I visited my Grandmother yesterday at Goodwin House, a retirement home and hospice in Alexandria run by the Episcopal Church. Mary Walton Livingston is 92 years old and at the end of her life. So I’m writing this about her while she’s still alive.
My grandmother’s life has been remarkable in its breadth and its depth. She was born in 1915 and raised in the tiny crossroads of Fairfax Courthouse, the daughter of a local attorney actually named Fairfax McCandlish.
Her uncle Walton Moore, the United States Congressman, lived next door with his three sisters. He was a rural Southern Democrat born before the Civil War. Her mother Mary McCandlish was a traditional Virginia woman who refused to drive a car and never walked outside without a hat.
It was a Southern bucolic life. Grandmother drew from the best of it and then rose higher.
At 17, she left home for Sweetbriar College in Lynchburg. Graduating, she took a position with the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and became its Secretary. (When I was elected to legislature in 2001, I had a vintage 1935 map of the County mounted in my office). She was a professional woman before the concept even existed.
She married a Harvard lawyer named Schuyler Livingston and they bought a house on Seminary Hill in Alexandria. Within a few years, they had three children: Mary, Betsey and Bill.
Grandmother was a natural leader. As a parent, she was very active in church, family and local politics. She led the fight to desegregate the public schools and even the Little League in Alexandria — long before anyone knew this would be popular.
With her children out of the house, she took on a new role. As a child, I remember riding in the back of the tan Buick to my Grandmother’s house every weekend. My sister and I would wake up on Sunday morning to the smell of waffles on the griddle.
Every moment of her life was active. She played tennis, took dancing lessons and kept a vegetable garden (the bane of my young existence). She threw a New Year’s Eve party ever year with several hundred guests. She was formal in her manner and yet totally unpretentious.
My Grandmother went back to work late in life and refused to stop. A lover of history, she kept her job as an archivist at the National Archives long after her Social Security kicked in. They literally had to force her to retire.
Grandmother began to suffer from Alzheimer’s when she turned 80. Within a few years, it had changed her sharp faculties. She couldn’t be there when her oldest grandson was sworn in to the General Assembly. Or to be there when her namesake (my daughter) Mary Walton Petersen was baptized.
However, she knew enough to say “Hooray” last week when she learned one of her grand-daughters was recently married.
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
2nd Timothy, Chapter 4, Verse 7.