ROSA LEE'S STORY

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Rosa Lee's Story: The Series
The Washington Post, Sept. 18-25, 1994
By Leon Dash; Photos by Lucian Perkins

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

Rosa Lee & Me: What One Family Told Me -- and America -- About the Urban Crisis (Oct. 2, 1994)
The Readers React (Oct. 2, 1994)

Rosa Lee Cunningham's Obituary (July 8, 1995)

Part Eight
A Life Comes Full Circle, and Rosa Lee Faces Loss

It is early evening on Saturday, Dec. 5, 1992. I call Rosa Lee Cunningham's room at Greater Southeast Community Hospital, where she's recuperating from double pneumonia. The last time we talked, she was resting comfortably after a scary night in the emergency room. But this is her 11th hospitalization in the last four years, and her doctors are worried that her HIV condition has developed into AIDS.

I am unprepared for what she has to tell me.

"Patty's been arrested for murder," she says.

I laugh in disbelief. Patty, Rosa Lee's oldest daughter? Murder? She's never been arrested for anything even remotely violent. All her criminal convictions have been for minor charges relating to drug use.

"I'm serious, Mr. Dash," Rosa Lee says. "She set up Mr. Steve to be robbed by some crack boys, and they killed him. Patty called me from the homicide squad last night. She was crying. She said she didn't know they would kill Mr. Steve."

"Mr. Steve" was Rosa Lee's name for Steve Priester, a 57-year-old man who had befriended Patty in late 1991 and had become one of her "boyfriends." I had never entirely understood their relationship. Patty seemed to see it in business terms: She had sex with Priester, and he gave her money or bought her drugs.

Priester, though, wanted something more. He often told Rosa Lee that he wanted to save Patty from drugs and prostitution, but he had a mixed up notion of how to accomplish his goal. He gave her money so she wouldn't have to engage in prostitution, but the money only fed her drug habit.

Patty in jail
Photo by Keith Jenkins
Patty in jail for her role in a robbery that turned fatal.
Rosa Lee told me that Patty had admitted to participating in the robbery. The police had her confession on videotape. Even if Patty had no role in the murder itself, she could expect a substantial jail term.

In the past, whenever something had gone wrong in her family, Rosa Lee always fell back on the same litany: I did the best I could. I did what I had to. I survived.

Not this time. After Patty's phone call from police headquarters, Rosa Lee didn't know what to do. Ordinarily, she would have called someone for help or consolation. During the years I have been interviewing her about the family, she has called me dozens of times, seeking advice or just a shoulder to cry on. But after a sleepless night, she called no one -- not even Alvin or Eric, the only two of her eight children who have never used drugs or broken the law, the only two of her children upon whom she can truly rely.

On the night when her daughter was accused of first-degree murder, Rosa Lee chose to be alone.


CHAPTER ONE: The Videotape

That same weekend, police filed a warrant in court that more fully described the murder of Steve Priester.

"On Friday, Dec. 4, 1992, at about 2 p.m.," the warrant began, "officers at the Metropolitan Police Department were called to an apartment at 425 Atlantic Street SE for a complaint of a burglary. When police entered the apartment, they discovered the lifeless body of the victim, Steve Priester, handcuffed and gagged, inside a closet of the apartment. ... He had suffered a bullet wound to the head."

According to the warrant, police had arrested two suspects and were looking for three others. Police had learned about Priester's relationship with Patty from talking to his neighbors and that she was the last person seen with him before his death.

Ten days later, in Judge Cheryl Long's softly lit courtroom, the videotaped image of Patty Cunningham appears on a television monitor. The screen is positioned to give the judge the best view; she has to decide whether the videotape provides enough evidence to hold Patty for trial.

Patty is watching too, from the defendant's table.

On the videotape, Patty is sitting at a desk. She is wearing red slacks and a red blouse. A white scarf is tied around her head. The date and time flicker briefly, then disappear: "Dec. 4, 1992, 10:10 p.m."

