A February snow covers the grounds of the Fillmore Gardens Apartments in Arlington, Va. This is of little moment to Mary Clark, 83, for she seldom ventures outside anymore. These days Mary lives her life indoors—specifically, in the warm glow of her fond relationship with Jessica Patterson, the unrelated 3½ year old she baby-sits each day. “Grandma, Grandma, listen!” says Jessica, and Mister Rogers can be heard singing on the TV in the next room: “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood…a neighborly day in this beauty wood….”
There is a pathetic irony here. For it is not “a neighborly day” in Grandma Clark’s neighborhood. Far from it. The owners of Fillmore Gardens are in the process of kicking Clark out of the apartment she has occupied for 34 years. She is being given the heave-ho because Fillmore Gardens adopted an “adults-only” policy in 1972 and, despite warnings, she has insisted upon providing day care for little Jessica. “Look,” says Dikran Kavaljian, attorney for the owners and himself a father of three, “this adults-only policy is perfectly legal. If you don’t believe in the law, you don’t break it. You change it. She has to leave if she doesn’t stop baby-sitting. I believe in democracy.”
So do Grandma Clark and Jessica’s parents, Connie and Brent Patterson. When Fillmore Gardens filed suit against Clark in 1984, Connie, a legal secretary, got her boss, attorney Geoffrey T. Williams, to defend Grandma at no cost. Clark lost before a lower court judge and then again when she appealed in a jury trial a year later. Lawyer Williams and the Pattersons were all but certain that the jury would be moved by Grandma’s plight. “We walked back to the office after the decision,” remembers Connie, “and nobody spoke. I remember my boss saying, ‘My faith in mankind has taken a giant step backwards.’ ” Williams has asked the Virginia Supreme Court to reconsider the case.
Mary Clark is dependent upon Jessica for financial reasons. She gets $540 a month from Social Security, which covers her rent of $439, but hardly puts a dent in her other bills. Yet she is also dependent upon the little girl for emotional reasons. “She’s my baby,” says the old woman, running frail fingers through the child’s long brown hair. “I can’t give her up. I’ve got all my friends saying prayers for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” Says Connie Patterson: “What irritates me is that it all seems so pointless. We are talking about an 83-year-old woman who, chances are, won’t make it to 100. Jessica only has a year to go until she is in kindergarten. Why can’t they have whatever time is left together?”