To Potomac the Hard Way

To Potomac the Hard Way

Rogers Lambert describes a life of highs and lows, and memories of begging on the streets of D.C.

Before Evelyn Rogers Lambert moved to the Inverness Forest neighborhood, she’d lived a life unimaginable to most of her Potomac neighbors.

A child of destitute parents in Washington, D.C., Rogers Lambert would hold the “money can,” begging for change from passersby at the intersection of 14th and F streets. In addition to growing up in a broken home, Rogers Lambert said she was disowned as a “half-breed” by her maternal grandparents, and forcibly removed from her mother by police officers. A ward of welfare services, Rogers Lambert went on to live in several foster homes, and attended the funeral of her brother who died at 15 in a drowning accident.

By the time Rogers Lambert moved to Potomac with her husband and four children in 1969, the family had the material comforts that were so lacking in her childhood, but tragedies didn’t stop.

Her son Cliff’s promising baseball career ended when he was struck by a near-fatal throw to the head while playing for the University of Maryland. Her husband died at 46, and another man she’d planned to marry died in a car accident. But the greatest tragedy of all was losing her youngest son, who died at age 42 following a battle with AIDS.

Now 77 and still a resident of Inverness Forest, where she lives with her son Cliff, Rogers Lambert wrote her life’s memoirs in “Holding the Money Can.” She doesn’t define herself by her life’s tragedies, and neither do several of her longtime friends who encouraged her to publish the book.

“To me, she’s a very uplifting person,” said Louise Koppe, who has known Rogers Lambert since childhood. “She has survived victoriously, I think.”

“She is one of the most loving, kind, giving, forgiving, loyal, strong people that I’ve ever known,” said Beverly Krauss, another longtime friend of Rogers Lambert’s. “Despite all of the things that her life has dealt her, I would still use the same adjectives.”

“I DON’T CONSIDER myself a writer,” Rogers Lambert said. “I’ve never written anything of importance in my life.”

But the events of her life formed a story that wrote itself, she said. The process began at the age of 65, when she needed to find formal documentation of her birth. She’d previously been able to obtain a marriage license and a Social Security number without a birth certificate, but not Social Security benefits. So Rogers Lambert began writing to hospitals in North Carolina and South Carolina, in the hope that one of them could verify her origins.

Her search forced her to revisit her earliest childhood memories, which grew more vivid after her parents moved to Washington, D.C. “It was like a dam broke,” she said. Sometimes she’d wake up at nights and walk to the computer and write entire chapters.

“A lot of the stuff I never told people, because it was shameful,” Lambert Rogers said. “It was something I had to do. … I knew I would never rest until the book was written.”

Despite growing up in what she describes as a dysfunctional and impoverished home, getting torn from her mother was traumatic for Evelyn.

“Now, when I look back on that day, I realize it was probably the best thing that could have happened, but it was a cruel and frightening experience,” Rogers Lambert wrote. It was her introduction to the welfare system of the times, and it would grow worse.

THE RECEIVING HOMES where welfare services sent Evelyn didn’t distinguish between the orphaned children, the violent delinquents, the teenage prostitutes and those with severe psychiatric problems, says Rogers Lambert. She moved to several foster homes, eventually landing with a loving, rural couple that wanted to adopt her. Welfare services wouldn’t permit it, and removed Evelyn from their home because the couple was “too attached,” she said.

Rogers Lambert said her experience as a ward of welfare services was full of similarly traumatizing experiences. “It’s almost an expose of the welfare system,” Rogers Lambert said of her book.

By the time she was of school age, Evelyn finally landed in a healthy environment. A farming couple in Spencerville took her in, and there she stayed through most of her childhood. While she never shook the internal stigma of being a “welfare child,” she was popular at school. She attended Sherwood High School, then transferred as a senior to Montgomery Blair and graduated in 1948. Four days later, she married Danny Lambert, an engineering student from Rhode Island.

AS AN ADULT, Rogers Lambert became active with the PTAs of her children’s schools, her neighborhood civic association and her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. “Because I had such a low opinion of myself, I was constantly proving something to myself,” she said. “I always had to prove to myself that I was a worthy person.”

“All of those things validated her,” said Koppe. “Anything that she attempted to do, she’d do the best,” Koppe said. “She gave 100 percent to any task she decided to take on.”

One of Rogers Lambert’s triumphs came unexpectedly, in the form of a truckload of CB radios that was delivered to her home after her husband’s death. Knowing nothing about CB radios, Rogers Lambert went into business, selling every one of them. She negotiated regional sales rights with a competitor, and when informed that she could only sell used ones, she took each one out of the box, roughed it up a bit, and put them on the market.

The book’s final chapter is about the death of their son Jerry, who contracted HIV and died from AIDS at the age of 42. “The last chapter of the book is the one that broke my heart,” Rogers Lambert said.

Another section is about her son Cliff. As a junior at the University of Maryland, Cliff was batting .500 as a catcher. Major League scouts attended some of his games, said Rogers Lambert, including the game where he was struck by a throw and knocked unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital and nearly died. When he regained consciousness, he had lost the ability to speak or walk. His rehabilitation lasted two years.

“She raised that boy twice,” Koppe said. “I don’t know how many people have that type of character.”

“She has incredible patience … to have helped him all these years,” Krauss said. “The giving, loving person shows through. She does the best that she can for him.”

Cliff never regained the full ability to read or write, but he can now drive a car, and has worked for more than 30 years at Montgomery County Public Schools building services. He remains a baseball fan, and frequently attends Georgetown University and Bethesda Big Train games at Povich Field in Cabin John Regional Park. He once told a coworker at Burning Tree Elementary School that he wanted to marry a woman just like his mother. “You’re not going to find anyone else like your mother,” his coworker told him.

IN THE EPILOGUE to “Holding the Money Can,” Rogers Lambert wrote, “Despite my lowly beginnings and the tragic losses since, I have had more than my share of happiness and I thank God for my excellent health and strength. Amazingly, I do not suffer from any significant physical or emotional scars.”

She sold most of the 50 printed copies of “Holding the Money Can” to fellow members of Seven Locks Baptist Church. The book is published by a print-on-demand company, and Rogers Lambert says there will be no follow-up or sequel. “Another book?” she said. “Believe me, I can only write what I know, and this is the only book I have in me.”