Clearly displayed throughout Margaret Ellin Cromer's Bethesda home were the objects of her many affections. On the coffee table in the living room rested "Diary of a Cat: True Confessions and Lifelong Observations of a Well-Adjusted House Cat" by Leigh W. Rutledge. And staring from pictures and a calendar on a kitchen wall were the faces of cats, including a painting of her own beloved Morris, who looks like the feline in TV commercials.
There's the Oriental celadon pottery and the long scroll with the Japanese calligraphy in the living room, reminders of a transforming stay in Tokyo a lifetime ago. Tomes on Van Gogh and Picasso, Japanese culture and Americana, music, philosophy and, of course, cats fill bookcases in each room.
What was perhaps her most abiding passion covered the walls in practically every major room -- the widely varied work of Swedish-born artist Anders Aldrin. After meeting Aldrin in Tokyo in 1957, she collected his oils, watercolors, pastels, pencils and Japanese-style woodblocks and came to amass one of the largest private collections of the artist's work outside California, where he spent most of his life and died in 1970. Aldrin, once described as "a quiet painter who runs in no pack" and as "one of California's finest contemporary painters," never promoted his work commercially.
"She was his biggest admirer," said her son, Michael Cromer, who bought his first Aldrin work as a teenager. "It sings to us. It's too subjective to put words on."
A few years ago, at her son's request, Cromer, who died Aug. 6 of respiratory failure at age 76, began tape-recording details of her long friendship with "Mr. Aldrin," as she always called him. Some of the letters the two exchanged over the years, where he talked effusively about his evolving style, are now a part of the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art.
Margaret Ellin Welch was born in Washington and spent summers at her grandparents' farm in Briery Branch in the Shenandoah Valley, always carrying a rock away with her. Her mother died when she was 7, and she lived with her father. She attended the District's old Central High School and graduated from Lackey High School in Indian Head.
In 1948, she married Harry C. Cromer, who worked as an auditor with the General Accounting Office. They lived in Rome and Tokyo in the 1950s and traveled widely throughout Europe and the Far East. She collected antiques and art along the way; studied Japanese classical dancing, ink drawing and flower arranging; and, as she once remarked, trained her eyes "to appreciate beauty in what others have created."
In the 1970s, she designed and planted, flower by flower, a Japanese garden in the back yard of her Potomac home, which was on the annual Potomac Country House Tour. She placed some of the rocks from Briery Branch there.
When she and her husband divorced in 1982, Cromer turned her energies into changing the rules that said she was not entitled to half of her husband's civil service retirement pension. The court order she obtained, through the work of her attorney, John V. Long, helped not only her but also hundreds of other spouses of federal civil servants.
Thick folders of letters, thank-you cards and other correspondence in her apartment testified to her passion for the cause. From 1982 to the early 1990s, Cromer counseled women from across the United States, and she wrote a newsletter, Civil Service Spouse Equality, which she sent to divorced civil service spouses. She kept them informed of legislative bills and encouraged them to write their representatives.
"She had wives from all over the United States who could call her all times of day and night," said her cousin Glenna Wine Cupp of Briery Branch.
After a bill was passed in 1986 granting relief to ex-spouses, Cromer received this note from one woman: "I received my first annuity check last week and I'm so happy. I couldn't believe it finally came through, as I sat and cried. . . . I'll always remember your kind letters of encouragement when I didn't think I'd ever receive anything. Life is so much brighter for me day to day."
In recent years, Cromer supported other causes, consistently sending small donations to several animal welfare groups and conservation organizations. She volunteered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and surrounded herself with the art she loved.