THIS morning, John Mallon slept until habit woke him up, just before dawn. His oldest daughter, Terri, had left for swim practice at 5:30 a.m., and John has to pick her up when it's over. But first, there's the daily routine of rousing the other nine children sleeping under the Mallon roof. A tall man who strides rather than walks, John pulls on jeans and a navy blue sweater and begins his rounds.
Sandy Mallon, wearing a red top and jeans, sets off for the kitchen. She'll feed two-week-old Kevin, supervise breakfast, and pack the seven lunch boxes to go out that day.
``They all have to be individual, even if it's just peanut butter,'' she says, dipping from two five-pound buckets (one crunchy, one smooth).
A couple of the older kids troop into the kitchen and pull cereal boxes from the cases John buys from Washington wholesalers across the Potomac river. Other children invade the three bathrooms (one of them new, built pipe by pipe and tile by tile by John and Sandy as part of an 800-square-foot addition to their 65-year-old bungalow). Still others look for just the right pair of shoes in the 24slot shoe bag Sandy sewed and strung up inside the dining room closet.
The morning reaches its initial peak at 7:30 when Terri, returned from swimming, leaves for high school and the first of four children Sandy provides day care for is dropped off.
Kerri and Kelly - 13-year-old twins from Korea, who returned home with John from one of his Asian trips last year - have stuffed backpacks for their departure to intermediate school. Preschooler Andrew and kindergartener Bridget are attacking their cereal, and Angie, Michelle, Patrick, and Bobby are untangling their coats from the tightly packed assortment in the family room closet.
The Mallons come in a variety of colors and ages. ``The campaign manager for [a local politician] called us last fall, saying they needed a picture of him with a mixed ethnic group,'' says Sandy, ``and they thought of us.''
John takes another tour through the four upstairs bedrooms, turning down radios and looking for laundry. He gathers three full loads, recruits fourth-grader Michelle to help him, and heads down to the basement to sort clothes and start the first load.
``You have to be careful to stay out of their way at certain times of the day,'' observes Michelle.
By 8:30, the house is down to four kids (Andrew and three day-care children), a second load of laundry is started, and Sandy can reassemble the kitchen. Now comes the quiet part of the day, when the little kids play with each other on the floor of the family room. Sandy straightens the house and puts in a few minutes at her word processor, which she uses to earn a few extra dollars by typing.
John heads off to the library to work on his book, an analysis of international aid to China. He's writing under a grant from the Defense Department, where he heads the Asian economic section. John's two-year sabbatical from the office ends in May. ``It's been heaven,'' says Sandy. ``I'm really spoiled.''
``They struggle terribly with finances,'' observes a friend, Diane Carroll. ``But they're great at making do and doing without.'' Her statement is supported by the boxes of hand-me-downs (many from friends) in the Mallons' home, the nine bikes in the basement (seven of them donations), and the ancient van parked out front.
``John helps by doing all the running around in the car,'' explains Mrs. Carroll. ``The last time he went to China, Sandy did her grocery shopping at midnight - she doesn't like taking a bunch of kids along. But John will take anyone who has a coat on and wants to come, like five kids. He's really fond of kids.''
``We never talked about having a big family in the beginning,'' Sandy says. ``We thought we'd have one or two, or maybe adopt another.''
But a couple of miscarriages early in their marriage gave them second thoughts. ``We'd had three pregnancies and one child and thought, maybe this isn't going to work,'' says John.
He was coaching girl's basketball at the time and working with the local Big Brothers program, and happened to see a sign for foster children. After their second child - Angie, now in sixth grade - was born, ``we went to a meeting about foster kids and thought, this isn't too bad,'' says Sandy. Their first foster child, a three-month-old girl, arrived when Angie was six months old.
That child stayed, off and on, until she was 15 months, when she was permanently placed elsewhere.
``It was terribly tough, terribly tough,'' says Sandy. ``We were boo-hooing all the way out to the car, saying goodbye. But we lived through it.''
When Bridget returns from kindergarten, Sandy must fix another slew of lunches for the day-care kids plus her own youngest ones.
