It doesn’t take talent to stuff a closet with irrelevant items. You find yourself having wandered into your room holding an ancient scrapbook that seems to be leaking yellowed papers; you see the open closet with a length of bare shelf at the top, and you slip the scrapbook there, where it stays for the next thirteen years, until a fit of cleanliness and godliness strikes and I clean that closet. I clean until I get all the way down to the scrapbook, which turns out to be Aunt Emma’s collection of press clippings on Polly Morrisson’s campaign to save the 1700 block of N St. NW on the National Register of historic homes.
Aunt Emma, known professionally as Bab Lincoln, continued beyond her late retirement as Publicity person for the Mayflower Hotel, managed a couple of private accounts, one of which was Polly’s. Polly, owned all the houses on the 1700 block of N Street, a block away from Dupont Circle with The National Geographic Building at the end of the street. She lived in her hotel, the Gralyn, where Aunt Emma also lived and earned her rent with the publicity. The Gralyn was favored by English diplomatic people with their excellent manners and comme il faut appearance. Polly herself was from Tidewater, Virginia and still had with her as a major-domo her old friend from their childhood days in the south in a kind of reprise of the old, evil days before the Civil War, the relationship still dependent on the old roles of servant and mistress, and social lives still as separated as if all their friends lived in different countries. When I heard them speaking together, it was like some other language that I could not hope to understand.
Beyond the British, as favored guests at the hotel, there were the Saudis. When the family visited in 1966, Polly was sorry to have to tell us we had just missed the rather lengthy stay of old Ibn Saud and his retinue, and his retinue included all his wives. Every afternoon they all went out together (there were at least ten) to a reception perhaps, or to sight see, or just to have tea together. The women wore harem outfits and veils. I wish so much that we could have enjoyed this entertainment, but since I opened the scrapbook and revealed these memories to myself, I am trying to figure out why Polly’s relationship with the Sauds was so friendly and equal, while she maintained the other relationship with her African American friend. At the time I visited I am willing to bet that she would have refused to offer a room to an African American. I think it was because Ibn Saud was a king and she was proud of that.
Did she know, have any sense whatever, of the similarities between her relationship with her maid, and his with his wives and servants? What do you suppose she would be thinking today? What would she be thinking about the masses of people in the Middle East demanding liberty? The old ways do linger on, just to prove that March is as undependable as they say it is, the weather turned chilly, but the snow is gone off the hill, ground covered now by a lovely rich brown of decaying leaves. The mulch pile up behind the fence is getting black and crumbly, but I still haven’t picked up my new bin for kitchen waste from Cooperative Extension and a scene from the hotel garden keeps pushing other important thoughts out of my head. We are sitting on graceful iron chairs chatting, when Aunt Emma asks for glass of water. Polly springs up to get one and returns with a beautiful etched water glass sitting on a linen doily that covers a small silver tray. When I asked Polly why she made such a show she told me that Bab expected it, and that was reason enough. Aunt Emma died in 1979 and Polly about ten years later, and I’m wondering how I could ever dare to utter a vulgarity like mulch in the presence of two such fine ladies.