A detective, identified as Det. Vivian Washington, asks Patty if she understands why her answers are being videotaped. Normally, a suspect is interviewed without a camera present and then is asked to review a typed transcript for accuracy and sign it.

"I can't read," Patty tells Washington.

As the videotape rolls, it is clear that Patty already has told her story to the police and is repeating it for the camera. She speaks rapidly and stammers repeatedly. Her account is confusing, but it provides the basic outline of how she became mixed up in the robbery scheme.

She and Priester were at Rosa Lee's apartment on Thursday night, Dec. 3, when someone knocked on the door about 10 p.m. It was Turk, a 16-year-old who lived in the building next door.

Turk said two friends were thinking about robbing Priester. They had seen Priester around the complex and knew that he spent a lot of money on Patty. Did Patty know if Priester had any money on him right now?

Patty said she went outside, where she met Turk's friends -- a "tall, dark-skinned dude" and a "short, brown-skinned woman with a mole on her cheek." If Patty knew their names, she didn't use them on the videotape. She told them that Priester didn't have any money on him.

A plan was hatched to rob Priester at his apartment, where presumably he kept some cash. It would be Patty's job to let the robbers in.

Patty tells Washington that she agreed to the scheme but only because the "tall dude" had threatened to hurt her if she didn't.

About 11 p.m., she says, she walked with Priester to his apartment a few blocks away. Minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was Turk, his two friends and another man. Patty let them in. "The tall dude gave me $22 for opening the door," Patty says on the videotape.

And what was Priester's reaction when he saw the four come into his apartment and Patty leaving?

"He just looked at me," Patty tells Washington.


CHAPTER TWO: Life Without Patty

On New Year's Day 1993, about two weeks after Long held Patty for trial, Rosa Lee moved out of the federally subsidized apartment complex in Southeast Washington where she and Patty had been living.

Rosa Lee had been planning to move for several months, long before Patty's arrest, but her new apartment hadn't been ready until now. Rosa Lee was happy to leave; the old apartment held too many painful reminders of the deterioration of her family. It had seemed so chaotic when Patty was there; now it just seemed empty.

Her new place is a one-bedroom unit in the senior citizen's wing of a building on North Capitol Street NW; she had applied for it after one particularly bad weekend of fending off Patty's and Ducky's requests for money to buy drugs. She qualified not because of her age -- she was only 56 at the time she applied -- but because of her medical disability.

The new apartment still smells of fresh paint when I arrive a few weeks later for my first visit. We sit in Rosa Lee's bedroom because her son Richard is sleeping on the living room couch; he recently got out of jail, and Rosa Lee has let him stay with her.

Her bedroom television is on, as usual. It is Inauguration Day. On the screen, crowds are gathering at the Capitol to see Bill Clinton take the oath of office. Rosa Lee pays no attention. She has no interest in politics or government. She has never voted. "It's not going to make one difference in my life," she told me one day.

In her mind, white people still had all the power and they didn't care about blacks. "I wouldn't go TWO blocks to vote," she said. "I have seen too much and hasn't nothing changed. The only thing that's changed is we don't have to ride in the back of the bus."

There is almost no connection between Rosa Lee's world and the world of Washington's policy-makers and politicians. One day soon after the election, I mentioned Clinton during a conversation with Rosa Lee; she didn't seem to know his name or that an election had been held.

On the television, Clinton is making his way to the platform for the swearing-in. Rosa Lee is showing me some of Patty's letters from jail. The letters are in someone else's handwriting.

"She sounds like a child in her letters," Rosa Lee says. "All she talks about is coming home! Coming home! It's almost like she doesn't realize what she did!"

Her lower lip is trembling. "She didn't kill him! She was drunk. I know Patty when she gets drunk. She's just like a little child. I don't think I ever let her grow up."

Rosa Lee's tears run down her face in unbroken streams, soaking her white blouse.

"She wouldn't have hurt Steve," she says. "That man took care of her so good."

It would be months before we would know how the courts viewed Patty's involvement in Priester's death. I try to divert Rosa Lee's attention. "Here comes your president," I say, pointing to the television.

"I'm not thinking about that man!" she replies.

