If you were down around Market Street a couple of weeks ago, you might have passed an older black woman walking the pavement looking for someone. She would have been moving with caution because of glaucoma, which can make her eyesight dubious. She was searching for her 50-year-old son, who is somewhere down here carrying around a monkey called drug addiction.
It is another of the burdens that a mean fate has piled on Mosetta Rose London. Fate, however, misjudged its target, because this lady has taken its best shots and thrown them right back.
She’s a veteran of about every kind of war you can think of that didn’t require carrying a gun. Even so, she sometimes could have put one to good use.
Mosetta is a small, slim woman with a frown-killer of a smile who lives on Social Security in a downtown San Diego studio apartment. She wears large, dark glasses that help her see past the affliction that dims her world. However, her beret, colorful scarf and bouncy, musical manner of speaking make it clear that she’s game for the next fight. The lady is spirited.
She’s also as unusual as her given name. She was born in 1942 in Memphis, Tenn., at a time when being of her race in that old river town presented a unique set of challenges. That’s a nice way to describe being told by a bus driver: “Get yourself to the back, girl.”
That was life outside the home, but it was the lesser of her problems. Inside, life was tougher.
“Growing up, I was poor, unwanted, unloved, hated and beaten. My daddy rejected me because he wanted a boy. I thought it was me. I wondered what did I do wrong, but I couldn’t change who I was. Then my mother married another guy, an alcoholic, too, and he also rejected me.”
He didn’t try to molest you, did he?
“No, but I was molested when I was 8 years old, but that’s another story.”
“A man in the neighborhood.” She brushes that issue aside, and sweetly commands me: “Let’s just keep going. My step-daddy used to complain about me eating his food, and he’d tell my mother to put me out, and go get food from my own daddy. So I used to eat at my aunt’s house, and my cousin would say, ‘Get out of here. You’re eating our food. Go eat your own food.’ Honey, I didn’t argue with him, I just kept eating. I had a rough childhood, but I thank God for that, because I can see how he was molding me.”
When she was a lonely young girl, she discovered poetry. And from that day, those rhyming words with a velvet skin — both to read and to write — sustained her all her life.
“I stumbled over an old book in the backyard one day. It was muddy and had been rained on. I turned back all the dirty pages to get to the clean part where I could read it. My favorite poem was by a lady who was 90 years old. She had this poem called “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother, Please, One More Time.” I was 11, but I felt old. I felt like I was her age.”
Mother, come back, oh time in your flight
And make me a child again, just for tonight.
Mother, come back, so I’ll never again weep,
and rock me to sleep, mother
Please, rock me to sleep.
The yearning, mourning of a little girl.
In 1956 the courts outlawed segregated buses, but it took a while before black people asserted the right to sit where they chose. One day, teenage Mosetta moved right in when she saw an empty seat in the front of a crowded bus and sat down next to a white man. He jumped up and loudly cussed her out while nearby blacks turned away.
“The black people were looking at me like, ‘You should have stood up like we did, you troublemaker.’ I was so scared. My knees felt like butter, but I was trying to hold my head up like I wasn’t scared.”
She didn’t move.
Protracted hardship tends to cause quality to rise to the top among those who endure it. In the Jim Crow south, as among Dust Bowl farmers and Okies of the ’30s, many fell by the wayside into despair and alcoholism. However, others met problems head on and survived as stronger and sometimes happier people.
Were Mosetta not such a survivor, she wouldn’t be smiling today.
At age 19 and desperate to get away from home — an old, sad pattern — Mosetta rushed into a marriage to a man she says was crazy jealous and a psycho. Moving to St. Louis meant the location changed, but not the man.
“He accused me of flirting with every man who even looked in my direction. I told him, ‘I can’t control who looks at me.’
“(The marriage) was a horrible mistake. He used to beat me all the time. My oldest son, Robert, was a toddler, and I was pregnant with my youngest son, David, but I had to run (away). He was trying to kill me. I had to duck through houses, because he jumped in the car and he was going to try to run me down on the sidewalk.”
She says, “He told people I was going to crawl back to him. I said if my children and I have to live on pinto beans the rest of my life, I’ll never go back and let him finish killing me.”
Mosetta went on public assistance and started looking for a job, though she had only her high school diploma and no demonstrable career skills. “I didn’t want to be a waitress or a maid. That’s honest work, but I wanted to work in an office.”
To her, sitting in an office wearing nice clothes and doing white-collar work was like getting a promotion in life. It’s what attractive, smart people on TV did. It was a step up.
She defied racial obstacles and was hired by the federal civil service as a clerk, and over a long career worked her way up to secretary.
Mosetta has written poetry since she found that rain-stained book in the backyard. Poetry gave her a voice — an inner one for her and one to share with others. Her poetry has won national prizes, and the recognition has gained for her the opportunity to speak to groups of troubled youth and disabled persons.
She needed all the poetry in her soul as she combed the drug users’ San Diego neighborhoods searching for her son. A military disability made him an easy target for other addicts to prey upon and steal from.
She finally found David, and her hope was reborn — for maybe the umpteenth time. But a mother’s love is a gamble on which the odds are ignored. And so, Mosetta tried again.
“I know he’s striving to come back to the Lord. He’s got him a library card now, but that temptation is just there. I told him, ‘Satan doesn’t want to let you go, son. He’s had you too long, (got) too much of your money. You’re the one that’s got to be strong. Get the help. Get in a rehab and stay, and work the program this time. Don’t keep leaving and dropping out.’ ”
As she says this, reality seems to drain the power out of her voice, and the weariness of the battle takes over.
“I’ve been through 17 years of this, Fred. He’ll say to me, ‘I’m going to do it this time.’ All I can do now is just pray that he will, but I cannot continue to be held hostage by my son for choices in his life of drugs.”
What will you say when he next calls you for help?
“I’m going to say, ‘Tell the good Lord about it, son. You’re in my prayers.’ I have to turn him back over to God. I cannot make a grown drug addict do anything. It’s almost driven me stone crazy. I’m 72 years old. Whatever time I have left, I want to live. I deserve some kind of peace, so I have to give him to God.”
That sounds resolute and final, but we (and she) know it won’t happen that way. The determination will disappear like a shadow in the high noon sun when she picks up the phone and hears her son’s voice.
Show me a mother who swears she’ll walk away, and I’ll show you a woman who is bluffing.
There’s a mystique about this woman, Mosetta, who suffered through racism as only the deep South could inflict it, endured a home life where she was unwanted, staved off serious disease, escaped a devil of a husband and shed tears for a son who is disabled and a drug addict.
What mystifies is how she can then curl her lips into a perpetual smile and speak in a toe-tapping voice. You would think the song in her soul would be mournful Mahalia Jackson singing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” Instead, it’s zestful Ella Fitzgerald and “A tisket, a tasket.”
“I’m a tough, old bird,” she declares.
Well, OK, I’ll accept that if you mean an ability to absorb hard blows with a lot of bounce-back and a smile.
Hope helps sustain Mosetta, but it doesn’t fool her.
Emily Dickinson got it:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org