Little has changed in the tiny white house on the grassy slope in the Green Valley area of Arlington since Mamma Dean died last week.
School children still play in its blossom-lined backyard where generations tested their young muscles and nerve in childhood adventures. Children's photographs still fill living room table tops and during thunderstorms the house still grows quiet so its inhabitants can hear the sound of "God's work."
But the home at 2110 S. Kenmore St. is now without 74-year-old Verna Lee Dean, the woman who set its rhythms in motion. For almost half a century, "Mamma Dean"--as she was called by nearly everyone who knew her--had been a surrogate mother to thousands of children, church and community leaders said. She was a self-appointed social worker who provided low-cost or free day care for generations of working parents long before government agencies began doing the same.
She also raised one natural daughter, five adopted daughters, five children from her husband's previous marriage, and dozens of informally adopted children brought to her by parents unable to care for their infants. Even government social service agencies, after years of asking her to get the required license for her work, eventually caved in to this one-woman institution and began sending her foster children.
"She was a bank, a marriage counselor and a career counselor," said Mike Scott, 21, whom Dean raised as her son. "When she spoke, people listened. What she said, you could count on."
So when Mrs. Dean died suddenly of a respiratory condition, it was no surprise that the Macedonia Baptist Church was crowded with nearly 300 people, many of whom were in no small sense her sons, daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
It started 47 years ago when Verna Lee Dean found herself unexpectedly without an escort for a church dinner. Deacon Henry Dean became a late substitute, and in short order, the two were married; her husband, now 92, survives her.
The new Mrs. Dean immediately became the mother of five children from her husband's previous marriage. But the five would not be enough for Mrs. Dean, who worked regularly for the church and did sewing and domestic work when she could find it near her Arlington home, while her husband worked construction.
Two years after the Deans were married, a next-door neighbor had a baby girl. "That was me," Edna Taylor, 45, said with a chuckle. "I was 3 months old when my mother got too sick to take care of me."
Mrs. Dean offered to take care of her until her natural mother became strong enough to do it herself. But, Taylor said, she came to be spoiled on Mrs. Dean's kindness and never returned to her natural mother. That set the pattern for many similar adoptions to come.
"I always said I had two mothers and two fathers," Taylor said. "I thought it was a blessing from God."
Life in the Dean household was a careful balance of reward and reward, her children joke. Scott said he remembers Mrs. Dean's dinner tables of meat loaf, ham, salad, stewed tomatoes, sweet corn and cakes. "It was something," Scott said. "You know how she used to find out if you had enough? She would keep putting food on your plate until you left something."
And because there were often 25 to 30 children in her house at lunchtime, Scott said Mrs. Dean taught all her charges, out of necessity, how to share and be considerate of each other.
"You just didn't have any trouble, not in Mamma Dean's house," Scott said. "She would come out and tell us, 'Lunch is ready,' and without saying another word, we knew to line up to wash our hands and take our places at the table."
Taylor said the girls took turns washing the dishes, and the boys did work on the house and in the yard. When the fresh vegetable truck pulled up twice a week, the boys, from toddlers to teen-agers, pitched in to carry in what they could. That was Mrs. Dean's method, her children said.
Anne Dean Workman, 33, is Mrs. Dean's only natural daughter. She said she doesn't know why her mother didn't have any other children of her own, but she always thought of her house full of children as normal, as if she simply had more than the usual number of brothers and sisters.
Throughout the day, waves of children would come and go, as parents came at all hours to retrieve their sons and daughters after a day or night of work, a completed semester at high school or college or a decade or so after regaining control of a faltering life. Her children said they never heard Mrs. Dean say an ill word about their natural parents. She was never judgmental.
"You know everybody who grew up in Mamma Dean's house didn't turn out to be saints," said Scott, a clean-cut looking musician and technican for a local rock band. Some of them went wrong, went to jail, became alcoholics.
"But Mamma Dean could never say no," Scott said. "If they didn't have no place to go, she'd take them in. She'd feed them. She'd lend them money."
She was always understanding, Workman said. "She's always been a lover of children and a lover of people. She said nothing ever happened without a reason. She was a Christian woman inspired by God."
At her funeral this week, the Rev. Clarence A. Robinson, pastor of Macedonia Baptist where Mrs. Dean sang in the senior choir and was a member of a half dozen groups, said Mrs. Dean conquered misfortunes that would have overburdened other people.
In mid 1969, Jay Dial, then 16, and one of the children she kept for years while his parents worked, was walking in Dean's neighborhood when someone in a passing car shot him, Scott said. Badly wounded, Dial ran to the Dean home, where he collapsed and died on her porch.
"It broke her heart," Scott recalled, adding that the murder was never solved. "She had the steps torndown." Workman said her mother asked her husband to build new steps because she kept imagining the imprint of Dial's body.
"She said, 'You can't wash away murder blood,' " Workman said.
Several years ago, the children of one of her nieces staying with her at the time, bolted into the street and were struck and killed by a truck. Scott said some of the neighborhood children threatened to stop taking their children to her. But the practice had become ingrained over the generations. They kept coming--children of children of children she had kept in her household.
"She inspired many people in her lifetime by the things people saw her do," said Toni Bragg, a longtime friend of the family. "Even though she's gone, people think to themselves, 'How would Mamma Dean want me to do this?' and people will ask themselves, 'How can I carry on her tradition?' "
"But if they knew her, they'd know."
A social worker for Arlington County's Department of Human Resources said although Mrs. Dean was never licensed, the department recognized her home as a good place to put children and sometimes sent children there. In fact, shortly before Mrs. Dean's death, DHR had recommended that two more foster children be sent to her.
John Robinson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center,which provides social and employment services for the area, said some parents don't know who will care for their children now.
"They know she served a purpose no one else would do, taking care of the forgotten children," Robinson said. "Giving them a good, clean home where there was caring. "Now that she's gone, it's going to be a problem."