The ceremony begins. "I do solemnly swear ..."

Rosa Lee listens to Clinton repeat the oath, then gets up heavily from her bed and goes to the bathroom to wash her face.


CHAPTER THREE: Rosa Lee's Trip

Rosa Lee can see my excitement. It is April 1993, and I have just returned from a trip to Rich Square, N.C., to research her family's history as sharecroppers. Through census records at the courthouse, I was able to trace her ancestors back to the turn of the century. Her family tree has many branches, including several in the Rich Square area; I looked up two of Rosa Lee's relatives -- cousins she didn't know -- and told them about my study of Rosa Lee and her family. They gave me a message for her: Please come for a visit.

Rosa Lee has never shown much interest in her family's history, but she is eager to do something other than sit around her apartment and worry about Patty. The case seems to drag on and on. Police have arrested three more suspects, and all five have been indicted on first-degree murder charges. Patty is willing to plead guilty to lesser charges and testify against the others, but negotiations are on hold for reasons that Rosa Lee doesn't understand.

For weeks now, Patty has been calling her collect nearly every night. Frustrated at the slow pace in the case, Rosa Lee is grateful for a reason to leave town.

She had been to Rich Square only once, when she was 9, and she didn't have fond memories. She showered me with questions. Did they still live in those gray, weathered wood shacks with the rusty metal roofs? Did they have indoor plumbing, or were they still using outhouses?

I laugh. Many sharecropper shacks still stand, I tell her, but no one lives in them. They were abandoned years ago, after the sharecropping system had faded away. Her relatives, I assure her, have indoor plumbing.

In early June, on a Thursday morning, the two of us are rolling along Interstate 95 through Virginia. The methadone clinic has given Rosa Lee enough doses for a four-day trip. As we cruise along, Rosa Lee is reminiscing about Rich Square in the summer of 1945.

She is fixated on plumbing. The two-room shack where she stayed didn't have an outhouse. During the day, people walked into the nearby woods to relieve themselves, always watchful for snakes that lay in the grass. At night, the family used a tin "slop jar." Every morning, the slop jar was emptied into a freshly dug hole.

"It smelled!" recalls Rosa Lee with an upturned nose and a shudder.

The shack resembled the typical dwellings that white landowners built throughout the South for black sharecroppers. There was a front door, but no front window. In the center of the main room was a wood-burning stove. The shack's wooden planks were the only barriers to the outdoors; there was no insulation. Rosa Lee could feel the wind when it blew through the spaces between the planks.

The house had three windows, one on each side and one at the rear. Rosa Lee remembers rubbing dust and moisture from the thick, yellowed plastic in the windows so she could see outside. Glass kerosene lamps provided light at night. There were crates and boxes to sit on, but not one chair. A hand pump outside supplied water.

Rosa Lee recalls asking her mother, "Momma, how did ya'll LIVE down here?"

She remembered Rosetta Wright looking at her with a pained expression and turning away.


CHAPTER FOUR: Forgotten Memories

We reach Rich Square in the early afternoon. As I turn into Hilda and Bud Tann's driveway, Rosa Lee stares in amazement at the large, modern tan-brick house where her cousin lives. Big Bud, as everyone calls him, answers our knock. Hilda welcomes Rosa Lee with a big hug.

Hilda, 63, is a large woman with a light-brown complexion and an infectious, high-pitched laugh. Arthritis has locked up her left hip and knee, requiring her to lean heavily on a cane or a walker -- "depending on how I'm feeling," she says.

Rosa Lee talks with series author Leon Dash
Photo by Keith Jenkins
Leon Dash listens to Rosa Lee as they sit on the front steps of an abandoned shack during a visit to the hometown of her parents, Rich Square, N.C. Her parents were sharecroppers, and many of her relatives still live in Rich Square.
She has prepared a big dinner, and Rosa Lee and I help ourselves to chicken and dumplings and collard greens. After the meal, Hilda and Rosa Lee settle into the two overstuffed couches in the living room. I sink down in the upholstered high-back chair to listen.

