the time of her life: remembering alexandria’s own

It should go without saying by now that all of these gifts have been passed down to her children and no doubt her 10 grandchildren.

If you follow my posts, I have shared some of my style icons–the women who define themselves through their choices in fashion. These are the leaders where others are the followers. These are women who don’t seem to falter in their choices and who innately know who they are. They walk into a room and we all take notice because these women have an inner power that is enviable. We all have great women in our lives who inspire us to grab the helm of our ship and set our own course through life. I’m dedicating this post to one such warrior of style who has left a tribe of women stronger with her tutelage and guidance–Maria Teresa O’Leary.

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I am a native Alexandrian who married another native. The O’Learys and the McCaslins were part of an Old Town where the connections were very closely knit as many of you may have experienced in your own small towns. This was a time where the kids played street games on the 400 block of Prince Street until inevitably someone would call “Car!” and they would all duck in as it passed. Soccer practice was down at Jone’s Point and the kids found their own way to and from practice! I’ve been privy to so many great stories about growing up in Old Town through the eyes of my husband, Mark, his brothers and the many extended families such as the O’Learys. One fascinating reflection on these Old Town families is that the matriarchs were all strong personalities. Maria, however, had the trifecta–not only was she a force to be reckoned with but she was a voracious reader who was up on all current events AND no one could hold a candle to her in the realm of style.

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For such close family friends, when the baby of the family gets serious with a girlfriend, the vetting process begins. I must have passed the test or Mark forced the issue by giving me a very special ring that Maria had given his mother–the Battered Orb. Truth be told, Maria’s influences had already reached my closet. My mother found a dress for me at Maria’s boutique, Nuevo Mundo, to wear to my college graduation, a Nicole Miller which I still own. Many of you may already be familiar with Maria’s Cameron Street business. It was not only a store for clothing and exquisite ethnic jewelry, it was almost like a gallery where Maria curated authentic relics to enrich the fabric of shoppers in Old Town while luring those with a passion for worldly treasures from across the river as well. I can’t begin to document the love of her Mexican heritage and textile design as it would take me away from sharing the most important part of Mrs. O’Leary’s influence on me personally.

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To truly absorb Maria’s essence is to know any one of her children. They are each unique and encompass her spirit in their own way. Maria had the girls sharing the Nuevo Mundo experience throughout high school, and some may say to keep them out of trouble as many of us utilize sports for our own kids. However, mischief was in their blood and the boutique only curtailed the inevitable antics of Moira, Deirdre and Catie, but they looked ever stylish in their pursuits! Here is one example: Catie took it upon herself to share an image of Moira that was chosen for The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s spot titled Bad Prom Photos.

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This is one of hundreds of O’Leary stories. These are people rich with love who make sure to capture every moment they have with one another. Indeed, not every family in Alexandria has honored their mother in such unique ways:

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She was a mother of 5 and a small town business owner. Many of her clients were diplomats’ wives who were world travelers and appreciated Maria’s global viewpoint on fashion. No surprise, she spoke fluent Spanish and all of the children are fluent as well. Maria had figured out a great business model where she could travel to places such as Indonesia on buying trips and fill crates with pieces of exquisite art, jewelry and textiles. Her home, like her boutique was bold with color, texture and personality. “Go Big or Go Home” may have been coined by someone who had the undeniable pleasure of meeting Maria O’Leary.

Then…

Maria opened Nuevo Mundo in 1966 which would mean it was close to when this photo was taken.

Maria opened Nuevo Mundo in 1966 which would mean it was close to when this photo was taken.

and now…

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I would be remiss to not mention her early career as a Pan Am “Air Hostess.” This was when air travel was polished and almost theatrical. Duties as a hostess could include modeling swimsuits and formal wear in the aisle between serving meals to passengers. This is where a tall, dark and handsome suitor was mesmerized by her charms–Jeremiah O’Leary Jr. And I imagine he thanked his lucky stars every day of his life for what Maria brought to his world.

