her "in about a party every night" last month, said Irene Tinker of the Equity Policy Center, and last night was for "her domestics."
Veteran lobbyist Olga Margolin (retired Washington representative of the National Council of Jewish Women) and veteran Capitol Hill aide and civil rights activist Phinneas Indritz were there, as was Joy Simonson of the Women's Education Equity grant program. That act was written by Fraser and friends, Fraser noted, "just as a consciousness raiser." Senate committee action yesterday on bloc grants has painted a dismal future for this program, Simonson said, but, consoled Fraser, "we never expected it to pass. . ."
Then, spotting someone in the crowd, Fraser said, "Oh, I'm so glad you're here. I have some files for you. . ."
Among the organizations that benefit from the Arvonne Fraser Farewell: Women's Equity Action League and its D.C. Chapter, the National Women's Political Caucus, the National Women's Education Fund, the Center for Women's Education Fund, the Center for Women's Policy Studies, the Clearinghouse for Women's Issues, the Equity Policy Center, the Women's Campaign Fund, the Women's Legal Defense Fund and the Washington Women's Network.
Members of these groups have written legislation that has been enacted and broken the discrimination of such former male bastions as Rhodes, Nieman and Guggenheim scholarships and fellowships, and raised funds for women candidates -- and elected them -- among other accomplishments.
"Men," she says, and grins, her hazel eyes brightening under her cap of gray hair, "would never believe we were serious unless we got tough about political action."
The Frasers are not selling their house. They're renting.
"You never know," says Arvonne Fraser.