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Mildred Pearson

Oral history interview conducted by Robert Sember

July 11, 1992

Call number: 1993.001.14

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SEMBER: All right. One of the things that's very interesting about you is that you are not involved with AIDS in one, single way. You come to it as a mother who's lost a son. Can you just give me a sense of all the different ways in which you see yourself being involved with the AIDS crisis?

PEARSON: As you said, I hit all areas. I hit an area where--You wouldn't think a person would call and say, "I want to be mothered." There's no face behind this, just the voice, a voice saying, "Is this Mother's Love? I need to be mothered." And, you know, it hits me kind of deep. I said, "What do you want to talk about?" They may say, "My mother doesn't understand. I'm gay, my mother doesn't understand, and I feel so alone." I say, "Well, you're talking to a mother who 1:00does understand. I went all the way with my son, and everybody calls me Mother Pearson. So, honey, we'll talk." I've done this so many times, and it makes me feel very--not important, but I know I'm doing something out there, somebody needed that little minute, and we must give it. We can't walk away from this any kind of way. We have to stay, anyhow. I paid the price to be out here. I lost my beautiful son in 1987; a son who loved me, and I loved him. At the time when AIDS came into our life, we knew nothing about it. When we heard things about it, I guess we were like everybody else, "Oh, that thing." But in 1986, when my 2:00son, Bruce, a very intelligent young man, started acting peculiar, and when I say peculiar--all kinds of different attitudes--because he was just such a plain person. He never read up or anything, but he started being cranky and irritable, very high strung and his skin seemed to be flushed at times. I said to him, "Brucie, what's the matter?" and he said, "I don't know, Ma. I'm making mistakes on my job and everybody's on my back. I think I'm going to quit." I said, "Quit?" It was publishing, he was in advertising, and he was doing short stories for different things at different times. He said, "I can't cope." Well, in October of that year, 1986, he left his job and he thought he was going to just sit around here, sit around home just doing nothing, and I said, "Bruce, let's 3:00go see what's the matter." We started going around to hospitals. In Brooklyn here there's a hospital called the Woodhull Hospital, and we took him there. They said he was having a breakdown, a nervous breakdown, so they gave him pills and put him further and further into a stupor. By this time his very walk was like with a shuffle, and the pills would just make him sit in a stupor. A friend of mine who worked in a hospital said to me, "Pearson, I don't want to tell you nothin.' I want to tell you somethin' but I don't know how you're going to take it. You know, the different signs sound to me like somebody with AIDS." Well, I got insulted. I didn't want to hear it, so I said, "Well, thank you," and that really made me start thinking. If my son is gay--Maybe or maybe not, but I 4:00thought the signs would be more outward. I was looking for outward signs. I didn't know what I was looking for, really. So, I was recommended to go to Stuyvesant Poly Clinic on Second Avenue in Manhattan, and when we got there I was literally taking Bruce by the hand, because he was in a state of depression . When we got there to the door he said to me, "You know, I think I've been to this place before." I said, "Oh, yeah? Well, what would you be doing, coming here?" He said, "I don't know. It's a clinic." So, I didn't pay him any attention, because some things he started to say to me were on and off, on and off, like, so I said to the lady, "I'd like my son to get signed up." She gave us an appointment to come back the next week, but by the time the next week came Brucie was worse. When I say worse, he had, oh, mood actions, so many mood 5:00trends. Sometimes he would talk and sometimes he wouldn't. So, this was the time I had met Dr. Elionde at the clinic, and I cried to him and I said, "Please help me. Please help me. I don't know what's wrong with my son. Please help me." So, again we had another appointment, but before the next week came I had to bring him into the emergency. I brought him back to the clinic, they looked at his condition, and by this time we found out he was wearing Depend men's diapers, he was wetting himself. We went over to Cabrini and he was admitted into Cabrini. This time, Brucie wasn't talking. When I left him I said to him, "I'll be back." 6:00It was about 11:00 (I was just fagged out), about 11:00 when we left, and when I came back the next morning one of the first things I asked the doctor, I said, "Does he have AIDS? Does he have AIDS? I don't know anything about it, but does he have AIDS?" I was really in an up--because, so much talk from people. Well, they told me, "Now we took tests and we found out he had parasites on the brain." I said, "Well, what is it doing to him?" They said, "The parasite has caused a little brain damage." "Is it AIDS?" They said they were going to take further tests. So, in the further tests, they came up with ARC, the term they no longer use, now, but they said it was ARC. They took all kinds of neurological tests--spinal taps--but by this time Brucie was in a silent world. He wasn't 7:00saying anything to us. It meant we had to be there in the hospital, for him. If you know, back in '86 and from then on, if you came to the hospital, if you didn't have family, your food would be on the outside. If you weren't there for your loved one, it was a little pathetic. But, my daughter came up her job, her lunch hour (she worked in Manhattan) and she would come and feed him and clean him, because he was--I'm looking for the right words to use. He had no control of himself. We would talk to him. Sometimes we had to pry his mouth open, to put the food--but we didn't give up. I would start sending warm meals for dinner, 8:00because I knew my husband would be there. He didn't like the food, so I would send it by somebody. Still, very little appetite, so after a three-month stay in the hospital, they had taken him off the medication, after giving him that herpes serum, which his body rejected. After that they told me there was nothing more they could do for him. But, I'm a mother and I'm a believer. They said they were going to put him on Roosevelt Island, and that's the place for the chronics and the terminal people. But he meant too much to us for us just throw him away. I woke my husband up at 4:00 in the morning and I said, "We're bringing him home." "How are you going to manage? How are you going to manage?" I said, "I gave birth to him, and I know that God will give me the strength to go through 9:00what I have to go through, because I'm a believer. We brought him home the day before his thirty-first birthday. He was not talking. He came home on a stretcher. Just the thought of him being home brought joy to all of us. We had twenty-four hour nursing service. I do not kick the nursing service, but my house was so open, in and out with strangers, and sometimes when we'd get up during the night and go see, the lady who was supposed to be taking care of him, she was either looking at TV or fast asleep. It was beginning to get on my nerves, so I told--This came from a home care service out of Cabrini Hospital. I 10:00told them I would manage. "How are you going to do it?" I said, "Give me somebody from 9:00 to 5:00, and from then we'll take it on our back," and this is what we did. After Brucie being home two weeks, he looked over at one of the grandchildren who lives with us and said, "How are you?" Oh, my God! She came running to the kitchen, saying, "Grandma, Grandma, Uncle Brucie can talk." You know what? It was like, you know, you didn't want to stop jumping up and you didn't want to stop saying, "Praise God, praise God, thank you! You answered our prayers." That was the beginning of the trip back, coming back. Brucie went from somebody who came in on a stretcher; he went from a stretcher to a wheelchair, from the wheelchair to a walker, from a walker to a walking cane. Now, I can 11:00tell you, Robert, that my prayers were answered! He didn't come all the way back, but halfway. He didn't know how to write his name, it was all forgotten. My two grandchildren, who live in the house with us, they started teaching him how. At that time they told us "no kissing," or this or that, but how can you not kiss your loved one and hug him? I would tell them, "Now, he's not the same Uncle Brucie, but you love him. Be kind to him." Then I would tell them, the same boy that was here, I would say, "Don't eat behind Uncle Brucie." We would get a big corn muffin, put them in half, and before going to school they would always see that he had his juice. I would catch him a few times, stealing his corn muffin, and things like that. One of the main things we found we couldn't 12:00stand was to see the scowl on his face when we had his utensils separated. Because back then they said you had to separate them, and this and that. I saw hurt that only a mother sees, and I said, "You know what? We're all going to eat out of paper plates and we're all going to use the plastic utensils," and we started. When you love somebody, these are the things that you do. We started taking him to therapy, because they said that he had only three days to live. That's when I started praying to my God, "Give me a little more time to love my child, and for him to know that we love him." We had seven months. We had seven months. He was learning how to--He would ask questions then he would contradict 13:00himself, because of the dementia. The dementia had set in so bad. Then, I saw the idleness in him. This is a man who was working, just sitting around, getting up in the morning, being dressed--Somebody dressing you, and then you sit in the living room. Someone had told me about the buddy-buddy system at GMAC. I inquired about it, a young fellow came. Then we had started putting Brucie in his regular clothing. No pajamas anymore, regular clothing, and when the guy came to interview Bruce, Bruce was looking so good that he didn't believe that he was the patient. Then they went in a room, he was able to answer questions, and he said that we would get a buddy-buddy. The first call we had from this man, he said, "My name is Hayden and I've been assigned to Bruce. First of all, 14:00let me tell you about myself." What a dear. "I'm not a teenager, I'm an older man, but I have experience in this, and I am also a White man." I said, "Are you gay?" He said, "Yes, I am." I said, "Oh, good. You and my son can talk the same language." And that was real. That was real. So, the next week he came. He came with his roses from his garden, and I let him and Brucie go in the room and they talked. From the beginning, Bruce loved Hayden, I'm telling you, and we would look for his visits. He was so beautiful. He stayed with us, I think, about two and a half to three months. He was our friend and he was like our--somebody that 15:00you look for. He would bring roses, candies and stuff, to make Brucie uplifted. I said we had seven months. He started going in the ambulette, back and forth for treatment. I think he was a miracle to the other ones, to some of the nurses, because they were looking for him to be dead. But when you give your loved one who is sick; constant love, the familiarity of the home. That will bring them back. That Easter, Bruce was able to sit at the table, and he wanted to sit and be part. No more snack tables in front of him, he wanted to. All these little things brought joy, and I truly tell anybody, fill them with love. That's all we have. We can take the medicine, we can take this and that, but the 16:00word is tender, loving care. I learned how to put a diaper on a grown man. I learned how to put a catheter on a penis. These are things you never hear people talk about. But when you love somebody, you're going to do it, because you don't want the rash on a behind and sores, things like that. It made me a better woman that I can tell somebody else today, "If it comes to that, don't be afraid. Put your rubber gloves on, but sometimes you don't have time to put rubber gloves on. You have to tend to them, but you can always wash your hands." And, it's real. On the morning of October 21st, 1987, I went into Brucie's room that 17:00morning and I said, "Hi, kiddo, what's goin' on." I saw he had difficulty breathing. He said, "I don't know, Ma, I don't know, Ma." He had excessive bowel movements. I said to one of my sons who had come off the ship to visit, I said, "Help me." Because he had become so heavy, "Help me." I was continuously cleaning him, continuously cleaning him, and the breathing was so difficult that when the home healthcare lady came (her name was Mildred, too), I said, "Mildred, I don't know what's wrong with Brucie, he's breathing so heavy," and when I say heavy, you have never seen anybody breathe from the stomach. Oh, heavy breathing. I was afraid. I've never told anybody, but I was afraid. I didn't know what was happening. Mildred said to me, "Now, this is one of the 18:00things that happen." She called over to Cabrini and they sent oxygen. They said if there was no improvement by later in the afternoon--So, we kept in tune with him, back and forth, and by 8:00 he was back in Cabrini Hospital; the oxygen didn't do any good. They made him comfortable. He was not comatose, he was able to listen and respond in his way. When I left him at 9:30 that night, I said, "You know what, kiddo? I'll be back early. I'll come back early in the morning." He was resting on the pillow, and he said, "Okay, Ma." I never thought that that would be the last time I saw my son alive. I didn't think that death was coming. 