Throughout the evening, grandchildren had poured into the comfortable, rambler-style home in Lake City, Fla., dragging children and spouses behind them for the extraordinary family reunion.

They had come to meet "Granny, who for the last 45 years had been labeled mentally retarded and confined behind the walls of Forest Haven, the District of Columbia's institution for the mentally retarded.

"Granny, this is my husband."

"Granny, this is my daughter," they'd said, crowding around Virginia Gunnoe, a spirited 69-year-old woman sitting on the living room sofa.

Mary Louisa Hunter, her daughter, has sat beside her mother beaming and holding her hand.

One by one, Mrs. Gunnoe had embraced the 17 grandchildren and great grandchildren she'd first met in letters and photographs sent to her by her 19-year-old grandson, Earl Harvey Jr., more than a year ago.

"Is this little Mary Louisa?" asked Mrs. Gunnoe, hugging a little girl. The child nodded. "And Chad?" asked Mrs. Gunnoe, reaching for the youngest great-grandchildren, a chubby infant born last Mother's Day.

"Yes. Granny," answered another grandchild.

"Isn't he cute. A little butterball. You were chubby like that when you were a baby," Mrs. Gunnoe told her daughter.

"Was I, mother?" asked Hunter. Then, the daughter who has seen her mother only twice in 45 years burst into tears.

Now 48 years old, the mother of six children, and gray-haired herself, Mary Louis Hunter said she was 2 years old when her mother was confined. Her four brothers and sisters were sent to live with their paternal grandparents and Hunter was raised by her Aunt Alice, her mother's sister.

Fifteen years ago, she visited Forest Haven, where she saw her mother for the first time since infancy. She said she had tried to have her released then but Forest Haven officials had told her they felt her rocky marriage and unstable financial situation did not make her a suitable guardian.

Prior to Hunter's visit, institution officials had permitted Mrs. Gunnoe to visit her eldest daughter in Iowa for a year, they had explained. The fought constantly.

Now happily remarried and financially stable, Hunter said she had thought back then, "Maybe someday I'll find a way out get her out. I didn't know my son would be the one to do it."

It was young Harvey who, with the aide of a Forest Haven social worker and volunteer, had arranged his grandmother's visit and then helped the other grandchildren raise the $86 for the air fare to Florida.

During the visit, Mrs. Gunnoe will live in Lake City on a small farm owned by her daugher and son-in-law Jimmy, a merchant seaman from Honduras who Mary Louise married 11 years ago.

She had visited the farm earlier that evening, meeting the pigs Oscar, Betsey and Squeaky, along with Sir Hinckel Featherduster, a South American chicken that lays green eggs.

If the visit is successful, District of ficials said, Mrs. Gunnoe will be released in her daughter's care permanently. Officials and the family will determine the success of the visit.

In the 45-years that Virginia Gunnoe was labeled mentally retarded and confined behind the walls of an institution, she worked as a skilled seamstress, using professional sewing machines, helped care for retarded children, and learned how to speak English. Before then Mrs. Gunnoe, who was born in the Dominician Republic, spoke virtually no English.

For the first decades of her life at Forest Haven, Mrs. Gunnoe worked with the other people labeled as "moderately retarded" caring for the farm animals and produce which were raised to support the staff and less able residents, according to Ruth Meese, a Forest Haven clinical nurse specialists.

When she was not working in the fields, Mrs. Gunnoe worked in the sewing rooms, sewing as quickly as she could to produce "diapers for babies, drapes, nightgowns, dresses, blankets," and any other items the institution needed, Mrs. Gunnoe said.

Because the official records made when Mrs. Gunnoe was placed in Forrest Haven are apparently not available, officials could not say for certain that Mrs. Gunnoe was in fact retarded in 1933.Although she lived at Forest Haven nearly half a century, no tests of her intelligence were made during the last 20 years, according to several social workers. Now, social workers said, it is difficult to know what skills she possessed when she was first confined.

The social workers are certain of this: "Some of those individuals should never have been here, like Virginia," in Ruth Meese's words. Rather, if they needed occasional living assistance they should have received it in their own communities, she said.

Throughout all those years, "I never doubted I would get out," Mrs. Gunnoe told a reporter in the thick Spanish accent she has never lost.