One afternoon Mary Rush sat in a near-empty classroom and contemplated a whole new way of living. With a mischievous, crooked smile, she said, "Boy, I should have done this years ago. Doing something that's kind of fun and goofy -- and getting paid for it. . . . I may never go home again!"
This was a year ago, when Rush was a popular first-grade teacher at Watkins Elementary School on Capitol Hill. She cooked her students feasts of green eggs and ham. If a youngster was having a tough day, she might burst into a rock song: "Carry on, my wayward son, there'll be peace when you are done." She secured a grant to buy "peace rugs," where young people could sit and work out differences. She was an expert tooth-puller. Hundreds of teeth left the building in the little boxes and plastic bags she kept on hand for conveying precious cargo to the Tooth Fairy.
She was a ubiquitous character in the neighborhood. At 6 feet 2, she was hard to miss. She was the go-to woman for cooking mounds of pasta for spaghetti dinners, selling T-shirts, helping to plan the annual Capitol Hill Classic walk and run. On Capitol Hill, it is said with some exaggeration that everybody knows everybody -- but it is also said that if you walked with Mary Rush, you needed a healthy ego because she really did know everybody.
Anyway, on this afternoon, she was thinking of other possibilities. She had just finished teaching an after-school class in self-expression -- she led the pupils in charades -- for extra money. She had also found the time to do private tutoring on the side. A quiet revolution in the Rush household had made this moonlighting possible. Husband Andy, then 45, and kids Helen, 16, Jack, 14, and Dan, 12, were taking over some of the shopping, cooking and housework to liberate Mom, who, everyone acknowledged, had a lot on her shoulders.
"Once I was freed up from doing a lot of the work, it allowed me to do something I always wanted to do: work with kids outside the classroom," said Rush, who was also then 45.
It's strange how epiphanies come at unlikely moments. Rush's discovery of how satisfying it was to find a new outlet for her educational creativity came during the filming of a reality television program. Her family experienced a different epiphany, months later.
These are the moments when the frantic yet ordinary forward rush of life pauses to reveal something special. You wish you could catch and hold these moments.
A television camera was in the classroom that afternoon with Mary Rush. After she stopped talking, the camera stopped rolling. This elated moment had been fixed forever on videotape. It will air at 10 a.m. tomorrow on the Discovery Channel.
Several days ago, Andy, Helen, Jack and Dan watched that scene for the first time. The moment replayed, along with many other moments saved by the television camera.
They were transported back into the past. Then the tape ended and the spell was broken. Andy thought it all ended abruptly, too abruptly.
"Zap, it was over," he said.
Andy and Mary met 20 years ago when he was assistant technical director for the Folger Theatre and she taught at a Catholic school and, on the side, worked in a deli called Provisions near Eastern Market. She ran the deli's ahead-of-its-time cappuccino bar, which she dubbed "Mary's Place." Customers loved to hang out with the funny and gregarious barista.
Mary was looking for a tall man, and one day in walked this tall man with a blond ponytail. They were married about a year later.
Mary eventually started teaching at Watkins, and Andy built up a general-contracting business. He has rehabbed many of the aging rowhouse interiors on Capitol Hill. They bought a cramped one for themselves on the edge of the Hill; Andy fixed it up, though he never got around to the basement.
Life was racing along at a pace not atypical for a Washington family with three children and two working parents.
One day a producer called for the Discovery Channel: How would the Rushes like to be in a reality TV show?
At first they thought it would be too much bother. Then they agreed in spite of themselves. Then they really got into it.
The premise of "Cha-Ching! Money Makers" was simply that regular folks would be challenged to raise a sum of money in four weeks to buy something special. In return, they'd get free financial advice and the fun of being on TV. Each of the 14 one-hour episodes would feature a different household. The Rushes decided they could use $3,000 to expand their tiny basement.
A camera crew began following them around, recording moments.
Mary and Andy between them took home $5,100 a month in salary, and the family spent about that much on expenses, leaving no savings.
The "Cha-Ching!" producers sent in personal finance experts to put the family through financial boot camp, on camera. No more throwing away leftovers. No more ill-planned food shopping every other night. No more buying lunch. The kids would get jobs: baby-sitting, teaching swimming, walking dogs. Andy would take small carpentry jobs on the side. And everyone would pitch in at home so Mary could tutor after school. Finally, there would be a rummage sale on a sidewalk near Eastern Market, a price-tagged retrospective of a two-decade life together.
