Ms. Mosley of Kansas and Oklahoma - Andrew Sarewitz
At a recent dinner of relative strangers, someone put a question to the group for discussion. “Growing up, who was a singular, unforgettable influence?” Being lucky, there were many for me to choose from. I surprised myself by my answer.
Through Facebook, I tried to reach her grandson, Glen. I took a chance and wrote via Messenger that “I had known a woman named Lena Mosley” and was wondering if he was her grandson. I wasn’t looking to strike up a friendship or even spend time reminiscing. A year later, he responded. Yes, Lena was his grandmother. That’s all he said. I didn’t pursue it further.
I knew almost nothing about Glen. I didn’t know his parents’ names, though it is Glen’s father who is Lena’s child, so I was fairly secure that he too went by the last name of Mosley. He spent his early years in the New York City vicinity. Typical of a proud grandmother, Lena had bragged about how smart and special Glen was; far advanced, even as a toddler.
It’s odd to say, but I’m not sure how long I actually knew Lena. My childhood memories are a mixed duffle of truths and accidental revisionist history. I remember Ella — though I don’t know her last name — and the young and vivacious Anne Thomas. They worked for my parents before Lena came to us. And my brother Dan reminded me that after Lena, a woman named Martha came to clean my parents’ house.
It wasn’t until I attended college that a friend of mine questioned why I, as a child, addressed adults who worked for my family by their first names. I didn’t have an answer and hadn’t thought of it as being disrespectful, let alone racist, at the time. I addressed a good deal of my parents’ friends by their first names as well. But I had been invited to be familiar.
I was raised in a Jewish household, but by the time I came along (I’m the youngest), there was no religious structure enforced and I had no desire to go there. Lena was a practicing Seventh Day Adventist. She told me her beliefs were the closest Christian ideology to Judaism, with the obvious difference of their accepting Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
I vaguely remember when my mother was interviewing prospective women to clean our house. She previously had help 5 days a week. Now she was looking for part time cleaning. With my two eldest siblings off to college and the brother right above me close to high school graduation, there was no longer a “need” to hire a full time employee. Three days would do.
Of the women I saw my mother talk with, only one was white.
At the time she was hired, Lena was in her 50’s. She was African American, living with her Golden Retriever-mix, Brandy, in Newark, New Jersey, in a newly constructed and state subsidized area of Newark. I had a warped and fearful image of Newark. After the summer riots in 1967, I assumed that everyone living in that city was not only poor, but lived in squalor.
My mother had left her career to raise four children in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. When she felt I was old enough, she went to work for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of Montclair. Still coming home for lunch while at elementary school, I would eat three days a week with Lena. Though she was offered whatever was in our refrigerator, Lena brought her own lunch. She was a vegetarian. In general, I only seemed to like tuna fish and egg salad sandwiches. And grilled cheese pressed in a waffle iron, sans the perforated grids. “Smush” sandwiches, as I called them. Our home had an L shaped, Formica counter in the kitchen that doubled as a green house for Mom’s African Violets. On either side of the “L,” were two high back, swivel chairs completing a nook for plating small meals. Though we had a breakfast room off the kitchen, this is where we tended to have lunch when only one or two persons were eating.
A completely separate sepia memory was finding my father sitting in the dark, at the kitchen counter, gorging on cold baked beans out of a can, when he sometimes came home from work late at night.
Lena was, in my opinion, of a different era. The term “African American” wasn’t coined yet, and I don’t think she would have approved of it. Though the word “black” was the accepted term used by the mid-1960’s, Lena still referred to herself as Negro. It was important to her to acknowledge that she was a Southwestern woman. Her childhood and formative years were spent in Kansas and Oklahoma. Not the Midwest, like Indiana and Iowa or the South like the
Carolinas. She was from the American Southwest. She repeatedly made that clear to me.
Physically, Lena was striking. Beautiful, though I’m guessing that back in the 1970’s, we thought 60 was old. She was thin and quite tall, dark skinned with chiseled cheeks, donning a selection of wigs of various cuts and colors. At that age, as a white boy, I had no understanding of black hair, let alone wigs. She was quite proud of them, telling me which ones she liked best, often not wearing her “good” hair to clean. Occasionally she did, if she had somewhere special to go directly after work. I was dying to see Lena’s own hair, which I knew — because she told me — was cut very short and now was entirely gray. My impulse was to snatch her wig off, so I could see her natural hair. Thank God I wasn’t stupid enough to do such a selfish thing. I still break out in a sweat thinking what could have happened between us had I performed such an ignorant act.
