Once again, Gladys Noon Spellman's family made plans yesterday to spend an election night together. Her husband, Reuben, and her children knew for days that they would be at her side in the yellow-walled room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the tiny color television set turned to the election returns, awaiting the moment when Spellman's successor would be declared.
It was an eerie reminder of better days, of the 15-year-old string of victorious election nights when Spellman and her family together watched the returns roll in, as she advanced from PTA activism to county politics to Congress, her popularity growing from year to year.
"I had such apprehension about this election day," Dana O'Neill, Spellman's 32-year-old daughter, said yesterday. "I thought it was going to hurt more. But somehow, it's as if it's already passed."
Several of Spellman's friends and relatives said they felt much the same way. At some point in the last few weeks -- they aren't sure when -- most of them accepted that she is gone from the political fray in Prince George's County. Maybe it came from the daily reports from Walter Reed Army Medical Center that her condition remained "essentially unchanged" from the semiconscious state in which she was left by a heart arrest last Oct. 31.
Or maybe it came after the primary election last month, when 71-year-old Reuben Spellman lost his bid to succeed his wife and keep the 5th District seat in the family.
"The primary was really important for us," O'neill said. "It gave us something we could do. We felt so terribly helpless, all of us. And then when it was over, you had this feeling: It's all over. Today, it almost seems as if it's not an election day. We're out of it now."
Nonetheless, Spellman's friends and relatives have given her daily reports of the race between Democrat Steny Hoyer and Republican Audrey Scott in hopes that she understands them. Yesterday, her longtime aide and friend, Edna McClellan, who has been working for Hoyer, took time off to drop by for a visit.
"Sometimes, I can't really explain it, but there seems to be a responsiveness in her eyes when you're talking to her," O'Neill said.
McClellan said Spellman's routine yesterday was much the same as it has been since she was moved to the small, private room with a window that looks toward Washington. Her normal schedule calls for an early wake-up and breakfast. Then the small television set attached to her bed is turned to "The Today Show," which was always one of her favorite programs. Then come the bath, the physical therapy to keep her muscles from stiffening, lunch, a rest period, more therapy, visitors, dinner and lights out.
For those who have been close to Spellman, it is almost impossible to reconcile her present state with the woman they knew for years, who seemed ceaselessly active, always attending Lions Club meetings, PTA gatherings, teas and coffees and get-togethers in her district during the hours that she was not in her congressional office.
Yesterday, many of them said they found themselves thinking of the off-beat moments from her political career. O'Neill said she remembered how her mother used to smack bubble gum on the House floor, how she could crack and eat sunflower seeds with one hand. Former staffer Judy Manion recalled Spellman's hard fight with powerful U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) over revenue sharing. When it was over and Spellman's side won, she tiptoed up behind Brooks and kissed him atop the head, Manion recalled.
For the day leading up to the election, Spellman's friends and relatives made the final preparations to pass her congressional and district office to someone else. About 5 p.m., the remnants of Spellman's staff left the transition office they have occupied in the Longworth House Office Building since her seat was declared vacant on Feb. 24. Only office manager Manion will come back today to hand over the keys to the winner and successor.
About 30 relatives and former staffers gathered at the Hyattsville district office on Monday night for a potluck dinner to tell each other goodbye at what they called a sine die party -- meaning that they are parting "without a day" set for meeting again.
"We remembered during the party that Gladys used to say 'Every change brings opportunity' and that's the way we approached it," McClellan said. "It was actually fairly upbeat. We just felt we had to do something to mark the end."