There have been a slew of stories about Washington DC’s unusually strong housing market recently, including this December gem about a house near H Street that received an astonishing 168 bids. The New York Times has a definitive article about the ongoing cultural and architectural transformation of the city. Annie Lowrey puts her finger on what makes some conservatives so uneasy about its success:
There’s something unsavory about having a capital city doing outrageously well while the rest of the country is limping along — especially when its economy is premised in part on capturing wealth rather than creating it.
There’s a legitimate case that much of the imperial city’s growth is essentially fraudulent, gleaning most of its sustenance off of wealth transfers, with many of the nine million people between Baltimore and Stafford here only temporarily. Until we wise up, declare the American experiment beyond salvageability, and send everybody home hoping they find more productive employment, we’re left to speculate about what all the upheaval means for the city’s substrate; those who call it home. To that end, here’s a story about an unsung person who arrived here during one of DC’s earlier waves of expansion.
A little over a year ago, a longtime neighbor of my family’s in Arlington, Virginia passed away at the age of 99. Her name was Louise Lyon, and though she was close with only a few, this much is beyond doubt: she was an extraordinary woman.
Louise lived in a single-story rambler with green and white awnings a street over from where the rest of my family has lived for about fifteen years. She didn’t have many relatives, and in her old age families in the neighborhood did what they could to make sure she was taken care of. They checked in on her from time to time, and in the winter my brothers and I would shovel snow from her driveway after taking care of our own, even when we were pretty sure she hadn’t driven in some time.
Her health had been deteriorating for some time, and while I was in college my mother would sometimes mention her surgeries during too-infrequent calls home.
We usually saw her on Fourth of July, when all the neighborhood kids would line their bikes up behind a station wagon in a block-long gaggle we called a parade. In later years she would delicately leave the house and sit down in one of those nylon-backed folding chairs and one got the impression that she was doing it only to humor us.
When she died, the obituary in the Post read:
Our neighbor and dear friend, Louise Anne Lyon peacefully passed at the Halquist Hospice Memorial Inpatient Center in Arlington County while in the company of friends and those who have cared for her these past several months. Louise was born on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1912 in Vancouver, Canada, the eldest daughter of John Lyon of Chicago, Illinois and Marguerite Baxter Robertson, of East Camden, Ontario, Canada. In 1920, she and her family moved to Puyallup, Washington. She attended Spinning School and later graduated from Puyallup High school in 1930. … Before coming to the DC area in 1940, she attended college in Seattle, Washington. After her arrival in the Washington area, she pursued various studies at Georgetown University, George Washington University, American University, and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. In order to become more involved in the war effort, in 1944 she joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence organization. During the war, she served in the Asian Theater, specifically China. Becoming fluent in Russian, and conversant in other languages, she continued to serve in various assignments overseas after the war. … She leaves no survivors. Harry Carroll, her long time companion, preceded her death.
Louise was one of the first female OSS agents, and served all over the world until retiring in 1969. After that she continued to travel. That was her passion, according to everyone close to her.
Last summer an estate sale was held, and it was only my third or fourth time inside her home. In high school she was a reliable mark to buy citrus fruit for music department fundraisers, and in the few times she invited me in to sign for them I recall thinking how much I liked the little house. As a kid who spent five years growing up in Japan, all this Asian stuff–tapestries, dolls, wooden screens–she had decorated her house with was all very familiar.
The idea of an estate sale seemed so vulgar to me at the time, knowing it would be followed by the liquidation of the rest of her belongings and demolition of the house. But I had an even harder time standing the thought of a bunch of strangers going through her things. I also felt guilty, not because I’d done anything wrong, but for missing the opportunity to get to know this heroic person. Whatever sense of her I could glean from her belongings, I’d try. And in a certain way, pay respects.
By the time I got there the house was mostly empty. Over the morning the furniture had been bought, and her more valuable belongings had already been carried off by the sort of people who pay close attention to estate sales. Various other things remained; kitchen appliances, books, and a whole lot of Asian kitsch. A John LeCarre novel lay next to a book about how to speak Russian, and a senior discount metro farecard that looked at least a decade old lay on her dresser.
Amid the stacks were about a decade’s worth of daybooks, diaries, and photo albums. The sort of things you’d expect a family to want, but Louise left no children. The lady administering the estate sale said most of what was left would likely be thrown away. I didn’t have the money for the entire stack, so I bought two albums, one with the word “Family”–it actually said “-amily”–on the cover, and the other titled “Trip To Egypt: 1978 & 1979.” I also bought her daybooks from both years.
It was probably wishful thinking for me to expect lengthy accounts of her travels inside them. A lady with her training would have learned to be discreet, and one of the things about Louise, her best friend Maxine said at her memorial service, was her modesty. Though she lived an extraordinarily well-traveled, adventurous life, she didn’t talk about it much and wasn’t one to brag. The first entry, from New Year’s day 1978 reads, “La Jolla, Calif. Bright sunny day. Went swimming 1/4 mile. Resolve to lose weight. Walked along beach.”
At the end of the year she took a trip home:
11/20/1978 — Maxine took me to airport. Left on time at 5:40 p.m. for Seattle, arr. 8:10 p.m. Rented Valore from Avis. Snow on ground when I arrived in Puyallup.
11/22/1978 — Puyallup
11/27/1978 — Left home at 6:15 a.m. Drove to airport in fog. Left on time at 8:15 or thereabouts. Arr. in Dulles on time. Missed Maxine but finally found her. Good flight. Snow on ground in D.C. but none on highway. Car rental $118.80.
12/2/1978 — Hairdo – new perm $33 + $5 tip. Maxine came over to rearrange den
12/22/1978 — Leave on British Airways for London. Elenor and Dave took me to airport. Cocktails at Maxine’s first. Departure delayed from 9-11 p.m. because of delay in London. Visibility there only 50 yds. Engine trouble delayed us further.
Her entries for Christmas Eve and Christmas day were four words long, combined:
12/24/1978 — London to Cairo
12/25/1978 — Cairo
It sounds lonely, to be traveling on Christmas. But the Louise I imagine would have had no time for self-pity or sentiment. The next day this photo was taken at Karnak Temple:
Here she is two days later at the temple at Luxor:
Entries from the rest of the trip are spotty, but it took her to Athens, Rome, and then Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife before Louise arrived back in Virginia sometime in late January. She traveled alone, as she usually did, meeting friends in some places, sightseeing alone in others. The thing is, this trip wasn’t a vacation she’d been saving up for years to be able to afford, it was basically her lifestyle for decades, and the pace only dropped off when she became too weak to travel.
After flipping through the daybooks and albums, I wished I’d bought the whole stack. They’re gone now and the house is too, replaced with one of those frame jobs with flagstone walkways that look like all the others. These days realtors probably know it’s a safe bet that nobody, or at least most people who move to the DC area, want to live in a small two-bedroom rambler with striped awnings.