From a time before I was born, there had always been a black woman in our house. These women were not nannies. They were house keepers who sometimes looked after children. During one of the interview processes, Mom spoke with an elegant woman dressed in a knitted suit and pearls. When I asked about her, Mom said she was not looking to take care of children, even occasionally. When I whined that I liked her, Mom told me it was the woman’s choice not to accept the position.
Lena came to work for my parents.
Lena’s dog Brandy, had been a gift from her previous employer. Brandy’s owner moved away and asked Lena to take Brandy, which she gladly did. One day, Brandy was stolen from her front yard. Lena told me in unsentimental cadence that she would never get another pet again. I know that losing Brandy was heartbreaking for her. It’s one of the only times I remember Lena unconsciously revealing an undertow of vulnerability masked beneath her unflappable demeanor.
One of the pieces I didn’t accept about Lena’s beliefs was her denial of evolution. Even as a young man, I was surprised that such a smart person was steeped in what I call religious ignorance. She told me a story of being on a Greyhound bus in the American south. She defiantly said to her traveling neighbor, “if there was such a thing as evolution, wouldn’t we see people changing?” She then added in the telling, “he had nothing to say to that!” Neither did
On rare occasions, Lena talked about “Mosley.” That’s how she referred to her long gone husband. They divorced or he passed away. I cannot remember which. He was the father of Glen’s father. I don’t think Lena had other children. Lena had some Native American blood in her veins, though I can’t tell you how far back those origins ran or from where or which Nation they were attached. Her grandmother had been a slave until freed in the 1860’s. I believe Lena spent some time in Texas, but I can’t depend on my memories to verify that as fact. Nor do I know how, when or why she came to the Northeast.
When I went off to college, my mother decided she didn’t need three days of housekeeping help anymore. To throw in my opinion on the subject, Lena was nearing an age where cleaning a multistoried home was not fair. I don’t know if Lena financially needed to work or whether it was something she preferred to do. I can’t imagine cleaning other people’s homes was particularly rewarding.
When I returned from college for winter break, Lena said my mother only needed someone once a week. I knew what that meant. Lena told me in the entrance to my parents’ home, by the kitchen, where she and I used to eat lunch together. I can’t tell you exactly why, but I began to cry. Lena said, “Andrew, it’s time. Even if your mother hadn’t made this decision, it’s time for me to move on.”
I don’t talk about Lena very much. First of all, I think there is something I view as elitist about a privileged white child writing about his relationship with his family’s black maid. It’s one thing if a story is unraveled through the experience of the working woman, but the contextual memories seem almost two dimensional when I am drawing Lena’s character. Like I’m not showing her as complete. Yet to not acknowledge the importance of Lena Mosley in my life feels borderline irresponsible: allowing fear of how I’ll be branded to stop me from unveiling long ago remembrances.
Had Lena been born at a later time with different opportunities, I’m certain she wouldn’t have been mopping a white family’s kitchen floor. But there was no lack of self worth in Lena’s presence. No evidence shown to me anyway. Her delight was contagious when telling me her son graduated from Columbia University, married and gave her a grandson. Glen. Lena’s joy and pride.
I have always had women of color in my life. I don’t know what, if anything, that means. And I don’t deny it began with the women who were hired to clean my parents’ home. I am someone who is always aware of differences in individuals. Be it looks, beliefs, color, personality, sexuality. I’d like to think I don’t judge anyone by their skin or behavior.
I don’t know where Lena went after leaving us. If she took another job or was able to retire. If she stayed at her home in Newark, or moved. And though I am sure she is no longer alive, I wonder how long she lived. She told me her grandfather survived to be over 100.
When fortunate, there are positive influences in a young person’s growth. By factor or conscious intent. At home or away. For me, I’m not sure where Lena falls within those borders. I believe she genuinely loved me. And I adored her. Decades later, I hold memories of someone very different from me, who by circumstance, was thrown into the world in which I was born. Intentional or not, Lena Mosley was an important part of my pre and adolescent years. If there was any judgment, I never felt it. I never felt anything but the treasured brilliance of her love.
Andrew Sarewitz has written several short stories as well as scripts for various media. Mr. Sarewitz is a recipient of the 2021 City Artists Corp Grant for Writing. His play, Madame Andrèe (based on the life of Nancy Wake, the White Mouse), garnered First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, opening the festival in August, 2019. Produced with a multi-cultural cast and crew. His play Five Men, Four Beds advanced to the Second Round at the 2019 Austin Film Festival Competition. Andrew’s script, The White House is a Finalist in the 2019 Pitch Now Screenplay Competition.