Edith Alston worked all her life for a comfortable place to grow old.
But at 78, she found herself a widow, providing for a daughter and six grandchildren in a rotting house with no heat and no plumbing.
The ground shows through the floorboards of her Severna Park dwelling. The stench of rot fills the house. Since the plumbing gave out months ago, the family has hauled jugs to nearby gas stations to bring water home.
Alston's dream of happy retirement would have remained illusory were it not for Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat, the Christian organization that builds homes for people living in substandard housing, heard about the Alstons and approved them for a new house.
"The family selection committee co-chair told me that in all his years associated with Habitat, he's never seen anything worse," says Drix Neimann, president of the county Habitat chapter.
It's hard to imagine what else could go wrong with the house. The paint has peeled off; the ceilings are falling down. The windows have no screens, and vermin infest the three reeking rooms in which eight people live.
Alston earned a living cleaning houses and taking care of elderly people until she had to stop two years ago because of ill health.
"Then things started to go wrong, and I didn't know how to fix them," she said, sitting on a picnic bench outside the house. "The place finally went to pieces -- floors rotted, pipes rotted."
Alston says the family survived winters without heat by using portable oil stoves.
"It wasn't safe, but it was warm," she says.
L When the plumbing stopped working, however, things got hard.
"You're really in trouble without water," she says.
For Alton, a gracious woman in a black and white print dress, the hardship was aesthetic as well as material.
She leads the way through the squalor to her bedroom, where one wall is bright with yellow flowered wallpaper.
"I like a little flower, the small flower," she says proudly. "My husband wanted big flowers, and we argued over it."
Says her daughter, Sheila, 40-ish, "Mom struggled so hard to make ends meet all her life so she could have a place when she was old. Then you realize you can't be comfortable, and it makes all the work seem worthless."
It wasn't easy for Alton to pay for a home and buy the acre of land and take care of the family, says her daughter.
"She always did all the work. It hurt me I couldn't say I'd do it all," Sheila adds. "This is a blessing for her last years."
The blessing came about when a friend called Habitat and told them about the Alstons, who don't have a telephone.
Habitat concluded the house was beyond repair and needed to be demolished. An anonymous donor gave a house that Habitat plans to move onto the property later this month.
Habitat will build a foundation and lower the new house onto the property, then renovate it to add extra bedrooms. The project is expected to cost between $25,000 and $30,000, Neimann said.
Neimann said Habitat is close to having raised the amount needed to complete the project.
Says Alston, "I'm tickled to death. I had heard of Habitat, but I didn't know how to contact anybody or what you'd have to do."
Families who buy a Habitat home must put in 500 hours of "sweat equity" helping build their house or other Habitat houses.
The family pays no interest, and the house is sold for exactly as much as it costs Habitat to build it. After the Alstons' place is finished, they will work for 350 hours on other projects, Sheila said.
"I can't wait to see it done," she said. "We're going to have a big party."