19:00But I have learned since his death that some of his friends would come and he would tell them that he was tired, he was tired. I didn't know that, when I would clean his behind, his outside view was complete, you know? He didn't look like he was sick, but all the deterioration was from the inside. I know at several times I said to the home health lady, "You know, Mildred, when I clean his behind, the bones feel so small." She said, "I know, Mildred." She knew death was imminent, but I didn't. At ten minutes to 2:00, the phone rang. I wouldn't answer it. I wouldn't answer it. My daughter (she was about twenty-three at the time, no about twenty-one), she got up and she answered it. Me and my husband were listening. I didn't hear anything else, but just like a 20:00sigh, and then I knew. We came into the living room, we held hands and we prayed. There was no emotion or tears or anything. Then I called his dear friend. After I got composed, I called back to the hospital and one of the things I asked them was did he have a scowl on his face? Was he in pain? Was he peaceful? They told me what his words were: He said he was tired. He needed somebody to rub his back. Then he put his head back on the pillow and said he was going to dreamland. I couldn't ask for anything anymore, because I didn't want him to frown or scowl or anything. These were important things to me. They 21:00said he was so peaceful. I later learned from the nursing staff there that he was so calm. But, you know, during his illness we would pray every night. My husband I would pray and say, "Make your peace with God," and I know that he did because right after his death, after the funeral and everything else, I had no more worry. So, I knew he was peaceful. So, I don't know if other mothers feel the same, but this was the way I felt. My grieving time was putting a diaper on him. My time of grief was seeing him deteriorate. After his death, there was peace. I had no time to cry or do anything. This is where my dear Hayden comes in so handy. We kept in touch, and I said to him, "Hayden, I want to do 22:00something." Hayden was a gray-haired man, you know. He said, "Now, Mildred, not now. Rest yourself a little bit, rest yourself a little bit." And then I said, "Hayden." He said, "Wait a minute. I have something for you." That was four months after. "I'm going to take you down to the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force, and I'm going to introduce you to Ernesto de la Vega." You know him too, right? Ernesto wasn't there (He had been sick or something.) so Hayden went over to Yannick Durand at the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force, and he told him that we were looking for Ernesto but--She said, "What can I do for you?" and we told her. "I want to do something," I said. "I lost my son. I want to answer telephones. I 23:00want to do something." So, she said, "Tell me your story." I started talking about it, and she put her hands up and she said, "Thank God, we've been praying for somebody like her!" Still not knowing what she meant, not knowing what she meant. She said, "Could you go around telling your story?" I said, "All I wanted to do was come here and do something, answer the telephones, to hear somebody else say, "I'd like to talk to a mother, or something like that." I said, "I can't answer you." I'm looking at Hayden and Hayden's looking at me, so when we were on the way out Hayden said, "Mildred, do you know what that means?" I said, "But I didn't come to do that." My son-in-law was with me too. We took some 24:00leaflets home, to look over and everything, and then I told my family and they said--The family that stood with me, that were part of my family that were afraid, wouldn't come anywhere, they said, "Ma, I don't know. We don't know." Everybody was, like, undecided, didn't know how to handle it. Well, I went back--Hayden was with me--and I start talking my story in March of 1988. I've been talking ever since. This was the beginning of Mildred Pearson being out there. You can't put it into words, where you have come from. You can't--I look back, and I look at Brucie's picture on the wall (We got a big picture on the wall.), and I say, "Hey, Bruce, because of you, you know, I'm out here!? Your 25:00mama is out here!" And I have the feeling sometimes that he's over my shoulder saying, "Go ahead, Ma, go ahead." I have started speaking in health care centers here in Brooklyn, in colleges. You know, I had never been a person who liked to speak, even in--not in this church--the other church that I belonged to, when they would say, "Sister Pearson, would you get up and say--?" "No, no, no I don't want to talk, I don't want to talk." But, as I told you, I'm a strong believer, and I know that God is in my life and he--I went to him after Brucie's death, in my little secret way, and I said, "What should I do? Tell me what to 26:00do?" And this was my formulation. I know he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he shows me which way to go, and this is where I get my strength. I couldn't have made this without God. I didn't have no organization where to go, no support group. We did it ourselves. I know that mother's love is God given, because I remember in the bathroom, I was sitting there, like meditating (this comes later, but). It was just like the words "mother's love" came right down on me, and this is where our name for our organization--Well, by going out here and there, speaking, I saw that mothers were--In the audience I would see people crying, and I would say to myself, "It must be touching them in some kind of 27:00way." Then, Hayden had told me about Fran Herman in Manhattan, the mother's group from the Living Room. I said, "You know, I would like to go and I would like to see what it's all about." When I went, I was the only Afro-American woman there, because this is a group--At that time it was middle-class, White women. We could talk the same language and we got along beautiful. I went for eight weeks, every Tuesday, but I saw that something was missing. Why weren't there any other Afro-American women there? I saw the need; that I could take my message into the underserved neighborhoods to reach my people, because I knew that if I was Black and had a gay son, there are other people out there, but 28:00nobody was talking about it. Here, in the group, everybody was talking freely--"Do you understand about my beautiful son?" and this and that. At that time you rarely heard of a woman having it; everything was, "My son, my son." So, I went to Elaine Greeley, who is executive director of the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force, and I said to her, "I would like to start a group here." To this day, she says she never remembers telling me to go ahead, but she did say, "Seek and ye shall find." To me, that was my go ahead, and on November 3, 1988, I had the first open meeting of "Mother's Love." One person came, one person came and she cried. Of course, I had no training, but I could relate from my experiences. 29:00This is where we started, and we would have it every Thursday. Another mother might come, sometimes nobody came, but I was there waiting, for that hour, for somebody to come to talk. In the meantime, I was still going here and there, talking for the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force. I felt, still, I wasn't reaching who I wanted to reach. September 30, 1989 was my last day at the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force. I told them I wanted to go out on my own. The very words from them were, "You're not going to make it." God is my secret judge. "You're not going to make 30:00it, Mildred." I did a presentation at the Fund for the City that particular day. It was a roundtable, and I was one of the presenters. As I was coming out, I met this White, Jewish girl. She said, "Oh that was some talk that you talked!" I said, "My feelings were in it. Today's my last day at the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force, and I have no direction. I don't know where I'm going, but I know that I can't stop talking. I have to serve people in need." This coming September, Karen and I are together. She has been the friend that God sent me that day, and 31:00we are still connected--friendship, everything together. She does her research work for Mother's Love, and every morning it's back and forth, "Where are you going?" Now she's beginning to expand a little bit, doing--stretching out--doing work for the Red Cross, like I am, also, but this meeting was so crucial, and it has kept me going. I didn't have any place to give my Mother's Love group. My husband said, "Put the number out there. They can come to our home." Then, there's another group called People of Color in Crisis. John Michael Harrington said to me, "Mom, you can have it in my place." He had a little office on South Portland, and I would go there. The former reverend here, who stuck by me, he 32:00walked this whole walk of AIDS with me, with my son. Reverend Walter Parrish, a young man. When I couldn't get to church--he would bring--he and a missionary would come, and we would have it in my living room. Today, he is the chairman of the Mother's Love support network. Everybody, who started and had a little piece here and there are still with me. We are helping people, we are teaching people. When our story first came out in the Times, my other children, they hollered, they screamed, "What are you tellin' all our business in the street for?" this and that. I said, "I must tell mothers, 'Don't walk away. Stay there. They're the same loving people. They maybe can't talk, they maybe can't function, but 33:00this is somebody you brought into the world.'" Because, I used to go to the hospitals and I would see vital young people laying on their bed of affliction without nobody, Robert. Just going to the bed and saying, "Hi, I care about you," a little flicker of a smile on their lips, to let them know that somebody cared. That could bring back a little respectable life for them, because I've seen it. I've seen mothers, sons and daughters give up because nobody cared, and this is what we're all about. I have mothers who came--Most of them come before or during the time that their loved one is sick. Now we're going into the women. You see, in New York, it was mostly gay, White men, but over here, you had the disadvantaged. You had the drug users, so we had our women who were drug users 34:00or women who had sexual--crazy love, or sex--and became infected. So, it was a new thing for me when one of the first mothers came in with her daughter--came in--and her daughter was sick. I fell in love with her daughter. I would go to the hospital and I knew she didn't like the food. I would stop at Burger King there, and bring her her chicken sandwich. It was such a relationship. We were there just about the time she closed her eyes. We showed the mother that we are a family. We are a family. We are an extended family that need one another. From the time you come through this door, you will have your family around you. Have you ever heard a mother say, "I can't do it. I know my child is sick, I can't, I 35:00can't!"? I tell them yes you can. We did it. Look around here. We have the mother of Franklyn Seales, the movie star who was in "Silver Spoons." His mother is part of our group. We're made up of over-the-hill-gang, you know? We maybe can't do like we used to, but we're still doing. We go all kinds of places. I've been in all kinds of conferences and all over the country--Sioux City, Iowa, a little place, Indianapolis--I have never been turned away from a church. The churches listen, because when I walk in and get on the podium, I tell them, "We're bringing you the inside story, the story about mothers who are watching their children die." Making it comfortable for them. Letting them know that, "We're still with you. Where others turn their back, we're here." This is the 36:00humanistic part of this disease, and this is what we walk with today. The humanistic side that nobody listens to. They don't know. People get tired of reading something, people get tired of the same thing about funding and this and that. Let's talk like it is. And this is what Mother's Love is all about. We tell it like it is. When one mother gets strong enough that she can go on the podium and talk about it, they're able to go. Some of my mothers have spoken in Harlem Week of Prayer, a tribute. I have a Hispanic mother who came in--David, her son, died in September, and the last words he said to her, just about, were, "Mama, go help." And she does. She talks in classrooms and high schools where we 37:00go. She talks about how she felt the last heartbeat of her son, and this is what people need to hear. They're tired of the traditional everywhere--"Take this booklet home and read it." They've got to hear more, and this is the thing in the '90s. We know it. We have gotten so bold that when we go around, we tell them what our life has been: A mask around your mouth and rubber gloves on your hands. We let them know that these are our loved ones, and we won't turn around. There's no abandonment when you love somebody. He rests.

