On a book shelf in the cozy, rust-colored den of Edwin and Ursula Meese's elegant McLean home sits a tall, sealed can. It is filled with gifts--a going-away present to Ursula from some California friends. "Open it on your lowest day," they told her when she and her husband, the presidential counselor, headed for Washington.

She hasn't yet--not this winter when burglars broke into the house in the middle of the afternoon; not after a bomb threat was phoned to the San Francisco hotel in which the Meeses were staying; not when one of their two sons was harassed by Princeton classmates, angry that their student aid was imperiled by Reaganomics; not when their daughter shied away from school social functions because she was self-conscious about the constant presence of Secret Service agents; not on the occasions she has worn borrowed evening clothes to fancy dinners because the family finances are tight.

"I'm waiting for the real low day," she says with a laugh. "I guess I'm an optimist.

"There will be those sacrifices," she says of the Meeses' commitment to Washington "and those times when you just think--one more affair and I'll just scream . . . One more meal out. But we wouldn't be here if what we were doing was not fulfilling to us. Because we see something beyond what we're doing. It is fun. Every once in a while you have to remind yourself that it is fun. I'm basically tired all the time."

Like so many others, Ursula Meese packed the family bags, changed her life style in a matter of days and learned to love Washington. The pressures are intense. Her husband is often referred to as the president's closest adviser, and their commitment to Reagan spans 14 years from the time Ed Meese was chief of staff to Gov. Reagan in Sacramento.

"It's so much harder on the wives," says Ed Meese. "She put up with me all through the campaign, packed us, moved us, settled us and kept the family on course. The hardest thing is the lack of time together. She has to pick up the pieces with the whole family because I can't."

At 50, Ursula Meese has a relaxed demeanor and take-charge presence. In California, she worked on suicide prevention and did a stint on a grand jury. In Washington, she has plunged into the city's whirl with the fervor of a young attorney joining her first blue-chip firm. She has joined scores of boards, committees and fund-raising efforts from the Corcoran Gallery to the USO. Five weeks after moving here, she took on the chairmanship of the Ambassador's Ball and raised $250,000 for multiple sclerosis--the largest amount raised in the ball's 11-year history. A few months later, she dressed up like a bunny and rolled Easter eggs on the White House lawn for thousands of kids.

In February, she became director of the William Moss Institute, a philanthropic foundation set up with the money of a Texas millionaire. Its goal is to poll Americans about their concerns for the future. She took the job, she says, because she believes in it, and because she needs the consultant's fee--which she says hasn't been settled yet.

The institute's own polling has indicated that the first concern for most Americans is crime. Energy is second. The economy is third.

For Ursula Meese, the concerns about money come first.

"There's a lot of pluses, but a lot of minuses, an awful lot of minuses," she says, sitting in her sparse Wisconsin Avenue office. "The minuses will probably overtake in another year. Financially, it's difficult. You come into it, and you know it's going to be difficult. In our case it's more difficult than we thought, because we never sold our house in California. We bought this house . . . and the San Diego house is still on the market, so we are now supporting two houses, plus a child at Princeton, plus a child here at a small girls' school."

A self-employed corporate attorney and law professor before joining the Reagan presidential campaign, Ed Meese saw his annual salary cut in half--to $61,000--with his current job, says his wife. Their debts, she says, are "very large."

"We take loans. I'm working. This helps the gap. At least it keeps Scott in Princeton and Dana in St Agnes. It doesn't pay house payments; we take loans to pay house payments," she says, her voice lowering. She looks down and purses her lips.

"Those are things that you know after a while are going to get to you. They do now, they get to me now. Except life is going so fast, if I didn't have anything else to think about I'd go out of my mind on that. There's got to be a point where it's got to stop."

She talks about the expense of moving, which presidential appointees pay out of pocket. In their case, coming from California, Ursula Meese said it cost $10,000. She quickly adds that it is all part of the price of loyalty to Reagan.

Yet even the Meeses' long-standing commitment to Reagan might not be enough to keep them in the White House for another term--just as Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver has said he will leave his prestigious post after the 1982 elections because he can't afford to stay.

"We can't keep this up for eight years because Ed's got to go out. Financially, no, we couldn't possibly do that. We couldn't. Ed [50] would be too old to go out and have to work that hard to pay off that kind of debt. Our first few years outside the administration will be paying off the privilege of having served the country. We are both responsible people. We are honest people, and we know that these debts have to be met."

Her husband's job itself creates added expenses, she says, expenses like keeping herself appropriately dressed for Washington's glittery taffeta and silk circuit, where parties are a political necessity.

"Fortunately, I'm not a clothes horse," she says. "It's not important for me to wear designer clothes, or I'd be out of my mind because I just can't afford it. I wear clothes that I've had for a long time. I borrow clothes. We [friends] have a clothes exchange in San Francisco. People have never seen those. I switch. I'm comfortable doing it. People can criticize me but that's the way it is."

In many ways, Ursula Meese is the antithesis of the Beverly Hills dazzle that has characterized much of the Reagan administration. She does not wear diamonds or designer clothes, nor does she have her short, wavy auburn hair colored and permed at the Watergate. She times her trips to California so that she can visit her old San Diego hairdresser.

"Unpretentious" and "solid" are words that pop up often when friends talk about Ursula Meese. She is described as a no-nonsense, even-tempered person, who opens her doors to homeless friends and stray animals. She says psychology is her first love, although she has a certificate of business administration from the Harvard-Radcliffe Program of Business Administration. She even jokes about running a home for divorced friends. "I seem to have a marriage counseling service going," she says with a laugh.

