Marjorie Dorson Harvey may have become a published freelancer comparatively late in life, after raising her children and then teaching for several years at Concord Academy, but she had always kept journals and, in a sense, had always been a reporter.
“She considered herself a journalist, so basically she interrogated everybody. It was not intrusive, she just wanted to know,” said her friend Marisha Rowse of Acton. “She was just a remarkable, remarkable human being. Very, very witty. Very, very smart. Very curious.”
Little surprise, then, that when Mrs. Harvey found herself in hospice a couple of months ago, she became both interviewer and interviewee as she faced a different deadline.
“I am in terra incognita; this is all wholly new to me. After all, I have never died before,” she wrote in her final column for the Littleton Independent in April.
“Mind you, I think the only reasonable course is to die in your sleep, or drop dead of a sudden heart attack,” she added. “This shilly shallying and dilly dallying along, positively dawdling on the way to the end, seems absurd. Embarrassing, in fact. Remember how Tom Sawyer walked in on his own funeral while the mourners were saying all those lovely things about him? That’s how I feel, as if I’m cheating, making a big production out of it instead of slipping away quietly.”
Mrs. Harvey, who collected her writings in two self-published books and would rise from her hospice bed whenever strength permitted to put the finishing touches on the second volume, died of congestive heart failure June 1 in her Littleton home. She was 91.
“When experiencing most of the important events in life we have a chance to practice and learn to do it better, whether skiing or cooking or gardening, or even, for some of us, giving birth. But with death, the biggest event of all, it’s just WHAM, all of a sudden and it’s all over,” she wrote in the final column.
A few paragraphs later, she wondered if she should “be thinking long deep thoughts about the meaning of life and the mystery of death,” when instead “all I can think about is the dreadful clutter I leave everywhere in this beloved old farmhouse for my daughter and others to deal with, and what’s for dinner.”
Observing intently, Mrs. Harvey illustrated vast canvases with small details, such as household clutter or how she tried to get a word in edgewise with a talkative hospice chaplain.
Through her published work, she brought readers along on many journeys, from travels around the world to her final path through hospice. For more than 20 years, she wrote occasionally for the Globe, often for the travel section. In 1998, she wrote about a trip to Arizona and what she saw while looking out a friend’s kitchen window in Sedona.
“Free of highway roar, night descends in silent benediction. In a sky undimmed by city lights, stars are a revelation of clarity,” Mrs. Harvey wrote. “A coyote’s cry echoes across the stillness. There is magic in the air; and we understand why local folk speak of special sites here, ‘places of power.’”
The youngest of three children, Marjorie Dorson was born in New York City. Her father ran a successful furniture company, which allowed Mrs. Harvey to grow up on Park Avenue, where “she wasn’t allowed in the kitchen except for the cook’s night out,” said her daughter Sheridan of Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Harvey graduated from the exclusive Dalton School in New York City and studied sociology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“She had a privileged life and she was always comfortable,” her daughter said. “In a world of misery and poverty, how do you reconcile that? That was her conflict.”
At Tanager Lodge, a summer camp in upstate New York, she met Henry Harvey, a camp counselor. They married in 1942, after she graduated from Vassar.
He initially was a Congregational minister, and for a time the Harveys lived in Colorado, before moving to Greater Boston so he could attend Harvard Medical School.
While her husband cofounded and helped run a medical practice in Acton, she raised their children and returned to college when her youngest was of school age.
Mrs. Harvey received a master’s in English from Brandeis University and taught at Concord Academy for several years, until the early 1970s. She also graduated from Boston University with a master’s in journalism and began another career, this time as a freelance writer.
Meanwhile, beds at the Littleton farmhouse were always filled by a steady stream of visitors, some of whom stayed weeks or years. Her friends came from different backgrounds, different nations, and vastly different ages. For a time Mrs. Harvey held regular dinners with what she called a gap group. Participants had to be either younger than 30 or older than 80 to ensure a common age difference of at least 50 years.
“She collected many, many friends,” her daughter said. “She was curious, especially about people, and I used to say she was always interviewing people. Even on her death bed, I could hear her asking, ‘Now, how are your children?’ And I kept thinking, ‘Does she really care?’ And she did.”
In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Harvey leaves another daughter, Robin Berry of Wilton, N.H.; two sons, Richard of Empire, Colo., and Henry Jr. of Littleton; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sept. 14 in First Church Unitarian in Littleton.
Long an activist, Mrs. Harvey visited Occupy Boston in 2011 and wrote in a column for the Independent that for a long time she had not been “proud to call myself an American,” but added that in the “unprecedented conglomerate of urban campers on Wall Street, in Dewey Square, and in cities across the nation, I finally recognize my America.”
“She was an idealist,” Rowse said. “Her biggest complaint was that she didn’t get arrested until she was in her 70s. She thought she could have achieved that earlier.”
The chance arrived about a dozen years ago, when Mrs. Harvey joined others in a vigil blocking the doors at the US Department of Energy in Washington to protest oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Handcuffed and sent to jail, Mrs. Harvey was released on bail at midnight. Sheridan picked her up outside and noted that she had never been arrested.
“Don’t worry dear,” Mrs. Harvey told her daughter, “there’s still time.”