SEMBER: To talk about Bruce's gayness.

PEARSON: I believe I was one of the first black women in the struggle to talk about that my son was gay. I would make these three little words work: He didn't 38:00leave me any babies, he didn't leave me any money, but he left me his strength, and his strength I carry on. He had nothing hanging on him saying he was gay, but what made him happy made me happy. He had pride, a pride that he carried, and he carried it so well. I was never ashamed of him. In the Afro-American culture, you're either a sissy or a faggot, and it comes out so blunt. It comes out that it hurts. But Bruce was my son and I loved him, and we had such a 39:00relationship. If he saw me going to church with a new hat he would say--The girls on the job used to call me and say, "Ms. P., Brucie said you had a new hat on and he said, 'My Mom looked great.'" It was the little things. It was the time he would take, for not just me; his baby sister, he wanted her to have it all. He's the one who went to Tiffany's and bought her a little half-heart. That's how he felt. He got it all back during his sickness. When he showed this love--You don't get it back right away, but he got it back during his sickness, because this young sister, Rudine, would say, coming from work, "Hey, Bruce, you're kinda strong here, what's goin' on?" During his sickness. He'd say, "Ah, leave me alone." She'd say, "Head for the bathroom," and they'd be joking in the 40:00bathroom, but she was cleaning him up. He gave it, and he got it back. So, what's the difference? He was gay. You have to take this homophobic mind that is so prevalent, and put it on the side. Because when they're on their bed of affliction, who has time to say, "They have this, they have that?" You're going to roll your sleeves up, you're going to get down there and help. We did, and we're better people.

SEMBER: What was his life like before AIDS?

PEARSON: Productive. Productive. Very productive, because he would have friends and they would go places. He would take vacations. He would go to the Penn Relays, he would do this; always doing something, more than any of my other children. In his short thirty-one years, he enjoyed life to the fullest, do you 41:00understand me? That's right. And let me tell you something: He was in a very nice group of young men. They did things together. They had good jobs, and today, as I talk to you, mostly all of them are dead. It's real, Robert. There's one who called me and he said, "I feel so old, Ms. Pearson." When he found out I had the group (someone had told him), he said, "I feel so old. I don't have any friends anymore, they're all gone." This is something I can tell you that I know, because I've been to funerals, I've been to--and there's something; what a class. He's the kind of boy who would say to me, "Ma, you know, such and such 42:00lives down South, they can't get home for the holidays. Can they come and have dinner with us?" I would say, "Sure, open the door." My table always was ready for them. Whether--My husband was there for Bruce, and that was not his biological father, but he was there. Whether he thought anything about gayness or anything, he kept his mouth until we were at a seminar up in Connecticut, and he was asked for the first time, "We'd like your comment." He said, "I loved him. I may not have loved his lifestyle, but I loved him." That's important.

SEMBER: What was Bruce going to do with his life?

PEARSON: Let me see. He always was striving for better. Every time I turned 43:00around he had a resume. He was going to--"I'm going to put a resume in for this," or for that. "Oh, Bru, you know." "No, five years is enough. I'm going to move on." That's it. I threw out so many resumes and everything, believe me.

SEMBER: What were you like before AIDS? Who was Mildred Pearson before all that?

