These excerpts from "The Worst Times Are The Best Times," written by Levelle Moton and former New & Observer sportswriter Edward G. Robinson III were originally published in The N&O on Aug. 3, 2014.
"He's gone ... And he ain't coming back."
- Hattie McDougald
I don't remember much about when I was four years old, but I recall the night my father left the family as clearly as if it were a motion picture. That night, there was a rent party at my parents' apartment in the Orchard Park Houses in Boston. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in public housing, nestled in a neighborhood considered one of the most notoriously dangerous in America in 1978.
Rent parties were common to families who lived at Orchard Park. After paying the host at the door, people gathered in a particular apartment to play records - then-called 45s - and danced well into the night. Guests devoured food and drank merrily, as if it were Christmas. The host collected money to help pay the rent. These spread around our neighborhood, supplementing meager incomes and providing much-needed entertainment for adults.
I hated these parties because I shared a small bedroom with my older brother Earl Moton, who we called Verne. When guests arrived, we had to share our room and toys with other kids in a tight space. On that night, it seemed like there were 30 kids crammed in there. I don't remember much about our room, except that a long row of black beads hung from my door and rattled every time someone entered.
I remember my pops coming into the room and taking orders from all the kids. "What do you want?" he said. Penny candy? Bubble gum? Soda? He took our orders, including my grape Now & Laters and walked out.
I never saw him again.
But I was waiting on my Now & Laters. When is he going to bring those back? One hour became two. Two hours became three. I fell asleep. He wasn't there the next day. I didn't know what to think. There were selfish thoughts about candy, and then I realized my father had not come home. Was he ever coming back? I soon learned he wasn't. "He's gone ... and he's not coming back," my mother, Hattie McDougald, said. She broke it down without emotion, careful not to stir too many feelings in us.
She couldn't show weakness because that might upset my brother and me. She didn't want us to assume the male role in the house, knowing we weren't ready for that. My brother was just five years older than I was. No matter how painful it was, my mother gave us the news straight. There was no sugar-coating. "Don't be lookin' for this guy to come back no time soon," she said. "He ain't coming."
This was startling news for a four-year-old. Of course I cried. Yet my mother never allowed us to use my father's departure as a crutch. She seemed callous and cold in her delivery, pulling us close and giving us the truth. Truth hurts, I found out early, but truth builds trust. My mother was committed to it. "We're going to look each other in the face, and we're going to be honest with each other," she said all the time. And that was it. I fell in line with her orders. I began to build a wall to shield me from the loss of my father, and eventually I didn't want him to come back. His absence, in a small way, was motivation. Bolstered by my mother's strength, I grew stronger, but I couldn't escape the deep, painful feelings I held inside. I grew a tough skin, thinking that one day I'd be able to say, "Dad, I did it without you."
On my fifth birthday, my father left a bike at my door. For weeks I had talked about getting a bike for my birthday. I believe my mother communicated this to my father. ...
Without knocking or checking in, my father left this beautiful bike with a bow attached and a note with my nickname, Puffy.
I wanted to hop on that bike and ride around the neighborhood. But I resented my father for once again playing me for a fool - coming to our door but leaving again. I couldn't remember what he looked like. I thought if I rode that bike I would be accepting him leaving the way he had. So I never rode it. Believe me, it took a lot of willpower to stay off it, because I didn't have another bike.
I learned to make it without my father. My mother became both mother and father; I still give her Mother's Day and Father's Day cards. Still, I yearned to know more about my pops.
Losing your father has a greater effect on you than anyone knows. When my father left, I developed self-hatred. I felt I wasn't good enough. Kids gain confidence from their fathers. Many think of their father as Superman. They argue on the school bus about whose daddy is stronger. "My daddy's muscles are this big," they say. ...
I remember in the third grade people asking where my dad was. I lied: He's in Vietnam. Whatever popped into my mind. I'm forced to concoct grander and grander stories, and I soon grew tired of lying.
I walk around thinking: If I wasn't appealing to my daddy, I don't expect to be appealing to you. ...
One day, I ask my mother about my father and her anger lets me know not to ask anymore. That subject is taboo. ... I'm dealing with the pain of my father not being there; meanwhile, she's dealing with the pain of her man not being present. Everyone in the family feels pain, but no one is communicating. His absence creates so many disadvantages in the family structure. I walk around (angry).
In the early 80s, we moved from the Orchard Park projects to the Lane Street projects in Raleigh, N.C., trading one ghetto for another. My mother, who was raised in Dunn, N.C., moved us to the same Raleigh neighborhood as my grandmother, Mattie McDougald. My grandmother and I connected like cookies and milk. She was a Bible-loving, church-going woman who taught me everything from reading to multiplication. Heaping love on me, she helped me adjust and almost forget we were poor and fatherless.
