There were Betty and Willy and Zelma and Theresa. There was a Doris D. and--to avoid confusion--a Doris W. There were Destiny and Deseree and a couple of Jameses. There were Charleses and Jessicas and others--so many that Mary Brown can't remember all the names now, although she insisted she always knew them then.
Some had been abandoned by their parents, neglected, abused. Some arrived when they were only a couple of weeks old, after being exposed to drugs in the womb. Others came later, scarred from years of being passed from foster home to foster home.
One hundred twenty-five foster children over 52 years: Mary A. Brown took them all into her rambling Charles County home. They stayed for a couple of weeks or months or years. They called her Mama.
The children were mostly African American, but over the years, Brown took in white and Hispanic children also.
"They all looked just alike to me," she said one afternoon, sitting in the home of Betty J. Greene, who as a child stayed with her. "And all they wanted was to be loved and understood."
The children came from Washington: Sixty percent of the District's foster parents live in the suburbs.
The District's foster care system will honor Brown, now 89, on Monday. The ceremony comes at a time when city social workers are finding it extremely difficult to recruit parents for the thousands of children without homes. The efforts are hindered by the fact the city's child welfare system is reeling from financial troubles and accusations of mismanagement.
Brown, a petite woman wearing a cherry-colored blazer, looks decades younger than 89, with her curly, shoulder-length locks and spirited gait. She shrugs when it is pointed out that most mothers have a pretty hard time dealing with four, three, even two children.
"I loved all of them, and they never really gave me any trouble," she said, grinning.
Wait a minute. None of the 125 children caused problems?
"There were no smart-mouth kids," Brown said. "They didn't have reason to be. I gave them everything they needed: new clothes, toys, food."
And a lot of attention.
Brown acknowledged she is extremely patient. The older children helped take care of the little ones, they all had chores, and the large basement was filled with toys. Having lots of kids running around the house just didn't bother her. She was able to accept that "no child is perfect all the time."
And she has always loved children. "God placed magic power in me," she said. "Ever since I can remember, children hung on to me."
But Brown did not receive only easy kids. "The children who came to Mrs. Brown over the years manifested all the problems known to the child welfare system," said Carolyn Russell-Lander, a social worker for Child and Family Services.
Brown remembered one 16-year-old boy. When he arrived, she told him, "You're not too big to hug," and she wrapped her arms around him tightly.
"I thought he would never let me go," she recalled.
It was, he told her, the first time anyone had ever touched him without hitting.
One little girl had been living with her mother in Union Station until police kicked them out. All they had to eat was salt and water.
Some, at first, hoarded food from Brown's refrigerator because they couldn't believe there would be more the next day.
Two young sisters talked to Brown about the nights their mother drank and men came over. The men, said the girls, would be "on top of" their mother, and then when she got too drunk, the men would get "on top of" the girls.
With so many of the children, Brown said, "I could see the anger, hate and disappointment rolled up inside them a mile long."
Her extended family began when Mary Brown had only one child, her own, a little boy. She wanted a girl so much she called a D.C. welfare agency and asked whether any children needed homes.
She could have a girl, a woman told her, but would she consider also taking the girl's sister? Brown couldn't refuse. After a week of mothering the girls, Brown returned to the agency for a regular appointment. She was met by a little boy, who turned out to be their brother.
"You know I had to bring him home, too," Brown said, laughing.
All the children played in the cool grasses outside her six-bedroom ranch-style home. They meandered through the woods to Brown's 30-acre farm in Pisgah, where she and her husband, James, raised chickens, hogs and cows.
On Saturdays, Brown took the children to the movies. Sundays they went to church. They made strawberry jam and helped transform the home into a brightly lighted gingerbread house at Christmastime. Each child got a homemade birthday cake with white frosting.
Betty Green, 58, has made a career of performing and bills herself as the country's only bass-guitar-playing grandmother. Brown gave Green, who lived with her from ages 8 to 18, her first guitar. Green, who lives in Temple Hills, calls Brown "my inspiration."
Under new federal law, the city has to place foster children in adoptive homes within 15 months. "What happened with Mrs. Brown will never happen again," said Russell-Lander.
Brown was unusual, Russell-Lander said, because she was committed to keeping the children as long as they needed her--even children others might have found too difficult. Brown did not, said Russell-Lander, "have kids going in and out of her house like the revolving door that happens now. I think she had as many challenges as they do now, but she didn't look at them as problems."
When Brown began, she was paid $35 per child per month. That eventually grew to $431. But she, too, has been caught up in the recent financial debacle at the Child and Family Services Agency, which is under court receivership. She hasn't been paid about $100 for a boy she had three years ago. And she hasn't received a penny of the $862 she is owed for a little girl she cared for this summer.
She supplemented her income by doing people's hair, selling home-cooked meals, crocheted bedspreads and the dresses, shawls and quilts she made.
"I was healthy and strong," Brown said. "And my husband helped. He loved the kids."
Her husband, a truck driver at St. Elizabeths Hospital and a chauffeur for officials there, died 12 years ago. One of the former foster boys still lives with her and helps care for her and the house.
Not all the children who left lived happily ever after. One girl went back to her biological mother, who took her to crack houses and sold her to men in exchange for drugs.
Brown has lost track of some of the children, many of whom were toddlers when they moved out. But the ones who keep in touch--her telephone number hasn't changed in those 52 years--are spread across the country: electricians, nurses, carpenters, beauticians, social workers and so many others.
And one, she said with immense pride, is a foster parent herself.
CAPTION: Betty J. Green is one of the 125 former D.C. foster children cared for by Mary Brown, now 89, and her husband on their 30-acre Charles County farm.
CAPTION: "All they wanted was to be loved and understood," Mary A. Brown said of the children.