PEARSON: Oh, won't you stop? Don't, oh, don't even try me; a mother who was taking care of my daughter, who had a bad marriage. She had to work, she had her own apartment, so I was rearing her two children; Jarrod, and his sister who's sixteen, Bring 'em home. And this is what I thought it was gonna be. "When the kids get big, they'll go home to their mother," and this and that. But, why 44:00don't you ask me, "What would I be doing if I didn't have Mother's Love?" What, wasting away? I have nothing to do, all my kids are grown. You saw Jarrod; they're on their own, just about, but they're at our home. What would I be doing? All right, I'm a deaconess here in the church. Yes, that would be part of my life, too, but--What? I was never one to sit on the bench in my project there, to get into "I say, he says" stuff. God gave me something to do. That's it. And this is my priority. [laughter] That's it. This is my priority. We're incorporated. We're waiting for our 501c3. The church is our fiscal conduit. We have our own people we network with. I've learned so much. I'm only a high 45:00school graduate, but I can sit up and stand up with professors. I should have brought my book. I have social workers who call for advice from us. PhDs, doctors who send us people. They say we're unique because we talk about it. The grieving period for our mothers is talking. We haven't had a death within--since, let me see, a year ago. We haven't had a death within us. The mothers come every Wednesday. We still do the same format we started out with; someone will bring a container of juice, someone will bake a cake, this family united together. Now we have a little carfare, where we can take the mothers and 46:00go different places. We went up to the botanic gardens there, in the Bronx. Two of the mothers spoke. I can sit back a little now, because I'm training my mothers. You're teaching and you're training. We don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves. Last--two days before Christmas we went over to Woodhull Hospital. We distributed sweat socks for the patients, because their legs are cold, their feet are cold, and we went through the rounds. The mother--The Spanish woman, she could dialogue with the Hispanics, talk to them. She was a little better than me. She was even able to put the mask on and everything and go into the TB room, where the patients had TB, but I started gagging when I put the mask on to go in there. I couldn't. I just couldn't. I've been out here a 47:00long time, you know, and I said, "I'm not chicken, but I just couldn't go into the --" [Interview interrupted.] And her daughter; she's HIV, but she's shown signs of breaking down a little bit, and I'll be right there for her. She came in, and when she came in in December, she said, "I've just learned that my daughter has the HIV. I want to learn." And, you know, we had the pamphlets over there that we give them, and she started coming every Wednesday. If one is missing, we're going to call and find out why. We've had a little downfall with the mothers, like me, coming down with this case of arthritis. Another mother, a month and a half ago, had open heart surgery. But, we've been doing so much. 48:00We're one of the first groups that was able to go into a Muslim mosque. And this mother who had the heart operation? Her son was a Muslim, and his wife put him out. He came home to mama. She used to help him get on his prayer rug and say his prayers. You know, they say so many prayers a day. And she was able to--and she could stand up and tell about that. She could stand up and tell about when he came she had to get another set of pots because he wouldn't eat out of her pots. So, these are the inside things, again, what I'm telling you, Robert, that go on. Do you hear these things every day? No. So, this is why Mother's Love is able to walk around and tell it. We tell it with a pride. We've been into a Haitian community. We were invited into a school where the adults take GED 49:00courses. They were Haitian people, and we were able to relate to them. We were invited back to a party. All these kind of things; Rutgers University, I'm just talking about little, different things. You've heard about this group called Mother's Voices?. Well, they invited us to do a telecast with them, out in Rockville Centre. We did the videotaping, different things we've learned together. I was the only Black American person besides Mayor Dinkins' wife at the big luncheon that Mother's Voices gave. Hey, these things don't bother me because, you know what? We're all under one banner, the Big A, and we're fighting for our loved ones. And it's a fight too.

SEMBER: Did you and Bruce ever talk about how he became infected?

PEARSON: Never. We didn't know. It fell in our lap. Some people ask him, "What 50:00did you do, how did you--?" He just gave up in front of us. His dear friend, today, tells me that he wanted to. He tried so many times, but he didn't want to hurt me. He tried and then he would tell his friend Norman, "You tell her." He said, "No, that's your mother. You tell her." He tried, but he just couldn't. The love and the bond was so--

SEMBER: Because he knew, when he said, "I've been here before."

PEARSON: That's it. It told me, it told me, but in a million years--His life was--He didn't keep his life in the home. He lived home, but he was getting ready, because--To this day, I'm using a set of dishes that he had bought to start getting his things together. And I remember the heartache when he was 51:00going through his sickness, and his memory had come back, he had a beautiful set of knives, and he had said to me, "I want you to have them." I said, "You better save them for when you go back, you know, for your house." He said, "You take them, Ma." So, these are the things that let me know that he knew, but just couldn't come out, couldn't come out. And I don't think I could have handled it any other way than it did. Looking back now, seeing some of the hurt some of the mothers have, some mothers are learning that their children are sick. I had one mother (but she no longer comes with us), she came from the West Indian Islands. Her son was a schoolteacher. When she came (he paid for her to come), he was so sick. She didn't know what it was. Then, when she came to the apartment; first of all, she didn't know her son was gay, and when she came to the apartment he 52:00was so sick, and there he had his lover living with him. She said she was just crazy, every time she would see them embrace. She said she didn't know what this was, you know? It did her rough, too, because she had to go for psychiatry treatments, because it all banged down on her at one time. But, I've heard several times that people say they didn't know, and I think that's harder.

SEMBER: When you were told he had ARC, and it was confirmed that he had this AIDS virus--

PEARSON: I didn't hear anything more after that. I never heard "full blown AIDS," or anything like that. I only heard ARC.

SEMBER: And how did you feel when you heard that?

PEARSON: I didn't know what it was. [laughter] I didn't know what it was, Robert! But I knew it was associated with the sickness. I don't know. I went 53:00through it like a trooper. Like, "I'm going to take care of him. I don't care what anybody says." Or this or that. I didn't go to anybody, asking them what to do. Bruce was my child, and I didn't intend for anybody to come and tell me anything. I didn't let his home healthcare workers, different ones who came, cook his food. I did it. I didn't let them wash his clothes, and they all offered. We have a machine and dryer, right in our apartment. I wanted it. All he would have to tell me was, "Oh, Ma, I want some of this." Even like one time, I remember she made him egg salad and she put onion in it. He was, [whispering], "Ma, no more. You, you, you." That's what he would tell me, you know what I mean? Different things. I wanted to make him so comfortable. I worked myself to the bone to make sure. Of course, I would pour--Anything that had grease on it, 54:00I would soak the grease out of it, anything like that, because I didn't want grease in his stomach. Things like that.

SEMBER: You mentioned that you turned to GMHC, and that you also knew of the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force. How did you come to know of those organizations?

PEARSON: Well, let me see. Well, GMAC had always done--No, it was through inquiry on the telephone. I had asked, you know. I saw numbers on papers, on pamphlets.

SEMBER: You knew Bruce was ill, that it was related to AIDS.

PEARSON: Oh, this was after he came out of the hospital.

SEMBER: So, you, then, began to turn to organizations, or look for places you could find help and information.

PEARSON: With understanding. I said, "Look, my son is sick. They say he has 55:00ARC." I was using the word fluently. It still didn't have the depth of the meaning. Maybe I didn't want to know. See, there's a difference now. Because, you see, when your son or daughter is on their bed of affliction, what word did you say? Hope? I could see him at his worst, and I would look right up here, at the top of my head, I had that word. "He's not going to die. I don't care what they say. He's not going to die." Since my first, initial feeling of that, I've seen so many mothers go through the same thing. It's that hope. And you know what? I don't let a mother come in here and start talking about any kind of extraordinary treatment they've heard of or anything, because I will not let them bring false hope into Mother's Love group, because I know the pain and 56:00suffering that we go through, that I went through. Remember when Cameron--They had this thing about Cameroon from Africa? I did a lot of research, from CRI. I would call them, I would call this one and this one and everything, and I seen--We're poor people, Black and Latino--I seen a mother in my group scuffle, trying to get money, and her daughter was in such a physical condition that she couldn't get halfway to Kennedy, you understand me? The desire: "I gotta get her there!" From that, that taught me a lesson: Nobody can come into Mother's Love and talk about anything. If you talk about it, talk it to me, then I will research it. I have enough connections out there. "What do you think about so and so and so and so?" And this is the way we operate. That's right. Because I 57:00saw that she was a working woman, and she was willing to take everything and borrow money--"I've got to save her!" This is the same mother, today, who is raising her grandchild. And she says to me, "How you all helped me to see the light." She's one of the big spokesmen today, in here, about, "Don't bring in nothin' you don't know nothin' about." That's right. Because we've seen the heartache, and we can't let it go. That's why we're confidential. We sometimes stretch the rules a little bit, and let them--Somebody wants to come in and tell us about this and tell us about that. We don't close those avenues, you understand me? But, if you don't know anything about it, don't bring it in, because there's too much pain. It's not pain just for the mother; we feel each 58:00other's pain, and we won't allow it, never again. I was in a meeting several months back, and this person was a visionary. Have you heard of a visionary? She was an older woman, and she was trying to get some of the active AIDS groups together. So, she had a select group of people, and this woman came and said she was writing a book on this friend of hers who was a long-liver with AIDS, and she knows what it is. I got highly insulted. I stood up and I said, "You know, I think you're wrong. I'll debate you now, on this. I think you're wrong because this or that. And you know, I don't allow anybody to bring false hope in to my mothers. Because all we had to hold onto was hope; that maybe the next morning, 59:00when we wake up, there will be a cure that would liven everybody up! It wouldn't do Bruce any good, but somebody here in my group, or somebody on that side would say, "Oh, God, I have it, and we're going to live a little longer." You know, when AZT first came out, Dr. Elionde signed Bruce up for it, and he said to me, "Ma, I don't want to take it. Please don't let me take it." Elionde said to him, "Bruce, why don't you try it?" "Please Ma, don't give it to me." So, that told me that my child had been going through some things, unknown to me, and probably he was tired. He didn't want it, and I went along with his wishes. That's right. Who knows? The only thing I asked Dr. Montana, who was his doctor, to tell me, I 60:00begged him, and he said, "Patient's confidentiality," and he couldn't give me anything. That's right. And he's still operating, Dr. Montana. And Dr. Sonneband, from [unintelligible]--now, he was one of Bruce's first doctors. I want to tell you the main thing. I thought when you're gay you have your doctors, your own special doctors. I never asked questions. I used to hear the name Dr. Sonneband all the time. Bruce was very well associated with him. Then, I remember him saying to me, "Well, Dr. Sonneband is leaving, and Dr. Montana is taking his practice." So, I talked to Montana over the phone a few times, before Bruce's SSI had come in. Dr. Montana used to send him his medicine and 61:00he'd say, "Well, he'll pay me. He'll pay me." That's how I got to know him. But, when the PWA Coalition opened up where they're at now (They had a big grand opening.), I was at that opening and somebody mentioned Dr. Sonneband's name. I said, "I have to meet that doctor. I have to meet him." And I was introduced to him, and I said, "I'm Bruce's mother, Bruce William's mother, and I'd like to talk to you." He said, "Okay. This is where you'll find me, anytime." We were real cordial. I came home and I was sitting down talking to my husband, and I said, "I've met Dr. Sonneband." He said, "You met him, what are you going to 62:00do?" "I've got questions to ask." "Why do you want to open up a can of worms? Leave it alone." I never went back. I never went back. Because he maybe could tell me terrible suffering that he kept inside of him. I don't want to know. I have that peace, knowing that he's resting. Did you know, Robert, that my story does not end there? You know I have buried three sons in five years? That will come toward the end. I'll tell you a little. I'm not able to tell it all because there are children involved, and I wouldn't do anything to hurt my grandchildren, but we buried the last one in 1991. That's why I say I have to 63:00hold onto God. He's my force of life.