Afterwards, she wipes gooey hands and faces, sweeps bread crumbs from the floor, pulls hamburger from the freezer for dinner, and gets the youngest day-child down for a nap, while Bridget and the other day-care children don roller skates and head out to the sidewalk. John hauls the laundry up to the dining room and goes into the office to work, while Sandy sorts the loads into piles and Andrew finds his beloved blanket.
``Their values aren't built around material things,'' says Jane Erckenbrack, foster home coordinator for Arlington County. ``With them, relationships always come first. The Mallons have a very strong faith, an active faith,'' she says, commenting on why the sprawling family works so well.
``They're normal parents; they're not angels above us all,'' says a neighbor, Tif Reynolds. ``They get frustrated and lose their patience - I think there's a fair amount of shouting in the house. But then they get up and try again,'' she says. ``They're doing this as kind of a mission,'' she observes.
``Christianity isn't something you lock up in four walls,'' says John. ``It involves reaching out into the community. We looked at what skills or abilities we had, and knew that we had a good thing going, a good relationship. Also, parenting for us was not traumatic - Terri made a positive impact on our life,'' he explains.
At 3:14 p.m., there's a minor invasion at the Mallon household - Angie, Patrick, Michelle, Bobby, and another day-care child dash off the school bus and through the front door. They put lunch boxes on the kitchen counter, fling backpacks into a niche in the breakfast room, and aim coats at the family room closet.
``We try to use consequences to reinforce good behavior,'' says Sandy. ``Last year, we said if anyone put their backpack or coat in the wrong place, they'd have to put them on and walk 20 times around the house. I think we caught one or two offenders.''
``Three,'' Michelle chimes in, heating up water for tea.
``And now they're getting pretty good,'' Sandy concludes.
A contingent of kids swarms into the kitchen, chanting ``snack, snack,'' and unlatching the pantry door. Sandy grabs the Oreos before the tallest child spots them, rips open the bag and asks, ``Ever seen an entire bag of cookies disappear in two minutes?''
Sandy drinks a cup of tea in the sewing room while converting the draw-string sweat pants her children wear for their swim team to elasticized waists.
``The youngest children can't cope with the draw strings,'' she explains. Five of the Mallon children are on a county-sponsored swim team, and the parents act as timers.
``One of us tries to be there for all the meets,'' says John. ``It gives us a little one-on-one time with each child.''
Two children come in and complain about Bobby - who is in ``one of his moods,'' Sandy says. Bobby is Laotian, a foster child who stayed, formally adopted by the Mallons last October. They got him as a tot the night his mother was murdered, ``and they told us we'd only have him 30 days; that was five years ago. You learn not to trust their estimates,'' says Sandy. ``I don't think about when I'm going to lose them. I just think from the moment a child walks in that door, he's mine.''
Over 60 such children have walked, or been carried, through the Mallon door in the last 12 years, from newborns to teens.
The Mallon kids get ``really excited when they know a child is coming,'' says Ms. Erckenbrack. ``The kids are a big part of the reason why they're such an excellent foster family. In [the Mallon] house, it's easy for [the foster children] to lose themselves in the crowd, or find another child to be close to,'' she says.
The Mallons talk with deep concern about the conditions their foster children have endured - the three-year-old twins left wandering outside on New Year's Eve, unclaimed for three days; the four children living in a van who arrived in mid-winter without coats or underwear; the scrawny, hitch-hiking teen from Colorado who had run out of money and wanted to go home.
When asked if she believes they can redeem these children's lives, Sandy says flat out, ``I don't know. I hope so, but I don't know.''
So what can she hope to do for them in the short time she gets with most of them?
Sandy looks the visitor straight in the eye, frowns, and says, ``you can love them.''
By 5:08, three of the day-care children have been picked up, Andrew is asleep on his blanket in the dining room, and John has taken four children to meet their oldest sister at the pool for swim practice. The last day-care daddy arrives for his anxiously waiting son.
Then the phone rings.
It's a social worker, calling about a runaway teen. Sandy knows the girl; she's run away from her aunt's before. ``Yes, of course we'll take her,'' she says, thinking how she can stretch the hamburger to feed one more, wondering who she can get to help her make up the bed in the extra room, whose pajamas the girl can borrow to sleep in tonight.