Born: Nov. 25, 1902. Resident of Washington. Died: June 22, 1999.
There was a time in America, a Norman Rockwell kind of time, when most every neighborhood had a Mary Allison Marsh. Someone who instinctively kept watch on her block, who'd always be the first to welcome a newcomer family, the organizer behind summertime get-togethers, someone who seemed to know intrinsically what made community.
"Yoo-hoo!" was Mary Marsh's signature greeting. Maybe you'd be walking by and she'd call out as she put the flag above her door to signal that there was a new baby on the block. Or maybe she'd be coming up your walk with a cutting from one of her plants, something she knew you'd enjoy in your own garden.
For good reason, Marsh's neighbors labeled her "the mother of Rittenhouse Street." And when she died June 22, after a brief bout with pneumonia at age 96, the 3100 block of Rittenhouse Street in Northwest Washington knew that a part of itself was gone forever.
She was born in literally another age and place, a small-town minister's daughter from Rocky Grove, Pa., and yet she proved herself completely contemporary. Independent and athletic, she graduated from a teacher training school after lettering in both volleyball and basketball. She met her future husband at a YWCA dance, and when he proposed, she told him she'd have to think about it. She taught herself to drive and taught her husband as well; and from their honeymoon on, traffic engineer Burton Marsh deferred to his wife behind the wheel. She was fast and fearless.
"She'd take gulps of life," said daughter Betsy McCartor, their middle child of three.
She projected more than a touch of Katharine Hepburn stage presence, which back in the '50s and '60s she used skillfully during talent shows at the Chevy Chase Women's Club. Her voice was both distinct and precise--English-teacher qualities that Marsh never stopped expecting from others. "Bernadette," she once instructed an aide, "you must enunciate and make each word like a pearl on a string."
But she could turn cutup, too, scrunching her face to mimic a toad or monkey as she acted out a children's story. Her favorite line was pure vaudeville, and she deployed it on everyone:
Question: Where does God mention baseball in the Bible?
Answer: In the first three words--In the big-inning . . . .
"That was her signature joke," reminisced Marie Shirey, who arrived on Rittenhouse Street in 1951, a decade after Marsh.
As regular as the block parties she would organize in warm weather were the Groundhog Day soup parties she'd host every February. (Split-pea was her favorite to chase away winter gloom.) And neighbors got quite used to the sight of Marsh returning in her old Volvo from furniture forays into the country, sometimes as far away as Pennsylvania. Forever frugal, she would refinish her beat-up finds in her basement.
"I can picture her now," her across-the-street neighbor, Ken Spaulding, said. "One arm out the window and holding a piece of furniture on the roof of her car."
Yet Marsh drew her greatest joy from nature; Rock Creek Park was a favorite spot each spring. Her eye caught the smallest detail, and she could identify virtually anything--from jack-in-the-pulpit to Joe Pye weed.
"Her gifts were innumerable," noted her older daughter, Jean Adams. She was happiest working in her garden and, during her final years of life, forced into a wheelchair by a series of strokes, she pined to be back there. "I want to get my fingers back in the soil," she'd say.
After six decades of marriage, Burton Marsh died in 1988. Son Alan Marsh returned several years ago as his mother weakened, and today he is living in his childhood home. So there is continuity.
Mary Marsh's presence remains in other ways as well. In the fall, another baby was born on Rittenhouse Street. Several flags went up to signal the arrival--as much in memory of Mary Marsh as in honor of the newborn child.