SEMBER: Mildred, you've been speaking so much now about the doctors and the things you didn't know. In the times that Bruce was in the hospital, and that you were going--

PEARSON: --back and forth to clinics.

SEMBER: Yes. And they were telling you that he'd have a nervous breakdown, all of that confusion. How, generally, would you characterize the experience with the healthcare system, and with other things, like insurance? What do you feel about the care that the system was able to give you?


PEARSON: I can't kick it. I really cannot kick it, because when I told them, at Cabrini, that I did not want him to go to Roosevelt Island, I'd take him, they quickly hooked us up to the home healthcare unit. He had a Medicaid card, because all his money he had saved he had been spending, unbeknownst to us, for medical things, you know. Cabrini hooked us up into--He became a hospice patient, and that's why it was so much easier to get into this home healthcare plan. If I ran out of adult diapers, I had two young people who would go direct to the hospital to get them. I had everything at my fingertips; the hospital bed and everything was brought in before Brucie came home. Everything was there. I 65:00had once-a-week nursing come to take his vital signs. I can say about the home healthcare people; some of them weren't the best, and if I wasn't satisfied with them, I would call in and tell them to send me someone different. I had one lady who came to my home, I opened the door, and she had long, Playtex gloves, to come to work in my house, for eight hours. She sat around, she'd bring her own little bag, and I could--I said, "You don't have to be afraid of anything here." "No, that's all right." She kept her little bag of food that she brought in for herself, but she only lasted two days because the second day when she came in, I saw a look, an unusual look on Brucie's face. I took it as a mother, saying, 66:00"She has to work to take care of her children." But, I saw the hurt, so when she left that day I called the agency and said, "Send me back somebody else." I couldn't take it. How could she function all day long, with the long Playtex gloves, to make beds, to do this, to do that? And then, the sight of her sitting, looking at TV, with us, sitting with the gloves, it was gruesome. It was terrible. The care I got in the clinics was beautiful. I have no squawk. I had no squawk. Even times when we would go to the clinic and he would wet on himself, I always had my diapers there and we'd go in the women's bathroom and I would say, "You can't come in here now," and I would change him, to make him feel relaxed. That's it, nothing. The ambulette was always there, if you went 67:00under their rulings to call them at such and such a time. The hospital, as I told you--and I tell people from today on--you have to be there for your loved one. This is like anything else: If people see that you have interest, they're going to take interest. I hear some horrible stories now. I had a mother come in here and she told me about her son who was in Bellevue Hospital. She told us some stories that--We wanted to proceed, to go further, but she didn't come back because she would have to travel from the city here. But, we said, "Where was the ombudsman on the floor, who was supposed to take care of all kinds of, you know, listening to?" That has to be improved, the ombudsmen in some of the 68:00hospitals. Because the stories I hear shouldn't be, if they have one on the floor; the troubleshooter. There should be a troubleshooter on every floor of AIDS patients, that if the mother wasn't satisfied she wouldn't get snapped at. Of course, maybe sometimes we are pests, you understand me? But we're losing our child, and we know nothing else. We want the comfort, we want you to have a little compassion, and every hospital that has--But I, I'm able to--From mothers going from this hospital and coming back and talking about it in the meetings and reporting it, I'm able to say to anybody, "Do you know a good hospital?" I'm able to say such and such, because such and such said this, you understand? The treatment was there. Now, they have a hospital here in Brooklyn (I don't know if I'm supposed to name names. I can?), Long Island College Hospital is tremendous. I give it high praise, because different ones of my mothers were there and the 69:00treatment; beautiful, that AIDS ward. Those AIDS people are together. You may have heard it too. You couldn't ask for any better. And they've got a couple of doctors there. They don't know me, (they've heard of me) but I recommend people to them. Same thing in St. Vincent's; there's a couple of doctors over there I recommend from previous use. That's right. Our resource goes high, and it's important.

SEMBER: It's really important.

PEARSON: They're like my sisters, you know? "Well, my loved one doesn't want to go to the clinic," so they cancel it. "Well, what hospital do you think you do want to go to?" "St. Vincent's." "Look up Dr. So and So." Then, when they say that, "Oh, I'm so glad you told me. He's a doll, he's just--" That, for instance, a legal problem; we have Brooklyn Legal here, but I don't know anybody 70:00there in person. Write GMAC. See, me and Tim Sweeney, we love each other. Anywhere we be, we just hug and embrace, because we take time with each other. He has time to hear me for a half a second, or I have time. Same thing with the relationship up at "Body Positive," but Michael is no longer there, Michael Slocum. But, it's still an open dialogue, all over the city. I've made it that way.

SEMBER: What about insurance? What about payment?

PEARSON: Well, we had one case, kind of sad--The mother didn't have anything, and this was another one of the mothers who'd come from West 155th Street every Wednesday, here, rain, snow--that when her son was sick in St. Vincent's, he was in the psychiatric ward, we bundled up and went over there and sat with him, 71:00right in the-- They locked the door and we were in there, because if she took time to come to us and needed us in her dire moments, we needed to be there for her. When she called me--This was the youngest member of our group, a mother's son, in the group, that died. He was twenty-four. She called me, she said, "Mother, he's gone and I don't know what to do." I said, "Well, you have to come to Brooklyn, to 350 Livingston Street, where they have the burial fund. You know they're not going to give you enough money for a decent burial, but it will give you workable money. Each person receives, if they have a Medicaid card, $900, and that's like to start, either for cremation or things like that. But, these 72:00are things we talk about within our group, especially now, more than ever. "What are your plans when up the road a piece?" That's how we say it. "Up the road a piece, how are you going to carry out the things? Because you know, darling, there's no cure. AZT prolongs, makes it a little easier, but you know up the road a piece it gets kind of rough. Have you got your plans made?" Some will say, "No, I'm going to." Don't wait so long. Get it together, because that's what was so easy for me. The night Brucie died, after I talked back to Cabrini, the nurse said to me (I think her name was Sister Elizabeth), "Now, you know Brucie was sick. Now, I know you've had enough time to get your things in 73:00order." I said, "They are, darling, you don't have to worry about that." She said, "Well, go call your funeral director and whatever you're going to make. We do not send our patients from the hospice to any morgue. He died in the room on his pillow, and this is where your funeral director will come to pick him up." I started screaming and praising God that I didn't have to go to a morgue to look, to identify. The room I last saw him in in that hospital, Room 680, is the room our director went and picked him up. I called this other friend of Brucie's after and I said, "Norman, Brucie has gone. Now, what are my plans? What should I do?" He said, "Let me call somebody, Mother. Now, this is a little expensive, but I know it's taken care of." I said, "You'd better believe it." At 5:30 that 74:00morning (he died at ten of 2:00), at 5:30 that morning, of October 22nd, 1987, Bruce was on the premises, in the funeral director's site, because when he stopped working, and he couldn't take care of insurance, we took care of it. See, I'm a person who believes in insurance. When my children get ready to leave the house, I tell them, "We carried you, now you've got to carry your own." And that's very important. Sickness comes. Then we have to do again. That's right.