Hilda tells Rosa Lee that one of the couches belonged to Rosa Lee's maternal grandmother, Lugenia Whitaker Lawrence. Lugenia was a sharecropper here until she and her family, including Rosa Lee's mother, left during the Depression. In 1985, Lugenia came back to Rich Square after 50 years in Washington and stayed with Hilda for a few months before her death at age 88.

Rosa Lee and Hilda swap tales of the family, and Rosa Lee begins to open up about her life of crime and drug addiction. I knew that Rosa Lee was nervous about revealing too much, fearing rejection. But Hilda already knows some of the story from other family members.

"You needn't worry about it now, Rosa Lee," Hilda assures her. "That's all behind you now."

"Yes, you're right," Rosa Lee says in a quiet voice. "Praise the Lord!"

They talk until the shadows darken the living room. The only light is from the television. I say goodnight and leave for my motel. Rosa Lee is so busy talking that she hardly notices.

The next morning, we pick up another relative, 90-year-old Daisy Debreaux, at her white-and-green wood-frame house and go off in search of the land that Rosa Lee's mother and grandmother once farmed. Daisy lived on the plantation until the early 1950s but hasn't been there for 40 years.

Daisy is a thin, brown-skinned woman with a head of thick, white hair. She speaks in a deliberate cadence, barely parting her lips when she smiles. When something strikes her as funny, she lets loose with a deep, body-shaking chuckle. She and Rosa Lee's maternal grandmother were first cousins.

We turn east onto the dirt-and-gravel Benthall Cook Road and head toward Bull Neck Swamp, a fertile piece of land on the north bank of the Roanoke River. Daisy sucks in her breath in surprise.

Where generations of Lawrences once toiled stood all the components of the modern farm: a two-story office, large hangers for huge farming machinery, two large gray-metal silos. No matter which way we look, there is no visible evidence of the life that Daisy once knew. "There used to be dozens of houses on both sides along here," Daisy says, pointing to fields of young cotton and tobacco.

As we walk through the cotton fields, Rosa Lee is overcome by emotion. A forgotten memory reemerges: Every day for two weeks in that summer of 1945, Rosa Lee's mother woke her before dawn and took her to the cotton field. They worked for three hours before breakfast, returned to the fields for several hours before lunch and then again in the late afternoon.

After a few days of this regimen, Rosa Lee remembers asking her mother, "Momma, why do I have to pick cotton?"

"That's what I brought you down here for," her mother said. "To show you what we've had to go through in life to take care of you and feed you."


CHAPTER FIVE: A Song of Redemption

On Sunday morning, we attend services at Chapel Hill Baptist Church, founded the year after the Civil War ended. The original white, wood-frame building was replaced with a red-brick one in 1973. Three generations of Rosa Lee's ancestors belonged to the church, including her grandparents and her mother. Four generations of her living relatives are active members today.

Near the end of the two-hour service, the Rev. Franklin D. Williams Sr. invites Rosa Lee to say something to the 125 or so worshipers. He had heard about her visit from one of her relatives. Rosa Lee beams. All eyes are on her as she walks quickly to the front. She is wearing a pink, two-piece suit with a wine-colored blouse and a string of white pearls. Her red shoes match her long red fingernails.

"I was 9 years old the last time I was here," she says. Until this trip, she had not understood the difficulties that grandparents and parents had faced when they sharecropped on the nearby plantation. She has looked back over her own life, she tells them, and is not proud of much of what she has done.

"When you change the way you've been living all your life, anything is possible," she says. "I thank God for giving me another chance in life."

Rosa Lee shuts her eyes, pushes her palms together and belts out the opening verse of a gospel song she learned as a child at Mount Joy Baptist Church in Washington.

"Oh, search me, Lord!
Oh, search me, Lord
Turn the light from heaven on my soul
If you find anything that shouldn't be
Take it out and strengthen me."
Older members join in. The Rev. Williams rushes to the piano and begins to play. Even the small children, who moments before squirmed with impatience, sit transfixed. The entire congregation sways in the pews.

