By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007; Page B01
They spread their picnic in the cemetery behind the old church in Bowie, six devoted sisters gathered to celebrate the life of the mother who had raised them on her own.
There was Laurie, who as a dance instructor taught boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard to waltz. There was Theresa, known to her sisters as "Tess the Mess" as a child, who had been working in the Brentwood post office when anthrax mailed by a madman spilled out of an envelope there nearly six years ago. There was Jean, the former nun who fell in love with a priest and married him and who beat cancer twice; Carol, the former model and mother of six who took 25 years to graduate magna cum laude from the University of Alabama; Christy, the retired technical writer for an aircraft manufacturer; and Marti, who looks most like the woman they gathered to honor.
When she died of heart failure three years ago at 86, Margaret Voith Thomas's girls pledged that they would have a reunion in her honor each year. The focal event of that reunion is a picnic, and for the second annual celebration Friday, they gathered at her grave behind the old Sacred Heart Church in Bowie.
Sitting on quilts made by the grandmother of Marti Wallen's husband, Barry, they giggled as they told story after story about their mother and their upbringing.
With white wine in crystal glasses, they toasted their mother, once a commercial artist for the old Hecht's department store in downtown Washington, who brought them up alone after their father walked out before Laurie was old enough to eat table food.
Over tuna sandwiches -- Margaret's favorite -- deviled eggs and Marti's peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies, they reminisced about their childhood and how, despite growing up "dirt poor," they always felt special and loved.
"I have fixed in my visual memory when we lived in a little, two-bedroom apartment. There were six of us then, and I remember Mom washing diapers and putting them through the wringer, then hanging them up with clothespins," said Jean Scanlan of Aurora, Ill. "She never complained."
Theresa Woodruff of Bowie said, "I remember her advice to us: 'Don't forget your lipstick!' " That drew laughs from her sisters. "As a matter of fact, now we are still really particular about our lipstick because of what she taught us. I never remember Mom not looking beautiful, and she taught us that, too."
Scanlan's husband, Bob, calls them "The Bevy of Beauties" -- six women who, as little girls, usually got new dresses only once a year but always went out clean and well-coiffed because of their mother's loving care. Now ages 56 to 69, they have produced 17 children and 15 grandchildren, with three on the way, taking care to lavish their offspring with the same attention that their mother showered on them.
According to the sisters, there were signs all around last week that their mother was with them. As they prepared to begin a ceremony that included reminiscences, prayers and each presenting their mother a rose, the church bells chimed. As they sat together, a blue jay perched on a nearby gravestone and appeared to watch the sisters.
"Mom always loved birds," said Carol Comlish, who lives in Kensington and Chesapeake Beach. "She always wanted to be a bird."
As they recalled their mother, stories of their modest childhood streamed forth. They remembered dinners where the seven family members shared two cans of Campbell's vegetable beef soup, with extra potatoes added to stretch the meal, and fried bologna sandwiches.
"We were dirt poor," said Comlish, shaking her head at the memory. "There were times when we would come home from school and the only thing that would be in the refrigerator would be mustard."
"We had cardboard in our shoes," Burdette added.
"The springs were coming up from the mattress," Comlish chimed in.
"But, every Easter, somehow she would buy us all beautiful dresses and march us into church," Laurie Thomas recalled.
"We made a statement, even back then," Wallen said. "Though we were the poorest of the poor, we had our heads held high because our mother always made us feel so special."
The women recalled their mother's love for a good book and a cup of hot tea, the scarves that adorned her neck and how she would use her employee discount to buy a few pieces in the bargain-basement section of Hecht's, bring them home and design beautiful ensembles.
"She always looked beautiful," said Thomas, who, as the only sister who didn't marry, continues the family name with pride.
Their mother supported the family as an artist, drawing models in clothes in fashion ads until photography ended her career, the women said.
"She took the civil service exam in her 60s and got a 92," Wallen recalled. "She went to work for the Federal Communications Commission as a secretary. She didn't even get her driver's license until she was in her 50s, because in the city, we went everywhere on streetcars and then on the bus."
Thomas remembered being 6 and her sister Christy Burdette accidentally cracking her head with a glass piggy bank. Their mother took Thomas to the hospital on the bus. "Here I am with this bloody bandage on my head, and we're on the bus," she said.
"She treated everything . . . " Thomas said.
"With alcohol!" the sisters added together.
"And she took out all stitches because we didn't have medical insurance to pay to go the doctor for things like that," Comlish said.
Now, with comfortable lives, they recall the closeness that those difficult days engendered. At 13, Tess became pregnant and was sent to live with her father in St. Louis. Forty-one years later, the son she gave up for adoption found her and has become part of her life.
The sisters talk frequently and visit each other often. They refer to themselves as "the upper three" -- the older sisters -- and "the lower three."
"Everything is three and three with us," Wallen said. "Blood type, those who use ice and those who don't, those who choose paper bags over plastic in the grocery store and those who don't, who has a college education and who drinks with a straw and who doesn't."
The sisters planned today, the last day of their reunion, to revisit their old home near Georgia Avenue and Kennedy Street NW and one in the 5400 block of Illinois Avenue NW. They also want to visit a Northwest Safeway store that they used to walk to with their mother before the family moved to Bowie in 1965.
Sitting on the deck of Wallen's home overlooking the Chesapeake Bay on Friday afternoon, the sisters discussed plans to give each other facials, play bocce ball, take dance lessons from Thomas and watch movies.
"When we all get together and talk about our mother, share our childhood again and our lives . . . there is a sort of wholeness that we get that takes us out of our separateness," Burdette said. "We feel that there is an entity that originated from where we came from, and our mother, and it takes on a life of its own."
They're talking about writing a book about it.
The tentative title, in honor of their mother: "Don't Forget Your Lipstick."