SEMBER: Did you and Bruce ever talk about death?

PEARSON: Oh, when he got his first job I know I told him, "Get your insurance, honey. Now you're a workin' man, get it." And he kept it. That's right. He kept it. It wasn't a whole lot, but he was able to take care of business, you 75:00understand? And this is what we strive to talk about. These are some of the things we talk about at Mother's Love, important things. Sometimes we let our hair go down and get real girly, you know, but these are important things. So, this woman who didn't have it, she got her $900. She wanted just to see him in a coffin, right? So, there are certain procedures that you can go through with the funeral director. She like leased it to have a little service; the next day he was cremated. But she just wanted--And we came from Brooklyn, all the way up there to be with her, and stood with her. One of our mothers had a memorial service this year, a year memorial, a real service, like we went through the whole funeral, but it was like a service. We were all there, we partook in it. This is what you do in a family, isn't that right, Robert? And this is what we do.


SEMBER: Did you and Bruce plan for his death? Did you--?

PEARSON: Huh uh.


PEARSON: No. Because, you see, because of that "on the brain" thing, we couldn't. But, he would come out with cute little things once in a while. "Ma," and this was one of the hard things for me to do. He would say to me, "Ma, I'm all right, right?" And I would say, "Sure." "Ma, I don't have none of that stuff that's goin' on out there." "No. Like what?" "You know, AIDS, and stuff like that," when he was in his talkable--I said, "No, honey, do you look like you got AIDS?" Then, as the months went past, he would say to me, "I'm not dead, am I?" I would say, "No, why you ask me that?" "No, I just want to know." I think he 77:00was starting to feel death, but he didn't know how to come out and say it, you know? It was just like you take a child, learning. That's what he was going through. Then, all of a sudden, he would answer something just like that, so vivid and so real, but most of the time it was in and out, in and out.

SEMBER: What was his funeral like?

PEARSON: Together. It was together because Mama made it together. We had friends, and he had a day funeral. Even the wake, that was at the funeral parlor. I didn't know he had so many friends. He was a people person. Oh, that was packed and jammed; a funeral service right here in the church. It was beautiful. We had three ministers. One of the ministers who used to come, a 78:00little southern boy, who used to come every two weeks from Cabrini; his name was Randy. Then we had Reverend Parrish, from this church, and then we had a friend who grew up to be a minister. He came, and all three of them spoke so nice. I became the pillar of force, the force. I know, if I had broke, the family would have broken, and I stood tall, but tall. I covered him up in the coffin, and I had asked permission. I said, "Let me do this, the last thing for him." "Oh, you can't do it." 5:30 that morning, I was sitting on the side of the tub in the bathroom and I was talking to Jesus. I said, "You're going to let me do this, right?" He sure did. Yes, sir, and I thanked him after I did it. Something, huh?


SEMBER: I would like us to talk a little bit about Brooklyn. You've mentioned a couple of times that--You make a distinction between Manhattan and Brooklyn, between the middle class [unintelligible].

PEARSON: Well, first of all, let me explain to you--When they say "cultural sensitivity," by being born in Brooklyn, I didn't know what it was all about. I kept on hearing this name. What are they talking about? Then, I got the true grit feeling of it. I just made sixty-one years old the other day. If I grew up under it, I knew nothing about it, because we played with one another, you were 80:00in one another's--See, I was born at 290 Pacific Street, between Hoyt and Smith. That's where I was born, and we moved up further to Third Avenue and St. Mark's Place. So, it was unity. We could sit on the stoop or the next stoop and there was never no "black," there was never no "nigger," there was never no this or that. If an outsider came, maybe, say, came from the South, then you would hear, "Don't be with whitey. Why you play with whitey?" and this and that. I would come home--I had a grandmother who was in the home with us--I would come back and say, "Grandma," or, "Mama, you know what such and such said?" And they'd say, "Pay that no mind, you understand?" I raised my children under the same 81:00[unintelligible]. You could come, sit at my house, table, right now, and it wouldn't be anything new. My insurance man, whom we've had for years, "Are you cooking pork chops?" (This was years ago; I don't bother with that stuff now.) "Oh, white potatoes. Can I have some?" That. This is the breed of New York person that you're dealing with. I know no other way, you understand me? But, there are others who are militant, and I don't know how to deal with it. I won't let my mothers deal with it, because we have a mixed group here. We have one White girl, we have Spanish, we have Black, and it's continuous with this. Now, with my Spanish girls, when there's anything doing in the Latino area, I try to 82:00expose them to that, because we're friends with one another. We support one another. The Latino Commission had something over at St. Vincent's. I brought another mother with me, so she can see her culture. If this is what everybody is so culture-bound today, it's nothing to me. It has no meaning to me, because I walk anywhere, and I'm welcomed anywhere. It's how I raised my children, and my Bruce was an example of all my teachings. He graduated from John Dewey High School out there in Canarsie, and he made friends with all. It was a little after his death that a young woman called me and said that she was a John Dewey alumni, and she wanted to invite Bruce to a reunion. I made a pause. She said, 83:00"You can't get in touch with Bruce?" I said, "Darlin', Brucie passed away." She burst out crying, and she said, "Oh, what a wonderful person he was." Everywhere--You know, it's something I was taught in my family. Most of my family are New York-born people, and--I don't know if I can say it on the tape. I won't say it on the tape--You are "of," but you don't have to go "into it," to make yourself to better the next person, you understand me? Better yourself, and the only betterment you can get is treating the fellow man right. That's it. Bruce used to go to Fire Island and have good times out there. That bunch, so many of them are gone. It's sad. He was the type of person that--He had a friend 84:00who lived on the East Side. His mother died, and he would say to me, "Ma, I want you to do me a favor." "What Bru?" "Make a turkey, so I can take it to the wake." That's the type of person he was. "Ma, such and such. Would you do that for me? I'll buy it, and you'll cook it for me." Not just for a death or anything, it was being "part of." He was a very likable person. You know, his co-workers still call me on the phone and talk, and it's been five years. That's right. He was an extraordinary person, not just because he was my son. He had class, and he died with dignity, too. As I say on one of my tapes. He died with dignity. He was never comatose or anything. You know, the Woman's Foundation 85:00gave us, Mother's Love, a little grant not too long ago, and they asked me to get up and speak. I told them how we mothers are hurting. We're hurting, we're crying out, we're healing one another by touching, hugging, loving, just being there for one another and we are walking with dignity. That's right. And that's real.

SEMBER: Mildred, do you think there is a way in which, in the communities in Brooklyn, there are different things that have to be faced from--

PEARSON: Oh, my--Do you know, when I started out on my own I hooked up with Manhattan, because there was nothing here in Brooklyn for me besides the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force. Of course there's so much work to be done. I belong 86:00to--This is one in Spanish--The Working Women with AIDS. We have it in English and Spanish. I'm one of the founding members of this, because I had nothing to reach for in Brooklyn. Where do we start? Brooklyn AIDS Task Force is not the only thing here in Brooklyn. We must build up Brooklyn. Our borough president, Golden, this last year I called the office and Mary Canada, I spoke to her. I said, "You know, my mothers, besides their hearts hurting, they could use a turkey." She clicked in, and she got several turkeys for my mothers. Because 87:00we're here for them, anytime they need us. Borough president Golden was able to give an award, in 1990, to Mother's Love, so we could get our equipment and things like that. We're here, but we're independent. We don't hook up with the Department of Health, or the AIDS Institute. We're independent, and that's the best way because nobody's yanking at you. How can you yank at a bunch of crying mothers who are losing their children or have lost their children? How can you tell them, "I want you to say this?" They can't tell you what to do, because we get up and tell you, in Brooklyn. We know.

SEMBER: How would you characterize the needs in Brooklyn?