Ed Meese and Ursula Herrick met in high school and were married after what she jokes about as their 11-year "whirlwind romance." She worked for 10 years as a probation officer in Oakland while her husband worked in the district attorney's office. When the Meeses moved to Sacramento with Reagan, Ursula volunteered to work for a suicide crisis line for several years. She served on the grand jury in 1978 and 1979, and squirreled away her $25 per diem. At the end of the year she used the money to take the family to Europe.

"She has the least personal ambition of anyone I know," says Nancy Clark Reynolds, a Bendix Corp. vice president and longtime Reagan insider. "If there is a crisis, Ursula is the first one there rolling up her sleeves, cooking spaghetti, taking your kids, running your household . . . My son lived with [the family] for a while and she took a friend of mine in for quite some time that just needed some tender loving care."

"The time constraints, her husband getting licked in the press and the fishbowl life you have to lead--it takes its toll," says E. Pendleton James, assistant to the president for presidential personnel and a college friend of Ursula Meese. "The first thing Ursula found when they moved here was a church. You would think they would want to sleep in on Sundays after the week they spend."

The Meeses start their day at 5:30 a.m. from their sprawling brick house off Old Dominion Road in McLean. There are only four homes on their dead-end street. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under Jimmy Carter, lives next door. The back yard is vast and empty. In front of the house sits a Secret Service car. Two agents stare when a visitor approaches.

Only Dana Meese, 15, lives at home now. Scott, 19, is a freshman at Princeton, and Michael, 21, a recent graduate of West Point, is a second lieutenant at Fort Ord, Calif.

"The one thing that bothers me is the kids," Ursula Meese says of the high exposure. "Every once in a while one of the teachers will criticize something about the administration--cutting it down in a negative tone. The whole class turns toward Dana expecting an answer. Scott has the same experience at Princeton.

"It discourages me that they put that kind of pressure on the kids. At first they took it personally. They've learned to live with it now."

For Scott, the pressures intensified this year when some classmates gave him a hard time over policy on student financial aid. Ursula Meese is reluctant to talk about the incident, for fear, she says, of embarrassing the students who were harassing her son. "My heart goes out to them," she says.

The added protection Ed Meese has gotten since the threat of a Libyan hit squad does not bother her, she says. But when 15-year-old Dana had agent protection, there were some tense moments. "She withdrew a little from doing some of the activities," says Ursula Meese. "If she realized that they would be with her when she went for a Saturday afternoon or to a dinner somewhere, she said, 'I won't go.' It put a little strain on her."

The Meese home has an airy California quality, peach floral couch and chairs on top of a warm taupe-colored carpet. The duck motif is everywhere--ceramic statues, door stops, wall hangings, table decorations. The brick den is a shrine to the White House. One full wall is covered with color photographs from the past year. They include various combinations of the president and first lady with the Meese family, as well as photographs of Oval Office meetings, the inauguration and presidential trips.

During one typical day recently, Ursula Meese raced from morning office meetings to a downtown fund-raising lunch for the Wolf Trap Ball, back out to McLean for a tea with the Greater McLean Republican Women's Club. And back to the White House to meet with Ed Meese's secretary to go over the week's invitations, which can number from 45 to 70.

She is asked, while cruising the George Washington Memorial Parkway on the way to the tea, if she likes the daily race from event to event.

"No," she says, staring at the passing countryside. "I'd like to get some work done.

"I think I'll probably know two people there . . . I'll probably join," she says. "I'm what you call a shill, a drawing card. So it's important that I go."

The drawing card was one hour and 15 minutes late. Women in linen suits and cotton print dresses spilled outside the doors of the mammoth brick house. Mercedes and Sevilles lined the narrow lane leading to the house. Ursula Meese parked her red Volkswagen Dasher wagon on the highway and walked through bushes and across a muddy lawn.

Inside were 180 women, various Virginia state representatives, Rep. Paul Trible Jr. (R-Va.) and Marshall Coleman, the recently defeated Republican candidate for governor. They waited for her to start the program. Trible made a campaign pitch for the Senate. Afterward, she thanked him privately for his support of White House programs. She was the ambassador, the emissary from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The guests lined up to meet her. Thirty-five minutes later, she was back in the Dasher racing toward the White House reception.

"Maybe the Secret Service will let me drive my husband home tonight," she says, laughing again. "Probably not."

She's allowed to ride with her husband alone only one day a week--Sunday. "They let us ride to church together. Then they follow us in. There we are in one pew, and there they are one pew behind," she says.

No one was home when the Meeses' house was broken into during the day. The burglar alarm notified the police. The incident is still under investigation--and the house is under Secret Service surveillance, although she won't say how constant that surveillance is.

"They never let anybody get too close to that house," she says. "And the mail--you don't get your mail anymore, it goes through a security check system. We get it a week later. It certainly is irritating when you get a week's mail at one time, and we get an awful lot of mail, so you have to spend three or four hours going through it."

The high points of her year, she says, include the travel, the personal exposure to world leaders. And specifically, the day "Ed's boss" presented her son Michael with his West Point diploma. "To have the opportunity to have the president present him with that diploma was special," she says. "It was very personal."

Still, she says, "I'm looking forward to getting out of the job. It's like anything else. You take it on to do it, to resolve the problem, to make a difference and to finish it. Life is full of beginnings and finishings . . . And I'm looking forward to finishing this job."