Mary thought it was all a hoot and tried to get as many cameos of friends and their children as possible into the show. One monthly expense the family didn't have was a cable bill. Mary joked she was making a cable television show she couldn't watch.
Cha-ching: The Rushes met their $3,000 goal. Andy tore out the basement drywall and built a small annex.
Production notes for the show said: "One thing is clear with the Rushes. The entire family revolves around mom -- Mary. The bills get paid, the house gets cleaned and mouths get fed because of her. But to become money makers, the others will have to make up the difference. . . . And give mom a little free time for herself for the first time in years."
Life resumed its fast-forward pace, unobserved by the television eye. Months passed, but the show didn't air. The Rushes began to assume it never would.
At midday on Tuesday, May 18, five months after the filming, Mary was standing on the Watkins playground, lining up the children to come in from recess. Suddenly she collapsed. A massive heart attack. Within moments, she was dead.
There was no history of heart disease in her family, and she'd always appeared perfectly healthy. Her death left a hole in so many Capitol Hill sub-communities -- church, school, charitable, social and, of course, family. They came together in three powerful remembrances.
That Friday there was a memorial ceremony at Watkins. Hundreds attended. The receiving line lasted two hours and finally had to be cut off. Children gave some of the eulogies. The school's walls were papered with students' tributes. A candlelight vigil was held on the playground where she died.
The next day was the funeral service at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, where Rush was an ordained elder. Between 700 and 800 attended, filling the sanctuary and the fellowship hall and spilling onto the sidewalk, where loudspeakers carried the service.
Near the end of his remarks, the Rev. Andrew Walton asked everyone to join him in a song, and the congregation belted out:
Big wheel keep on turning
Proud Mary keep on burning
Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river.
Walton didn't know that this had been the first song played at the wedding reception of Andy and Mary 19 years before. He just thought it suited Mary.
Finally there was a smaller gathering of Mary's closest friends and family -- nearly 100 -- at Bethany Beach, a favorite vacation spot. Andy scattered some of her ashes.
Over the months, the family and the community got on with their grief as best they could. Friends -- 90 of them -- organized themselves on a Web site to deliver dinner every night to Andy and the children. (Competition is still so fierce that if you don't sign up early in the month, you have to wait until next month.)
Suddenly word arrived about something everyone had all but forgotten.
"Cha-Ching! Money Makers" was back on track. The episode featuring the Rushes would air Nov. 19 at 10 a.m.
Reality TV might seem to provide an awkward afterlife, but Andy embraced the prospect. He sent e-mails alerting friends to tune in.
Two weeks before airtime, Discovery sent an advance copy to the house. Andy and the children watched.
A few days later, Andy sat in the living room of the rowhouse. Jack and Dan were down in the expanded basement. Helen was at her job at a hardware store. Andy's blond hair is cut short now. He looked young and strong and tired. He talked about watching the show.
"It's a whole mix of emotions," Andy said. "Hearing Mary's voice for the first time. . . . They did a good job of capturing who she was."
It's not always apparent when a moment is worth saving. Later you wonder if you made the most of it while you could.
One scene features Jack scrubbing the toilet. "There's nothing better than cleaning the bathroom," he says on camera. "Except for, you know, everything else." Then he adds quietly, "I think it's good she gets a break for once. She's happy. That's all we care about."
There's Andy on a comically befuddled grocery mission to Safeway.
There's the scene of Mary on the day of the rummage sale, being handed a parking ticket by a police officer. She waves the ticket and says with her mischievous, crooked smile, "That eats into the profits. . . . So much for making money!"
Moments acquire new meanings in light of subsequent events. Sitting in the living room, Andy realized the "Cha-Ching!" project had been like a dress rehearsal for when he and the kids would be on their own.
He also realized it had been a chance for the Rushes to stop rushing in different directions. "It brought us all together to focus on something for a little bit," he said. "To get together for something other than dinner."
At the end of the show, the narrator says, "This episode of 'Money Makers' ends on a sad note. Shortly after we finished filming, Mary Rush passed away. She leaves behind a wonderful family, countless students whose lives she touched, and memories that are priceless."
There's a coda of quick-cut moments: Mary making plans at the dining room table, Mary hugging Jack after he cleaned the bathroom, Mary and Andy laughing. Then white letters on a black screen: "In Memory of Mary O'Neill Rush 1958-2004."
For an hour, while all that life was being reprised, it was almost possible to imagine things were as they used to be. Then the reality TV tape ran out, and reality picked up again.