PEARSON: "Go tell it on the mountain!" That's just a little slip. We need more of the truth. The truth is the only thing that's going to be effective. We need more of committed people, who take their job more than just a 9:00 to 5:00. Not that I'm saying to get under the skin of the people, but there are people who care, not just for the paycheck. I'm talking to you now that in so many instances I see, you understand? I send John Michael Harrington, who now works with the Brooklyn AIDS--I send him mothers' sons who call. I say, "Be nice to him, do this, because his mother is one of my mothers." You understand me? So we 89:00do it like that. That's it, but we have to have--I think there should sometimes be executive directors just getting together and saying, "What can we do to better Brooklyn?" A big borough like this--And you know it, you've heard. What you're doing, the Historical Society, may be the focus that we need. Somebody had to do it. Not sit down and say, "My organization does this, my organization does that." There's a common cause, not just mothers hurting, there are fathers hurting, there's sisters and brothers hurting, and we all can fight together.

SEMBER: Mildred, at first, in the early days of AIDS, it was the gay White male 90:00disease. How did you first hear about it, and how has your understanding of what AIDS is changed over the years, through your experience?

PEARSON: Well, at first, hearing about it was like anybody else. There's something going around, and it's only affecting gay White boys. You never have another thought until it hits home, 'til it hits home. And like I told you, I was in the middle, with these mothers from the mother's group over there. I want to tell you something I heard one say; I tell this different times. "I just paid $75,000 for underground drugs for my son." She could pay for the nursing care, 91:00day in and day out. I'm a poor Black woman. What her nurse did to keep her son, my hands did. So that's why I knew I was not in the right place. They can talk about monies; some of them can talk about staying in the hotel co-op, in a room for--with theirs. I couldn't talk about that. But let's get down to brass tacks, like it all is. She didn't have to wipe her son's behind, I wiped mine. She cremated her son, but I buried mine. I can go back to that ground out there and 92:00stand by, whether--I don't, because I'm satisfied he's sleeping. But some of them say, "I wish--I shouldn't have cremated him. I have nowhere to go, to see where his ashes are." Some of them take them to California and let it blow in the wind. Compare, but it comes down to the same thing: The behind has got to be wiped, because that is what this devastating disease has done to us--wiping our children's behinds, burying our children. You know what the old statistic was: They buried us. Did you know this same Bruce was the same one I could sit down and talk with, and I'd say, "Bru, when I pass away, I want you to put me in my aquamarine dress," and he'd say, "Don't you worry, nobody's going to come breaking into this house and giving orders, because I'll tell all of them my 93:00mother talked it over with me." We had to do it that way, because there were two marriages. My husband was married before, and I was married before. So, instead of any bickering and backering, he had the plans, from me. But, in turn, we have to go and bury our children, but this is the hardest thing for us. One of the hardest thing for mothers, I don't care what color you are or anything, is to have to bury your child. That's it. There's got to be another way. There's got to be a cure, and we've got to stay on this battlefield and fight, and fight. Like I tell you, some of us have bad feet and bad legs, we're the over-the-hill gang, but we're out here fighting, and we intend to. There's nothing going to stop us. That's right. There's a conference coming up in September-October, and 94:00they asked me to say the closing prayer, which I did, at the one at the state this year, last October. It's given by the Living Will Commission (I don't know if you've heard of them) and, uh [Interview interrupted.] --Harlem Week of Prayer stands on the podium, and the ministers, the rabbis, the this-one and the that-one, "Oh, we want to understand, we don't want to have a homophobic mind." You know what I told them? (And I defied myself.) I told them, "Challenge them. When you go back to your destination, challenge these people who promised us. Go in with dignity, walk in with dignity, but see what they got to say."


SEMBER: That's "Larry Kramer" inside you there.

PEARSON: Yes. Yes, it was, in a beautiful way, right? Not all this Act Up, you say, and I love some of those people in Act Up and they love me too. Ma Pearson, you know, this and that. But, you have to. I was in a Black leadership (I do work with them too), I had to move back from them because they felt like they owned me. Nobody owns me but the man upstairs, and then this work, he gave it to me, so I know just where to go. That's right. You've got to know they felt like that, that they owned me, and I was anxious to get into the heart of--They have a group called the Ecumenical Council; big time pastors and this and that, but I wanted to let them know that, hey, you may say this today, but tomorrow you turn it around. But, you know, we're all God's children, and he's a forgiving God. 96:00He's a God who will let you know he's waiting at the door for you, all he wants you to do is step on in, and he'll straighten your life out. That's right. You've got to tell the truth. I've stood up with theologians; I have stood up with theologians from some of the seminaries up there. I was scared stiff, to go behind them when they talk about homophobia, I mean, homosexuals and this and that. I come right behind with my same old little story. I was the mother of a gay boy. He was my boy. I took care of him until he closed his eyes. But you know what? I didn't have time to worry about this or that. You don't have many Black women out here talking about that, and I am a Christian. Because, you know, before I was born again, God had to get me together, right? Everybody 97:00professes that they're born like this. No, darling. You have to go through this and that, and when you get there you're reborn again, right? Tell it like it is. That's right. What other questions?

SEMBER: What do you think is unique about AIDS in Brooklyn?

PEARSON: Oh, you've got to give me another word for unique. Give me another word.

SEMBER: Like something that is--Okay. Here's one. You spoke about how, in the beginning of Mother's Love, it was people who were talking a lot about their sons. Now people are also talking about daughters. You also mentioned that, in the beginning, there was a lot of talk about the gay sons, now there's a lot of talk about IV drug users, and these other--What about the children with AIDS, 98:00the homeless?

PEARSON: So much. Okay. I'm not going to hit too much on the children with AIDS, because I follow anything that pediatric AIDS is doing, we follow along with them, join up. When Carol de Paolo took a busload up to Washington, Mother's Love was right there on the bus. We're fighting the cause, okay? Now--What was that other one you asked about?

SEMBER: IV drug users, the homeless.

PEARSON: Well, we're getting down to brass tacks. You're getting right back to Mildred's family. In 1989, I buried my fourth son that I birthed, a thirty-seven year old man, a working man, sixteen years on a job, married and two children, from alcoholism. His wife put him out; he came home, he lived with us. In turn, 99:00I had to throw him out, because he was stealing and I couldn't have me helping you, and you stealing from me. So, he was an alcoholic. In three days, when he was hospitalized, in three days he went down. I used to say to him, "Bobby, you saw your brother Bruce fight for life. How can you throw yours away?" That's it. And this same alcoholic son of mine used to sneak upstairs to the floor Brucie was on at night and be there with him, and cry for him, until we had to throw him out. One time they caught him in bed with Bruce, just laying there by his brother. Alcohol, that's another destroyer. In January of 1991, a forty-year old 100:00son; a stepson to me but I raised him, twenty-three years on drugs, left a thirteen year old daughter and a wife. I cannot say the real thing with him, because I promised his wife, but you know what it led to. So, you see, I'm no stranger to hard times. I know about it, I stand on God's promises that he will--Anything that goes. That comes through, he'll bring us through. The homeless, they need a chance, in every way. They need a chance. I had a mother come here one night with two little grandchildren, her daughter was incarcerated, and she was homeless. She lived in a shelter. We made the children 101:00welcome, we gave them cookies and milk and things like that. But, they lacked discipline, and I'm a disciplinarian, I guess you know that by now. It was hard for us to see children climbing on tables and stuff, without being reprimanded. But, we told her the door was open. If she wanted to go, she could come back. Now, we have this little girl here, that's our girl, and this is her grandmother, who's raising her. She has become our girl because we will not let her become experimental for the system. She will not go to a psychiatrist, 102:00because we treat her with love. We all have become her aunts. In fact, when she comes back from vacation, she has a graduation present from her aunts, tender loving care. We had another one where the grandmother couldn't cope, because she was saying, "Here in my life, I have raised my children, and now I have a three-year-old in the bed with me." Reality, yes, this is what's happened. The next phase of AIDS, this is what's happening. And you know? Your life never belongs to you again. Robert, we're all middle aged women. We had made plans; 103:00that when we raise our children, oh, goodness, we're going to do this, we're going to do that. When we were taking care of our sixth child, our life was on hold. I couldn't even go to church, right? Because I didn't want to leave him. Because if I left him for a little too long, he would start walking, looking for me. And every mother says the same thing. If you leave them too long, when they're sick, they start looking for you, or if somebody else is taking care of them, they give you a fit, because there's something about that mother being there for you, when you have it. So, she's a paraprofessional (this is the grandmother). She deals with children every day, and comes home to her eleven-year-old grandchild, has to do homework with her, or go to a PTA meeting. Is it fair? No, it isn't, but what can we do? Keep on going.


SEMBER: Mildred, what should other people be doing? What should the government do? What should the city do?

