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Cynthia Riley Fehsenfeld Parsons, a voracious reader and avid gardener, dies

Cynthia Riley Fehsenfeld Parsons was a former president of the Garden Club of Twenty.
Cynthia Riley Fehsenfeld Parsons was a former president of the Garden Club of Twenty.

Three weeks before she died, Cynthia Riley Fehsenfeld Parsons drove up to Massachusetts to attend a family member’s wedding.

“She was just adamant to get there,” said her daughter, Kate Fehsenfeld.

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At age 87, Mrs. Parsons was an energetic and determined woman until she died of breast cancer Oct.3.

Born July 24, 1934, in Worcester, Massachusetts, she maintained a New England grit — and fearlessness in the face of snowstorms — after relocating to Baltimore.

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Her parents were Mary Alexander, a homemaker, and Chapin Riley, who ran a manufacturing company.

She graduated from the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, then an all-girls boarding school, before going on to attend Smith College. Among her fellow students was poet Sylvia Plath; Mrs. Parsons won the same prize in poetry that Plath had won the year before, according to her family.

After graduating from Smith in 1956, the third generation of her family to do so, Mrs. Parsons would go on to earn master’s degrees in writing and in classics from the Johns Hopkins University.

A voracious reader, she considered “Moby Dick” and “Middlemarch” among her favorite books

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She prided herself on good grammar, and recently educated her family on the distinction between “lie” and “lay.”

In 1956, she married David T. Fehsenfeld of Baltimore, who later became a vice president at T. Rowe Price.

The couple lived on a farm in Glyndon, where they raised three children — Kate, Tom and Alex — and a range of animals that included chickens, horses, and at one point, baby raccoons.

A neighbor discovered the baby raccoons after cutting down a tree, and Mrs. Parsons allowed her children to raise them with a bottle inside the house. Their names were literary: Rapunzel and Gimli, a character in “The Hobbit.”

The family even brought their unusual pets with them to vacation in Salters Point, Massachusetts, where Rapunzel and Gimli made themselves comfortable among the locals.

“We got a phone call that there were raccoons at a neighbor’s cocktail party,” Ms. Fehsenfeld recalled.

The tame animals were snacking on hors d’oeuvres and dabbling paws in drinks.

Mrs. Parsons channeled her abundant creativity and imagination into motherhood. She hosted memorable birthday parties for her children, complete with treasure hunts and a friend who dressed up as a witch. She penned and performed puppet shows for the Baltimore Women’s League, and wrote and illustrated books for her own children.

During winter snowstorms, she drove her children to school in her Jeep, a reflection of her New England upbringing and own determination, her daughter said. “If she wanted to get somewhere, she would do it,” Ms. Fehsenfeld said.

An avid gardener, Mrs. Parsons cultivated white violets, climbing roses and daffodils at home. She was at one time the president of the Garden Club of Twenty and active at the Ladew Topiary Gardens.

Her first husband died in a 1984 car accident.

Nearly a decade later, Mrs. Parsons married I. Manning Parsons, who ran the department store T.W. Mather & Sons in Westminster.

Mr. Parsons described his late wife as an active person who loved tennis, skiing, sailing and playing bridge. Her warm personality endeared her to friends.

“She was very interested in other people,” Ms. Fehsenfeld said.

Mr. and Mrs. Parsons enjoyed taking trips to Egypt, India, Japan and South America, destinations Mrs. Parsons researched extensively before visiting.

“We made a lot of trips to England,” Mr. Parsons said. “That was our favorite place to travel.” Among their stops were gardens, museums and country homes.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Parsons is survived by a brother, Samuel Riley of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and her children Tom Fehsenfeld of Bainbridge Island, Washington, and Alex Fehsenfeld of Exeter, Rhode Island, as well as many grandchildren and step-grandchildren. A brother, Hugh A. Riley, preceded her in death.

A memorial service will be held Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Glyndon.

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