Above the crib in the children's room hang matching portraits of two babies, one awake and one asleep -- the misty, romantic drawings of children that were fashionable in the early part of the century. They were a wedding gift to Alice E. McKenzie from someone who evidently knew of her great wish for children.
"I couldn't wait until I grew up and got married to have children," said McKenzie, 70, with a wistful smile.
There were no children from either of her two marriages. But McKenzie smiled again and brought out a worn leatherette photo album to display "my babies" -- 42 of them -- each of whom lived with her for a time during the last two decades.
Alice McKenzie has been a foster mother for the Prince George's County Department of Social Services for 22 years, caring at any one time for one and sometimes two infants awaiting adoption.
Recently, department staff members and other foster parents gave McKenzie a surprise dinner to honor her service as a foster parent and to mark her retirement. She would have continued, she said, but her health has been failing and doctors advised against it.
McKenzie is a grandmotherly woman with pink and white cheeks, fine wrinkles and warm brown eyes behind glasses. She is short, with an ample bossom and lap. She fingers the gold chain and pendant inscribed, "a job well done 1958-1980" given to her at the dinner.
She has a simple manner, warm and practical, but is not given to philosophizing about her experiences or the children she has cared for.
"Somebody's got to take care of them, don't they!" she said.
It began when she quit work as a clerk at the Internal Revenue Service in 1958. She was 48.
"I was never particularly fond of working," McKenzie said. She and her husband, a District of Columbia government worker, had just about finished paying for their Forest Heights home and she thought "it was about time" to quit. The son she had adopted in her first marriage was already grown.
But time hung heavily for her, so she and her husband applied to become foster parents.
Most of the infants came to her only a few days old, straight from the hospital. They stayed while county officials processed the documents necessary to permit their adoption.
Sometimes the children had health problems that had to be corrected before they could be released for adoption. Sometimes they were battered children. Always McKenzie cared for them, in an endless round of bottles and formulas, diapers and safety pins, bibs and burps, wails, cuddles and coos.
They stayed three to five months, sometimes longer. She saw their first smiles and helped them learn to sit up, stand, and take their first steps. She adopted one of them, Carol, now nearly 22.
McKenzie flips through the photo album, remembering something about each. Charlene, a blond 3-year-old with big, frightened eyes, was abandoned in a store. Paul, bare-bottomed on a quilt, was a happy, half-Indian baby. Cheri's parents gave her up because, they said, no one could get along with her.
"She was a cute child," McKenzie recalled.
Infant Randy had no muscle control. His legs were like rubber, she said, but he recovered.
"He was a very nice child," she said, adding with a self-concious laugh, "they were all nice."
There were a few whose names were harder to recall now. Others stayed longer and left more of a mark. Karen, a 5-month-old who had been beaten until she stopped breathing, stayed with the McKenzie's for five years. Eventually she was adopted. "I'm still grieving over her," McKenzie admitted.
"I guess they are a lot of work," she said, as through she had never given it much thought before. "I never minded that."
The hardest part, of course, was giving them up.
"I hate for anybody to see me cry," she said. "I have to hold it until they go and then I cry."
Her ability to prepare the children for leaving her care is one of the qualities social service workers praise.
"She has a very special way with children," said Ellen Baron, a department social worker. "She is very compassionate and giving, grandmotherly and nonthreatening. She is very good at preparing (the children) for the move without a lot of anxiety."
"The kind of care and quality of care she gave to infants was just beautiful," said Mary Ellen Wermine, supervisor for foster care. "She's a love. I wash we had her clone."
McKenzie doesn't know what to expect of the future now that she can no longer be a foster mother.
"It was really time for me to quit, to have time of my own," she said, closing the photo album. But she isn't sure what to do with the time now that she has it. She is widowed now, and lives with her adopted daughter and two small dogs.
Some friends have suggested she join senior citizens' clubs.
"I am a senior citizen," she said, "but I don't feel like one. I wouldn't fit in with them."
Instead, she said, she thinks she will do babysitting for friends and perhaps care for the foster children of others when they take a vacation.