"Just imagine waking up on a cold winter morning, and there's a thin coating of ice on the pitcher in your room. You break the ice, pour the water out, and wash your face and hands. Then all the children come downstairs walking on the sides of their feet because the floors are so cold. We didn't have carpets then."
Helen Henderson, 82, a lifelong Washington resident, was retelling incidents of her childhood in Southwest Washington to a group of youngsters from Langdon Elementary School who sat beside her with looks of astonishment.
"Everybody stands in front of the oven to try and keep warm, and your stomach is burning and your back is cold," Henderson continued. "But we always had a nice, warm breakfast, some kind of cooked cereal. We didn't have food like Post Toasties. We wanted something warm."
Henderson was among 17 longtime city residents, ranging in age from 61 to 103, who last week gave 30 Langdon students a glimpse of a Washington filled with lamplighters, horses and buggies, outdoor bathrooms, and men selling clams, oysters and pancakes on the streets.
The storytelling is part of an oral history program to introduce the children of the Northeast school to their elderly neighbors who live at the nearby Washington Center for Aging Services' nursing home and the Christian Communities Group Homes at 18th and Evarts streets NE.
Hattie Chaplin, Langdon's librarian, and Marianne Welter, public relations chairwoman for Group Homes, last year began the program that is held in the living room of the Washington Center, a city-run nursing home.
"It is a good way to get the children interested in studying about their own American history," Chaplin said. "It's fascinating to them, and such a change, to hear history as it happened from people who actually lived it," she added.
The program teaches the youngsters that there is much to learn from older people and breaks down "the myths about old age," Chaplin said.
The senior citizens seem to revel in telling stories of sugar sold for 4 cents a pound, of trolley cars, of rows and rows of houses built in city alleys, of families living above stables because the father cared for horses and drove carriages.
There were vignettes of life in a segregated city. "There was a time when you couldn't go into the shops" if you were black, recalled Catherine Williams, 85. "It made you angry, but at the time there was nothing you could do," she said.
"What hospital were you born in?" Latoya Shaw, 10, asked 94-year-old Frances Montague, who replied, "We didn't have hospitals in those days for women who did chores. I was born at home." Montague came to Washington as a young woman "to work as a maid and a cook for rich people, and I didn't get a chance to get much learning."
Rosina Tucker, 103, who grew up in Washington, recalled cooks who "would go along the streets in wagons, and make pancakes on the street. And the children would be so happy to see them when they turned the pancakes over and threw them up in the air. We'd follow them just to see them throw those pancakes up in the air after they were browned on one side."
Henderson remembered the District's streets at twilight, when "four men -- they were Italian gentlemen -- went around and lit the gas lights.
"It took only one man to light the lamps in each quadrant of the city because "Washington was smaller than it is now, so that the man who had Northwest Washington could light the whole Northwest because it only extended to Georgia Avenue."
The Langdon students responded to the stories with a mixture of surprise and gratitude that they live in today's world.
"Back then black people had to work hard because other people didn't respect them," Yolanda Jordon, 9, concluded from the stories of segregation and slavery.
Kevin Brown, 13, added, "It makes me feel sad and mad to hear things like that."
Markisha Harden, 12, said, "Today we get up early in the morning to go jogging. But back then you didn't do that, you had to get up at six o'clock in the morning and work."
But Kimberly Dais, 10, was intrigued. "It would have been fun to live then because when they played games they could run in the streets because there were no automobiles. It was just wagons and horses."