The family of Bertha Braxton Brown gathered yesterday for afternoon dinner in the same home on North Mount Street where they have eaten and prayed every Sunday for more than 50 years.
From 91-year-old Aunt Katie Jackson to 4-year-old Ricardo Raymond Johnson, they have walked up the steps of this West Baltimore row house to sing "Happy Birthday" and holler "Merry Christmas," to cuddle newborns and mourn the dead, to praise the winners and worry over the wayward.
"Everybody calls 1031 [N. Mount Street] home, even though everyone has ventured out," said Brenda Johnson, one of the seven Brown children born there. "Five generations, 62 years, our family has been in this home."
And even though Mrs. Brown, this family's matriarch, died fouryears ago, the house where she and her longshoreman husband, Howard Brown Sr., raised their seven children plus 10 nieces and nephews is still fondly referred to as "Down Bertha's."
"This is the home house," explained Ethel Berkley, another of Bertha's children.
So it was only fitting that Army Chief Warrant Officer William M. Studivant Jr. be welcomed home from the Persian Gulf war in the house where his mother, Catherine Brown Studivant, was born and her mother before her.
A U.S. flag hung from a third-story window, and a fat yellow bow decorated the front door. More than a dozen women in the family wore T-shirts sporting the Stars and Stripes. And right across the street, a "Welcome Home" banner for the soldier was tacked to Western District police station.
In planning the celebration for her son, Mrs. Studivant decided to enlarge her extended family of 61 -- inviting the residents of Sandtown-Winchester, an impoverished neighborhood below North Avenue where churches, community groups and citizens are struggling to rebuild a community wracked by drugs and violence.
"He came out of the neighborhood; I wanted to show a positivimage," said Mrs. Studivant -- who missed the celebration she had spent a month planning. She suffered a slight stroke late Friday and has been hospitalized ever since. "He is an officer and a gentleman," she said from her bed at Baltimore County General Hospital.
It also rained, canceling the parade planned for Officer Studivant's return. But the banner-bedecked police station opened its doors to thefamily, and the block party moved inside to the old courtroom there.
"From the grandparents to the great-grandchildren, we've come to the Police Department with problems and concerns," Mrs. Berkley noted. "Today it feels good to walk in the doors . . . to honor a law-abiding citizen."
The guest of honor, along with his wife, Audrey, and their children, Taneya, 12, and Wesley, 11, arrived for the festivities in a black limousine -- the Fayetteville, N.C., resident's first limo ride ever. Warrant Officer Studivant, who made sure the Army's helicopters and other vehicles were up and running during the war with Iraq, was toasted by the mayor, congratulated by a city councilwoman and honored by a local black paratroopers organization.
And yet the small ceremony in the old courtroom -- and the preparations leading up to it -- was more a testament to the strong ties of kinship and community than it was a toast to one soldier. Mr. Studivant's closing remarks -- "My family and friends gave me all the backbone I needed" -- reflected that sentiment, as did other aspects of the event:
A friend of the Studivant family served as master of ceremonies; the soldier's youngest cousins led the Pledge of Allegiance; and two sisters, Brenda Studivant Campbell and Eulalia Studivant, fried more than enough chicken for the crowd of 50 welcoming the soldier home.
The women in the family dished out chicken and macaroni salad, chocolate and vanilla cupcakes and slices of sheet cake to the neighborswho stopped into the police station. Across the street at No. 1031, family members spilled into the hallway as grace was said in the dining room. Platters of crab cakes, beef and noodles, shrimp and lobster and rice pudding (Mr. Studivant's favorite) awaited the hungry and not-yet-fed.
For some relatives, yesterday was much like any other Sunday -- a house full of aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins and grandchildren, celebrating another family milestone.
"We celebrate every Sunday. Usually somebody's sick or out of town not to be here. We stay together because we pray together," said Mrs. Berkley, whose family worships at Greater Olivet Baptist Church on Edmonson Avenue.
The legacy dates to the 1920s, when Hezekiah Braxton and his wife, Lillian Christian Braxton, lived in the Mount Street row house, the parents of five children, including Officer Studivant's grandmother, Bertha Braxton Brown.
Many of the children in succeeding generations share the same first names in remembrance of favorite aunts or uncles and for even more practical reasons: "My mother had this saying, 'Don't name these children anything you can't spell,' " Mrs. Berkley said.