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When Mark and I moved to Old Town in 1999, we immediately became part of the festive gatherings at Maria’s home. Christmas Eve always included a stop at Maria’s home where she entertained as easily and as eloquently as Mrs. Post herself–only with flare! Other festive occasions were her quite renowned “Day of the Dead” celebrations where she invited all to experience her heritage of remembering loved ones whom had passed.

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It should go without saying by now that all of these gifts have been passed down to her children and no doubt her 10 grandchildren.

It should go without saying by now that all of these gifts have been passed down to her children and no doubt her 10 grandchildren.

Maria was stunningly beautiful but more importantly it was her soul that we felt when we were with her. Maria O’Leary embraced her family and friends but also her life. She lived in a way I aspire to live, fully and with intention. She encouraged women to pay attention to the details and understand their own beauty without being vain. She aspired to be interesting and live a life rich with experiences at a time when women were just beginning to venture beyond the home. While issues of choices are still being debated, and conversations occur around working and stay-at-home moms (and now dads too!), Maria pioneered a life unapologetically that encompassed a will to be able to have both, a thriving career and a full family experience that was engrained in the O’Leary clan.

Some of Maria’s influences can be seen on the arms of locals:

I give her full credit for bringing the liquid silver cuffs to Old Town.

I give her full credit for bringing the liquid silver cuffs to Old Town.

Maria O’Leary has most notably left quite an impression on me–one that I will carry forward and continue to cultivate and nurture. I hope to enjoy more McCaslin-O’Leary get-togethers where her spirit will most certainly continue to live and flourish. Lastly, I encourage each of you as well to take a page from Maria’s history and own your own style with a bit of abandon. Time is fleeting so what are you waiting for?

So take the photographs
And still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time

Tattoos of memories
And dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth
It was worth all the while

It’s something unpredictable
But in the end it’s right
I hope you had the time of your life

  • The latest from Alicia
Alicia was born and raised in Alexandria, and married a local boy. She is happily married and the mother of two amazing children and one adorable and terribly smart border terrier named Dixie. Alicia has always known she was a creative. She collected editions of Vogue from junior high on and has always loved clothing and design. She studied interior design at VCU and parlayed that degree into commercial interior design, the web design, and ultimately found herself managing a local boutique and serving as a stylist to many Alexandrian women. She now has a successful full-time styling business, The Tulle Box, and makes it her business to make her clients feel great about themselves and the way they look.

7 Comments

  1. Susan Neithamer Susan Neithamer says:

    Alicia, What a wonderful tribute to a beautiful woman, both inside and out. She will be dearly missed. Susie

  2. Ellen Wilson says:

    Hi Alicia, you wrote one of the most beautiful tributes I have ever read. I have been friends with the O’Learys for years and have always admired and been in awe of Mrs. O’Leary. She was a beautiful woman inside and outside. Thank you for the wonderful addition to Alexandria Stylebook. Not only did I learn about style today but you warmed my heart.
    Ellen

  3. Judi Markarian says:

    Thank you Alicia for the beautiful tribute to Maria. Maria, Wanda, Nancyanne and my mom Viola Johnson were my mentors as I grew up at 322 S. Fairfax Street. I am the older sister to Suzy and DJ. Please pass on my thoughts and prayers to the O’Leary family … Until the online guestbook is functioning again. Thank you. Judi Markarian

  4. Cydney says:

    I remember Maria well- she was beautiful and so tasteful- when I first moved here Nuevo Mundo was THE only place to shop and I loved when she assisted in putting together a lovely outfit and always with cool jewelry!! Great lady!

  5. Pam Roberts says:

    When I first moved to Washington – the fashion options were quite drab and boring – then I discovered Nuevo Mundo and my first purchase in the city was a winter coat from her store. This is a tribute to her, to you and to your family.

  6. Tracy Coats says:

    Alicia,

    This is a beautifully written piece about Maria and her wonderful legacy. And so much more meaningful to me having met you at the fabulous, one of a kind reception after her funeral. She was one the most influential people in my life personally and I’m so blessed to call the O’Leary’s my family for so many years.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us that loved Maria! Viva Maria!
    Tracy Taylor Coats
    Nashville, TN

  7. alexandra says:

    this is such a gorgeous tribute, beautifully written.

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