PEARSON: Look at it. Take it from the inside, stop looking on the outside. Come in and be able to relate to what a family goes through, besides guessing. Come in, spend a few hours. You can't get AIDS by loving, caring and sharing. You can't get AIDS by touching. Come in and see how a family operates, if it's no more than two days. Then you can take that message from the inside to the outside. Is it real? Yes, it is. How are we able to--? Because we're on the inside, we've been on the inside from day one, when we first heard the word AIDS, when it first hit our families. (My guts are growling.) But it's real.


SEMBER: What should they do?

PEARSON: What should they do?

SEMBER: What are they not doing that they should do? What are they doing that's right?

PEARSON: I think we're doing everything right. Somebody else may follow suit, that's all I can say. But, get on the inside. Don't bring a nurse to give you a report, come and see the heart of it, the hurt of it. Don't come in looking for sins; don't come in to downplay somebody because they have AIDS. Don't look at a mother who got hung up in the drug scene and is clean now and has to spend a certain time before they can get their children back from BCW. These are the everyday things that we live through. I've been on panels with mothers trying to 106:00clean up their act so they can get their children home, and when they get their children home and they get used to their children, what happens then? You've got to tell them, "Your Mommy has AIDS." Is it fair? No, it's not fair. This whole thing of AIDS is a monster.

SEMBER: If, next week, you were invited to go and address the Democratic convention--

PEARSON: I would walk with my walker and my cane and tell it like it is. I'm not afraid to tell it, I've lived it, and I've raised these children. I've raised fourteen children, you know. His, mine and ours, you understand me? I've seen, I have seen--The youngest of the bunch is twenty-six years old and she's getting married next month, my baby child. I raised them to respect themselves. I've 107:00raised them to respect others. What they do after they leave our home is no fault of ours. I spoke at Thomas Jefferson High School, the high school with the "bad name," right? When I walked in I looked around, I was trying to see the spot where the two children had gotten shot. For that minute--You know how you come in, for that minute--then I knew I was there for a purpose. I spoke to three different classes of seniors, maybe juniors--Yes, juniors and seniors. There were four of us on a panel. You had two openly gay Black boys; both of them had the virus. You had a mother (whom I just spoke about) who used to do drugs but now has the virus and is trying to get her children, and they had me. 108:00When they saw the gay boys, the classroom punks--Excuse me for calling people's children that, but that's just how they came in, the mannerism that they came in. They came in all slouched and this and that. "What's goin' on here today?" someone yelled out. So the teacher said, "We're having someone in to speak about AIDS." They started laughing at the gay boys, their own color. Ha, ha, ha, this and that, one put their hat on. You know how they act in school today. So, they started talking about themselves, where they came from and where they're at now, and how they're coping. The woman talked about herself, and questions came up 109:00about, "You know, your children gonna know that you got AIDS now, because they got television, they're videotaping this and that," in the street language, you know. And I talked about my story. It got quiet. Some of them standing up sat down. Then, I finished up by saying, "Take care of yourself. It's out there. It'll befall you, if you go out there and don't do what you're supposed to do." Because I don't talk about condoms. One girl got up and said to me, "Wow. You lost three. Do you feel guilty that you wasn't a good mother?" I said, "Guilty? When they get eighteen and you leave your mother and father's home, what you get into out there, is your own thing. If I felt guilty, honey, I wouldn't be 110:00standing here today, talking to you to tell you what to do." The bell rang. These same children who laughed and snickered came by us and either hugged us--The girl who asked those questions kissed me. The coordinator (This was in the three classes.) called me after and said, "Mother Pearson, they want to write letters to you and the panelists." Every letter that I have says, "I'm sorry. I didn't know. I never saw nobody who had AIDS that I'd come across with." Apologetic, we have to do more of that. I called Mary Canada from the borough president's office. I said, "When September comes, they've got to set up more of these." We want to teach our children? This is the way. Put the face on 111:00the answer, the questions, not just literature. You've got to put a face to it.

SEMBER: Two questions. One is: What are your plans for your future?

PEARSON: My future?

SEMBER: What do you see in the next few years?

PEARSON: I see total destruction, if everybody doesn't get on board. I think every church should have some kind of outreach. Instead of looking down on it, get up and do something about it. I see that as the only answer. You can't put this AIDS arena down people's throats. We need more role models out here. We 112:00need more role models who will stand up, not in a militant--not another Act Up, just ordinary people coming up and talking. I think it's the best way, the only way.

SEMBER: And for yourself?

PEARSON: For me? I'm walking with this sign that one of the girls, one of the mothers, gave me, "Don't Quit." I have no intention of quitting. I don't see my arthritis problem as a standstill because, hook or crook, as long' as I can get up and down, where you need me I will be. Where they need a mother, if not 113:00Mildred, if Mildred's tired that day and can't come, a mother will be there, because they're going to tell you. We live in a different society. We're living in the '90s; everybody's supposed to be so more up, but one thing: Don't turn around and look at somebody with AIDS, or laugh, or do anything detrimental. Help them. You cannot catch AIDS by loving, caring and sharing.

SEMBER: Mildred, if you were to come into the Brooklyn Historical Society, where the exhibition is going to be, and you could put up your message, the message that you want the people to know who come to this exhibition, what would that message be?

PEARSON: From a mother's perspective?


SEMBER: From you.

PEARSON: From me? They're gone, but they're not forgotten. We must carry on. And, as I said before, he didn't leave me any babies. He didn't leave me any money. But, he left me his strength, and with his strength I continue to go on. I will never let go of Mother's Love. I will always be there to talk to somebody, to try to soothe somebody, because we're living in a terrible time. We're living in a terrible time. I'd like to finish it up by saying we can do all things in Christ, who strengthens us. This is our byline in our group. When 115:00things may be rough that day, when they come in here at 4:30 on a Wednesday, "What a terrible day. I had a terrible day." Somebody will say, "We can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us." And he does. And he does.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Mildred Pearson

Sixty-one years old at the time of the interview in 1992, Mildred Pearson was an African-American woman from the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. She was born and raised in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood. At Cooper Park public housing, she and her second husband Rutledge raised fourteen children born out of three marriages. Her experience as a mother of a gay son who died of AIDS prompted her to join the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force (BATF), using the story of the loss to communicate information about AIDS. Realizing that more than education was needed to meet the emotional stress experienced by persons with AIDS (PWAs) and their families, Pearson left BATF to establish a support group for mothers of PWAs. Mother's Love had weekly meetings for its members/mothers who engaged in extensive outreach work in Brooklyn and the other boroughs. Mildred Pearson died in April, 1994.

In the interview, Mildred Pearson discusses the personal knowledge that came out of being a mother of a person with AIDS (PWA) and working as a care provider. Pearson chronicles the experience of discovering that her son Bruce Williams was sick, the efforts in his treatment, and the home care that had a demonstrative effect on his health. In the wake of Williams' death, she recalls getting help from a volunteer who had befriended Williams. She discusses reaching out to tell her story in support of the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force. In search of a support group for mothers that felt more inclusive and diverse, she tells of forming the Mother's Love group. Pearson describes her development into an activist without a hard-edged militant stance. She touches on many bases that reflected society's responses to the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Pearson speaks concretely about health care, social services, and the emotions generated by illness and loss. Pearson also recalls sensing a more tolerant period in her Brooklyn youth. Before ending on a note about the strength she receives from her faith, she takes a view on society's ills of homelessness and addiction and relates those challenges to other human losses that her family has suffered. Interview conducted by Robert Sember.

The AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project collection includes oral histories conducted for an exhibition undertaken by the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1993. The project attempted to document the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Brooklyn communities. Recordings initially made on magnetic tape concerned the epidemic and were with narrators who had firsthand experience with the crisis in their communities, families and personal life. Narrators came from diverse backgrounds within Brookyn and the New York metropolitan area and had unique experiences which connected them with HIV/AIDS. Substantive topics of hemophilia, sexual behavior, substance abuse, medical practice, social work, homelessness, activism, childhood, relationships and parenting run through at least one, and often several, of the oral histories in the collection.


Pearson, Mildred, Oral history interview conducted by Robert Sember, July 11, 1992, AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project collection, 1993.001.14; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Brooklyn AIDS Task Force
  • Gay Men's Health Crisis, Inc.
  • Pearson, Mildred


  • African Americans
  • AIDS (Disease)
  • AIDS activists
  • AIDS-related complex
  • Family life
  • Funeral rites and ceremonies
  • HIV-positive persons
  • Self-help groups
  • Social group work


  • Boerum Hill (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • New York (N.Y.)


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AIDS/Brooklyn Oral History Project collection