I sit in wonder at the power of Rosa Lee Cunningham. She steps in front of people who have never seen her before and inspires them to sing this song of redemption. I can't help but think that if circumstances had been different, if she hadn't faced so many obstacles in her life, her drive and her charisma might have created a different life for herself, her children and grandchildren.

"I want to be right.
I want to be saved.
I want to be whole."

CHAPTER SIX: Painful Delays

The investigation of Steve Priester's slaying takes a turn in Patty's favor in October 1993. Prosecutor Heidi Pasichow accepts Patty's statement that her role in the robbery was to open the door for Turk and the other three. If Patty will agree to testify against the others, Pasichow will drop the first-degree murder charges against Patty.

As plea bargains go, it's not a bad deal. Patty still faces a substantial prison term, but at least she doesn't have a life sentence hanging over her head. On Oct. 22, in Judge Long's courtroom, Patty pleads guilty to first-degree burglary and conspiracy to commit robbery. She won't be sentenced, however, until she is finished testifying. If all the defendants go to trial, that could take months.

The delay is excruciating for Rosa Lee. Whenever she sees me, she badgers me for details about the case. She thinks of little else. Then, in mid-December, a late-night telephone call gives her something else to worry about.

It is 11:45 p.m. and she has just fallen asleep. The caller is the security guard in the lobby of her apartment building. A Robert Cunningham is here, the guard says. Do you want him to come up?

Rosa Lee is confused. Bobby is supposed to be in jail. What's he doing here?

A few minutes later, she opens the door and draws back in disbelief. Standing in the hallway, dressed in a prison-issue blue cotton jumpsuit and a thin windbreaker, is a shrunken version of her oldest son.

His breathing is labored and heavy. He tells her that he has just walked from the jail, a distance of about three miles. He has been given a medical parole because he is dying of AIDS. His weight has dropped from 160 pounds to less than 100.

Two days later, Bobby collapses on Rosa Lee's bathroom floor. Rosa Lee can't lift him. She calls 911, and soon her tiny apartment is filled with paramedics and equipment. They take Bobby to Howard University Hospital, where he deteriorates quickly. When he dies on Jan. 18, 1994, he weighs 72 pounds.

Bobby is the first of Rosa Lee's children to die, and she has no money to give him a funeral. Because she is poor and Bobby has no estate, the city's Department of Human Services agrees to pay the funeral costs and, later, the cremation.


CHAPTER SEVEN: Death in the Family

Rosa Lee is standing near a lavendar-colored coffin when I arrive at Frazier's Funeral Home in the 300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW. The casket lid is closed. "I didn't want anyone to see the way he looked when he died," she whispers.

I take a seat in the second row, next to one of Bobby's cousins. Rosa Lee's son Eric comes into the parlor. He looks around the room, sees Rosa Lee in the first row then decides to sit next to me. He has never resolved his anger at his mother for the way she raised him. Several family members are late for the 11 a.m. service, so the Rev. R.E. Dinkins decides to wait a few minutes. Finally, Rosa Lee motions to Dinkins to go ahead anyway. Dinkins leads the dozen mourners in prayer, then asks anyone who wants to speak to come forward.

Richard rises. "Bobby has taken care of me and all my brothers. He had a good life, and he did the best that he could. I'll never forget him."

A female relative delivers a more pointed message.

Rosa Lee holding photo of Bobby
Photo by Lucian Perkins
Rosa Lee holds a portrait of her son Bobby, who died of AIDS complications, as she sits in a limousine after his funeral. He had been released from prison shortly before his death.
"To the family, I would like to say, be not ashamed of your son or your brother. God had him here for some reason, some purpose in his life." She looks toward Rosa Lee. "As he sleeps away, it is time for you all to get your act together. Get your act together, acknowledge the Lord and serve Him!"

A hush falls over the room. Now it is Rosa Lee's turn.

"First, I'd like to say, thank God for giving me the strength to be and to get up here."

She pauses, then cries out: "Bobby!"

His name echoes through the silent parlor.

