Mattie Gaskins-Brown is the oldest of her family. She remembers her grandmother, a freed slave. Her parents died a half century ago; her husband, 30 years ago. Gaskins-Brown retired a long time back from her job as a maid. Now, at age 92, her remaining dream is to quietly live out her life in her Centreville house, on property her family has owned since the Civil War.
The house is small, constructed of cinder block, sheathed with aluminum clapboards. There are plants on the porch, and an old automobile seat. Gaskins-Brown has a few lawn chairs and a small barbecue grill. A dog lies in the shade of an old tree. There is no indoor plumbing; running water was installed only several years ago.
On a recent 95-degree afternoon, in the kind of weather in which legs stick to car seats and tree leaves do not move, Gaskins-Brown sat inside her living room, a small electric fan humming. Maybe it would be less hot on the porch. Slowly, she walked out, holding the door frame for support, and sat on a yellow couch. To hear her, one had to lean close; Centreville Road runs by her house, and the traffic is loud and constant.
Gaskins-Brown was 9 when she saw her first car. She remembered when the road went behind her father's old wheat fields; that was before it was rerouted. Fairfax County has since grown up. Even here, not far from Gaskins-Brown's front porch, the subdivisions are moving in, bringing with them the swimming pools and station wagons, and commercial office towers will be built. The road is about to be widened, from two lanes to four. Construction is expected to start this fall.
Some people will lose their houses to the new road. Gaskins-Brown is not among them. All she stands to lose is her front yard. When people talk about road project victims, they do not talk about people like Gaskins-Brown. Traffic will speed by -- but 50 feet from the porch. There will be bicycles and hikers, too; the state is taking her porch steps to make room for the trail. Things could be worse. "They were going to come right around there by my lawn chairs," she said.
The people who care about Gaskins-Brown are the ones who know her. To them, she is "Miss Mattie," or "Momma." She is the glue that holds her family together. One son lives across the street. Another lives down the road. Her 64-year-old daughter, Margaret, lives with her. So does a grandson, and a great-grandson. Neighbor Terry Robarge said he feels like a son, too.
"She has a capability of being up-to-date, even though she's aged," he said. "I feel that she is a person I could take to the White House, and that Nancy Reagan would be honored to meet her. That's how much dignity I think she has.
"Many times, we associate dignity and self-respect with material things, and this woman associates them with the spiritual. It comes from within her. It's not an added-on commodity. I feel loved when I'm around her, and that's important to me. I feel trusted, and I'm proud that I know her."
Originally, Gaskins-Brown's family had 20 acres here. Since her husband died, she has had to sell off bits and pieces to pay the bills. "One of my ladies I worked for, she said, 'Mattie, don't you sell your land because after a while, land's going to be high.' But I said 'I just can't keep it. The taxes are just coming up on me.' " She has a few odd parcels left, but most of her holdings are gone.
Gaskins-Brown knows what is happening to Fairfax County. She has watched traffic build on Centreville Road. She has been to the public meetings. Nowadays, she sometimes opens the door to find real estate agents waiting on the porch. Her daughter, Margaret, nodded. "Foreigners and Americans, they've all been here -- yes, ma'am, all wanting to know if we want to sell."
Some have suggested that Gaskins-Brown sell everything and move somewhere else. She is not impressed by the idea. "I was born here," she said, "and I want to die here." What matters to her are the trees, the porch -- the things that represent peace, family, the way Centreville was. "I don't like no place but right here at home."
Twice, the state of Virginia has offered to buy from her the rights-of-way on six-tenths of an acre it needs to expand the highway. Twice, Gaskins-Brown has refused. Now, the state has initiated eminent domain proceedings against her. The land has been appraised, and found to be worth $26,800. And the highway expansion is likely to start within months.
Rather than live alongside a major highway, Gaskins-Brown would prefer to move her house farther back into the woods. But the structure is cinder block and, as neighbor Robarge said: "Cinder block don't move too good."
Gaskins-Brown's son, Joseph, 65, said she is lucky, at least, that the state is not taking her house. "It's better to be close to the highway than to have to move," he said. "It'll be just like living in the city. The sidewalk comes right along in front of your house."
If it is hot sitting on her porch now, the asphalt will make it worse. Maybe trees could be planted to provide some shade, and to absorb the headlights, the truck horns, the exhaust fumes.
"If you planted some young pines, by the time they grew up enough -- well, really, I don't think we're looking at enough time for Miss Mattie," said Michael Frey, administrative assistant to Fairfax Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield).
McConnell has another idea. Gaskins-Brown cannot afford to build a new house on her property; there is already a lien on her existing home. McConnell said she is trying to enlist community support for Gaskins-Brown.
"We're going to go out and knock on doors," she said. "We'll ask anybody who wants to help."
McConnell envisions something much like Gaskins-Brown's current house -- a small bungalow, tucked in the woods. It would be something she could pass on to the next generation.