GARDEN GROVE — Pearl Jemison-Smith used to be the "neighborhood mom," the fun-loving one with the easy smile and the inviting Slip 'N Slide in her Anaheim front yard.
Now, with her four children grown, the petite, green-eyed 58-year-old grandmother is still "mom" to whoever needs her, sometimes to young people she doesn't even know.
Inspired by her gay son who has AIDS, Jemison-Smith gave up her 20-year nursing career in 1991 to become a full-time AIDS activist. As co-chair of a statewide AIDS lobby, she only recently began publicly mentioning the plight of her son.
Jamie E. Jemison III says he is "very proud" of his mother. Jemison recalled the time that he walked into a gay bar with his mom in Washington--and she knew more people than he did.
"I tell people, 'She took me,' " said Jemison, 37, of Long Beach.
On this Mother's Day, as on others, it is not unusual for strangers to claim Jemison-Smith as their own, especially when she is out of town, bending the ear of some legislator.
"Most of my Mother's Days, for the last few years, I've spent with a dozen or so gay men taking me out for dinner. . . . They've become my family away from home," said Jemison-Smith, whose voice rings with delight and betrays a trace of her native English accent.
Today, she is in Essex, England, where she grew up, visiting her 78-year-old mother and her father, 74, who is recovering from a heart attack.
There, in a tiny fishing village on the North Sea, Jemison-Smith adored her spunky grandmother.
At 96, her grandmother used to sit on her bicycle--feet on the handlebars--and roll down a hill. Her family finally had to remove the pedals to cushion the landings. "I hope that I'm like her when I'm really old," Jemison-Smith vowed.
She is as determined as her grandmother.
One recent afternoon, in her garden with 36 rose bushes, Jemison-Smith dismissed the notion that her avocado tree will never bear fruit. This cannot be. She stared the tree down and then turned on her heels.
"I'll go talk to it one day, and maybe it'll do something," she decided before turning to her next project.
And there are plenty.
Jemison-Smith is a founding member and current board member of the AIDS Services Foundation, Orange County. She is a former chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors' HIV Planning Council and currently is co-chair of the LIFE/AIDS Lobby, a statewide organization that represents people affected by Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
"I would be doing what I'm doing now, even if my son didn't have AIDS," she said. "I know it sounds strange, but this is my calling."
Since retiring from UCI Medical Center, she has managed to find time to spend with her eight grandchildren and husband, Burton Smith, a physician. But her work takes her all over the country.
Monday, at an AIDS rally in Sacramento, she gave a rousing speech on the Capitol steps.
"I am an Orange County Republican nurse whose son has AIDS," she proclaimed. "And I am an AIDS activist--loud and proud--simply because I can be nothing less."
Afterward, a young man with AIDS approached her. "I want to have a mom just like you," he told her.
Jemison keeps a scrapbook of his mother's activities. "I think I was the catalyst," he said, "but I don't think I lent the energy--the energy was already there."
Jemison became infected with the AIDS virus about 15 years ago; his mother says it doesn't matter how.
In 1994, he took a disability leave from his job as a computer analyst at Hughes Electronics Corp. Until then, to spare him any potential backlash, his mother never mentioned that her son had AIDS. Now, he said, she has his blessing.
These days, Jemison tires easily but has no AIDS-related illnesses. His CD4 count--which tracks infection-fighting blood cells--is 80. (A healthy adult's count is about 1,000.)
They don't talk much about his future. One of her hardest days, Jemison-Smith said, was when her son came home to give her copies of his will and powers of attorney papers.
She put them in a drawer. Neither has mentioned them since.
These days, when he feels up to it, Jemison, a rockhound, heads to the desert to add to his collection.
He wants to find the perfect opal--his mother's favorite gemstone.