In the arc of Jean Abrams's 88 years, one can see the arc of 20th-century America.
A girl moves from Europe to rural Maryland. After a dirt-road, general-store childhood, she tries the biggest of cities and returns. Her tiny town grows, and she leaves for a job in the inner suburbs of Washington. When it comes time to retire, she settles in a new planned community, farther from the city but packed with its amenities.
That community is Columbia, where Abrams has lived for three decades--when she is not traveling the world. She's been to 72 countries, and several times to her favorites, including China, Egypt and her native Scotland.
The world of the little Maryland girl hasn't just shifted in time, but expanded.
In little Bayview, in the northeastern corner of Maryland, Abrams--then Jean Crosby--did her early learning at a one-room school. Then she went to high school in North East, a three-mile walk that was the next worst thing from uphill both ways.
"It was downhill in the morning," Abrams said, "then uphill at night, when you were tired."
Abrams, a woman with fair Scottish features and a schoolteacher's hair bun and smile, recalls the square dances, sledding and her first date, ice-skating with the man she would marry. (They split up five years later, and she's stayed single, not for lack of suitors, including the Tennessee millionaire on the QE2, but that's another story.)
Oh, and weekend trips to Philadelphia to shop to the sound of the pipe organ at Wanamaker's. She still can see her father zooming around the meadow practicing driving his Chevrolet.
Abrams spent two years at Towson, when it was a "Normal School" and not "University," and got bachelor's and master's degrees at Columbia in New York. Then it was back to Cecil County during the Depression, and she had trouble getting a teaching job.
"I don't remember ever being upset about it," she says, and besides, she made do with the $5 a day she made as a substitute teacher. Finally, she got a one-room school all her own, in the middle of nowhere.
"You didn't have to be strict in those days," she says, "because kids were accustomed to behaving, being quiet, thinking about other people."
Two decades later, when 12 children in one school had turned into 50 second-graders in one class, she left for Silver Spring, where she was hired by a friend who was principal of Glen Haven Elementary. To her daughter, who now lives in Columbia, Abrams gave the textbook D.C.-area childhood: Hot Shoppes, the Smithsonian, Woodies, day trips to Civil War battlefields and weekends in Ocean City.
When Abrams was near retirement, Jim Rouse was building Columbia--which he envisioned as a place where people of all incomes, all races, would live side by side, where people would greet each other at the village center.
Just like they used to do at the general store in Jean Abrams's Bayview.
So she signed up, one of the first to do so. It was "an interesting thing," the right idea. She liked the plays and concerts, but especially cherished a place where people chat by mailboxes.
"I was sorry Jim Rouse died when he did [in 1996]. It didn't do so well after he died."
As in, "You know they killed two people right down there?" Right down there is the bike path in Stevens Forest, where she moved from the village of Harper's Choice. Two teenage boys were shot in Stevens Forest in late November. "When I was a child, we didn't even have a lock on our back door. Bread was 12 cents a loaf . . . "
She shakes her head. "So many people working, they don't go to the mailboxes anymore."
Abrams lives in a tidy town house with plenty of room to display her creations--paintings and photography--and shelves full of treasures. Much is yellow here--her sweater, the sofa, the chair, curtains, not only the bananas (29 cents a pound at the Metro supermarket easily walkable) but also the bowl the bananas sit in.
"I like my little house," she says.
And really, she corrects herself, people do talk at the mailboxes from time to time, and she names some, especially a girl and boy who like to hear about her travels.
Still, things do change.
She visited Bayview recently. The two general stores are gone, the gravestones have deteriorated so she can't pick out her friends' names, and, worst of all, the house she had built for $4,500, ages ago, was painted over, from tan to blue--"which I did not appreciate."