"I love you son," she says, "and so do your brothers and your sisters. But I know now that you are in a better place. All of us will always love you. Take care of him God, 'cause he was my oldest. Thank you."


CHAPTER EIGHT: Patty's Apology

Rosa Lee has a plan for persuading Judge Cheryl Long to release Patty on probation. The day before the sentencing, she delivers two letters to Long's chambers -- one from her doctor that details her deteriorating medical condition and a personal plea that her 17-year-old granddaughter wrote for her, imploring the judge to let Patty come home to take care of her. When I remind her that she left her old apartment to get away from Patty's drug-addicted lifestyle, she waves me away.

When I pick up Rosa Lee on the afternoon of May 10, 1994, she is nervous, almost shaking. She is still weak from her latest bout with pneumonia, which put her in the hospital for two weeks, and she uses a cane to walk from my car to the courtroom.

It is close to 5 p.m. by the time Patty's case is called. Patty is brought from the lockup. She looks healthier than she has in years. Eighteen months in jail, away from regular drug use, has given her body a chance to recover. She has lost the sallow, drug-induced pallor that I remember. She sees Rosa Lee and breaks into a big smile.

I whisper to Rosa Lee that the prosecutor's recommendation could be crucial in deciding Patty's sentence. The judge will want to know if Patty has held up her end of the plea bargain.

All the defendants in the case have pleaded guilty before trial, so Patty never had to testify in open court. Prosecutor Pasichow tells Long, "I feel absolutely compelled to let the court know that she's been cooperative."

Patty's role in Priester's murder, Pasichow says, "really comes down to, in part and to a large extent, Ms. Cunningham's greed in terms of her addiction, in terms of her need for money and in terms of the type of lifestyle that, unfortunately, Ms. Cunningham was living at the time."

That doesn't excuse her actions, Pasichow says. "What she did was set in motion something that she now regrets, but something that she really could have stopped."

As prosecutor's statements go, this is a pretty mild one. Pasichow could have asked Long to sentence Patty to the maximum time in prison, but she asked only for an "appropriate" sentence.

"Ms. Cunningham," the judge finally says, "this is your opportunity to speak to the court."

Patty stands. The words rush out. She tells Long that she agreed to let the robbers into Priester's apartment only because she was afraid that they were going to hurt her. "I'm really sorry for what happened to Mr. Priester. Because I loved him too. A lot! And I ask him every night to forgive me for what happened. And if I could have changed it, I would. ...

"This is the first time -- this is the first time that I ever been without drugs this long. And it feels really good to me. It gives me a chance to get my life together, make my life much better. So I'm asking to be put on probation."

But Long is in no mood for redemption. She is too troubled by the statement of facts on Priester's murder.

After Patty left Priester at the apartment that night, the robbers repeatedly asked Priester, "Where is the money at?" Priester pleaded with them to leave him alone. The robbers gagged him, handcuffed him and bound him at the knees and ankles with belts and ropes. All four robbers took turns hitting Priester in the face with a heavy wine bottle and a brass ornament. The robbers then tied a hood tightly over his face and shot him in the head. As far as police could determine, the assailants left without finding any money in Priester's apartment.

"What they did was just completely unnecessary," Long says to Patty. "Completely unnecessary. But they did it anyway. And I think that when you decided to let them in the house and made it possible for them to get into the house, you knew that you were doing a favor for some pretty bad people. ...

"It's bad enough that people do this to total strangers," Long says, "but there is no real way to excuse what you did to someone who is a friend to you."

Long announces Patty's sentence: one to three years for the conspiracy conviction and seven to 21 years on the burglary conviction, to be served consecutively. She will be eligible for parole in October 1998.

"You should pay a price for what you did, and you should not basically just get off the hook simply because you and your mother are in bad health," Long says.


CHAPTER NINE: Last Words

A few hours later, we sit in my car in front of Rosa Lee's apartment building and rehash the sentencing. Rosa Lee is distraught. She wanted a chance to speak to the judge. As Patty's mother, she says, shouldn't she have had the opportunity to explain?

