Esther E. Robinson said she was preparing to attend her daughter's funeral four years ago when a man from Washington came to her Centreville, Va., home and offered to place two of the deceased mother's six children in an orphanage.
"I told him right off that I was not going to put any of my grandchildren in a home," said Mrs. Robinson, a 64-year-old widow, mother of eight, grandmother of 17 and great-grandmother of five. "I told him that as long as I have a piece of bread, my grand children will have bread."
Her 39-year-old daugher, Sylvia Roberts, the of son, 12, and five girls ages 8, 15, 20, 22 and 23, was shot to death in her Herndon apartment late on the night of Oct. 3, 1973, by an enraged boyfriends, Glen Roy Kendall, who was convicted of second-degree murder in her death and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The frightened children scrambled out of a second-floor apartment window and sought safety in a neighbor's home as the boyfriend forced his way into their mother's apartment and killed her.
The next day, the children - whose father had deserted the family - gathered at their grandmother's home at 14075 Mt. Olive Rd., in rural Fairfax County, to discuss the details of where they would go to live.
"The children and their mother had either lived with me or close by by all their lives," said Mrs. Robinson, whose husband, Russell, died of cancer 12 years ago. "I wouldn't think of letting any of them be taken away from me. I believe a family should stay together - whatever it takes."
Mrs. Robinson arranged to assume legal custody of the three youngest children - Zinna, 8, Roy, 12, and Cordelia, 15 - and moved the three children into her 11-room add-on style house, which was built in stages over 40 years.
Collette, now 22, and Gwendolyn, 20, moved next door into a small four-room frame house that had been built for Mrs. Robinson's slain daughter and her children. She had moved out of the tiny house to the Herndon apartment in search of larger quarters.
The oldest granddaughter Yvonne, rented her own apartment after her mother's death.
Mrs. Robinson, a pleasant, soft-spoken woman, is perisistent about keeping her family together.
Perhaps the fact that Esther Robinson was herself an orphan 49 years ago is what prompts her to make the necessary sacrifies for family unity.
She was a girl of 15 in 1928 when her own mother died, leaving behind five boys, a 3-year-old girl and Mrs. Robinson, who as a teen-aged girl had to care for her brothers and sisters.
"My mother died back during the depression," she recalled last week. "One of my brothers had to stay out of school for a whole year to work and keep us with food.
"He worked on a farm and earned 35 cents a day," she recalled. "We would use the money to buy five pounds of corn meal one day, five pounds sugar the next and something else the next."
It was during those bitter years of struggle that Mrs. Robinson developed the keen instincts of a mother and a mother's role as counselor, disciplinarian and occasional "spark of inspiration."
Later in life she would become the mother of her own eight children. background, she would be chosen by Arlington County to be the foster And because of her extraordinary mother of some 15 homeless children since 1953.
The grandchildren left by her slain daughter have been a special challenge, she said. "The children sometimes call me old-timey because I don't always go along with the modern ideas about things," said Mrs. Robinson, who noted that on the whole her grandchildren have been "very nice and very cooperative."
"I would like to see my granddaughters marry and develop their families in the traditional way," Mrs. Robinson said. "Yet, I wouldn't want them to be unhappy by possibly marrying the wrong man and ending up in a situation like their mother."
Still, she said, "In this day and age, it's kind of hard to convince the younger people that the old ways are the best ways."
A life insurance policy worth $20000 was divided equally among the children following their mother's death. Each of them received $3,333.33. While the older girls quickly spent their share of the money - two of them bought cars - Mrs. Robinson said she placed the younger childrens' share in saving accounts.
"I'm trying to teach the younger children how to save their money and plan for their future," she said. "Someday I won't be around and they will have to take care of themselves. I'm trying to prepare them for that time."
Mrs. Robinson lives on a 13-acre tract of land left to her by her family which, she said, has lived in the same community since the slavery era. The family originally bought 500 acres of land in the early 1900s. Most of it has since been sold, she said.
Mrs. Robinson explained how togetherness is a tradition in her family.
On Thanksgiving, we go to my daughter Rose's house for dinner. The family comes here for Christmas Day," she said. "On Memorial Day, we go to Roe's for a cookout; we shoot fireworks together at my house on July 4; and on Labor Day we have another cookout at Rose's."
"Every Monday night," Mrs. Robinson continued, "is a sewing night at my house. The children bring their clothes that need ribbons or buttons or mending. We sit down together sewing and talking."
On some weekdays, she said grandchildren occasionally drop in for dinner.
"One of my grandsons loves pancakes," she said with a smile. "No matter what time he comes to the house the first thing he says is, 'Pancakes, Grandma - Let's have pankcakes.'"