I had been warning her for months that Patty's lawyer might not let her say anything in court, that he might decide it would do Patty's cause more harm than good. But Rosa Lee kept rehearsing her speech, as if this were her trial, not Patty's. One day, months before Patty's sentencing, she gave me a preview of what she would say to the judge if she got a chance.

"I want to say, 'Judge Long, my name is Rosa Lee Cunningham. I just want to clear my conscience and my mind the way I feel about my daughter being in jail on account of I feel that I brought my child up wrong 'cause I didn't know better. I didn't know no other way. Not only Patty, all of them children.

" 'I don't feel too good about it, Your Honor. I never have.... I wasn't thinking right and I wasn't thinking clearly. I just didn't want her to become hurt like me. I didn't want her to want things and couldn't get them like me. ...

" 'Your Honor, I love my children very much, but somewhere down the line, I didn't raise them right, and it is hurting the hell out of me. ...' "

It was a harsh assessment, and undoubtedly designed to elicit Long's sympathy. Yet, it was direct and honest in a way that went far beyond our first interviews six years ago.

But then, Rosa Lee's not the same woman as she was when we first met. In 1988, she still shoplifted regularly, sold heroin on the street, used heroin and cocaine frequently while sharing dirty needles with Patty. Somehow, she also was taking care of her young grandchildren because their mother was strung out on crack.

Then Rosa Lee found herself paying a heavy price for her past. She learned she was carrying the virus that causes AIDS. She suffered a series of seizures after injecting heroin. She came close to dying from an overdose of seizure medication because she couldn't read the dosage instructions. Then came Patty's arrest for murder, followed by Bobby's death. Now she spends hours praying for herself, judging herself, endlessly asking questions for which there are no easy answers. She wants more than survival at this point; she wants peace from a life with almost none.

There are many ways to look at Rosa Lee's story. Some may say that Rosa Lee is a thief, a drug addict, a failed parent, a broken woman paying for her sins. Others may see her as a victim of hopeless circumstances, born to a life of deprivation and racism.

There may be truth in both views, but neither extreme reflects the complexity of her life, or the complexity of the crisis in the nation's inner cities. Rosa Lee's story shows the immense difficulties that await any effort to bring an end to poverty, illiteracy, drug abuse and criminal activity. In the poorest neighborhoods, white and black, these problems are knotted together; there's no way to separate the individual strings, especially in those communities overwhelmed by drug abuse. Reforming welfare doesn't stop drug trafficking; better policing doesn't end illiteracy; providing job training doesn't teach a young man or woman why it's wrong to steal.

But complex is not the same as intractable. Rosa Lee's fate was far from foreordained; her sons Alvin and Eric, both of whom rejected the lure of the street, are testament to that. So are many of her brothers and sisters. They, like many others who grew up poor, learned the importance and value of personal responsibility, and it gave them the edge they needed to invent a different way to live.

For now, Rosa Lee has adjusted to life without Bobby and Patty. Her apartment remains a haven for those children with nowhere else to go. Richard and Ronnie are staying with her; Ducky, however, is back in Lorton serving time for theft.

Rosa Lee keeps herself busy by helping to take care of the family's newest generation -- her great-grandson. The baby's father is her grandson Junior, 21; the boy's mother is a 15-year-old girl, a 10th-grader at a District high school. Rosa Lee looks after the infant on weekdays so the mother can go to school. Junior can't help out; he's in jail, awaiting sentencing on new armed robbery charges.

On school days, the baby's mother meets Rosa Lee at McDonald's, near the methadone clinic. On a recent Thursday morning, she handed Rosa Lee a still-warm bottle of formula, quickly washed down a sausage sandwich with soda, kissed her son and left for school.

"You're a good-looking boy, you know that?" cooed Rosa Lee as the eight-week-old infant sucks his bottle. He finished the milk, and his eyes began to droop.

She gently rocked the baby on her lap. "He's such a beautiful baby and so easy to look after," she said, stroking his cheek as he fell asleep.


WASHINGTON WORLD | STYLE | CHAPTER ONE

© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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