I joined the Raleigh Boys & Girls Club and was introduced to organized sports. I joined a baseball team and immediately the absence of my father became more apparent. My mother had been an athlete, and she was as competitive as any male, yet she lacked instincts where sports were concerned. She wasn't adept at throwing, catching and hitting but she learned. Baseball was her first crash course. Coaches pitched to batters in the first league I joined. I knocked out more home runs than Reggie Jackson on that first team. Boys & Girls coach Ron Williams moved me to another team where batters faced pitching machines. At the next level, I struggled. I struck out four times in my first game. Prideful and embarrassed, I cried all the way home. To help me, my mother made my brother pitch to me as hard as he could while she played the outfield. We stayed out there all night until I started making contact. My mother threw the ball all over the place. She didn't know the difference between a proper batting stance and a karate stance. That was supposed to be my father in the field catching fly balls and making sure my feet were pointed in the right direction.
Throughout the projects in Boston and Raleigh there were so many kids who didn't have fathers that it almost felt bad to miss yours. If you knocked at a hundred doors, there wouldn't be a single father who answered the door. There were males, though most likely a boyfriend or brother but never a biological father. For the most part, we went on with our lives without dads, playing tough, secretly desiring their presence. It bothered me more than I let on.
My emotions would surface when other kids' fathers picked them up and took them somewhere, usually a ballgame or event. Back in Boston, we'd play football in the street and someone's dad would drive up the block and disrupt the game. He'd yell for his son to get in the car. "Where you going?" I'd ask. "To the game," he'd reply. That meant either the Boston Celtics or the Boston Red Sox. From the top floor apartment of our projects, you could see the downtown skyline, as well as the Boston Garden, home of the Celtics basketball team. As close as I lived to it, I had never visited the Garden.
I hated those surprise visits. They ended with me standing alone in the street and my friend waving from the back seat. The next day my friend returned with toys and stories about the game. That tortured me.
My dad's absence bothered me, and there were times when I couldn't avoid thinking of him. I remember March 1, 1986, as clearly as a bad dream. I was 12 years old. I walked into our two-bedroom apartment on Jones Street in Raleigh, and I thought someone had broken into the place. The door was cracked, and I heard crying. I walked into my mom's room, and she was on the floor sobbing uncontrollably. I had never seen her so dispirited, and it drove me berserk. I crawled on the floor and held my mom. Not once did I ask what was wrong or what was going on, because I knew there could be only one thing that could drive her to that emotional state.
Holding my mom's back and crying, I realized my grandmother had died. My grandmother had been back and forth to the hospital for months battling cancer. My mom was staying with her and caring for her in a house not far from our apartment. Mom was the youngest child and was attached to my grandmother's hip. I will never forget the ferocity of her crying and the sadness that overtook that dark room. We stayed on that floor all night.
My mother was distraught for weeks. As she mourned, she wept and barely slept. She broke down cooking dinner. My grandmother's death took an emotional toll I was in no way prepared to handle. My resentment toward my father turned to hatred. I remember thinking, "This is not my job." He should have been there to console my mother. He should have been with his family.
My grandmother's death and my father's absence started to affect me psychologically. If something happened to my mother, who would take care of me? I had a large family but they were estranged from my side of the family. I was scared of becoming an orphan and having to live in a strange place with strange people. If my mother stayed out later than midnight with her friends, I was quick to take her phone book and start dialing numbers. I was terrified of something happening to her. I couldn't exactly pick up the phone and call my father and that really bothered me. ...
Life grew very frustrating. I survived with the help of a few good men. Coach Ron Williams at the Boys & Girls Club helped close some of the learning gaps. He was a hard-nosed guy who had played football at N.C. Central University. He set a standard for me to reach and never relented until I jumped high enough to clear the mark. My godfather, Slick, was a hustler but he steered me away from the streets. He taught me how to spot trouble and move to the other side of the block. Neighborhood baseball coach Peter Cheeks - a loud-talking, numbers-crunching businessman - taught me to stand up for what was right and use my gifts - in sports or school - to win the game. My high school basketball coach, Frank Williams, put his foot in my back and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, teaching me to walk as a young man.
Still, there was no replacing the father who had walked out on me. My mother was correct when she said he wasn't coming back.
After much contemplation, I turned that disappointment into motivation. Sports provided an outlet and helped me create an alter ego to get through the challenging years. My family remained poor through my middle and high school years. Working as a domestic, my mother held two jobs to provide for the family, stretching herself to the point of exhaustion. I excelled at basketball in high school, becoming an honorable mention McDonald's All-American. I received offers from numerous schools, including N.C. State and Wake Forest and decided to attend N.C. Central University, where I am now the head coach. During my senior season there, I received a letter from my father.
The envelope came addressed to me in the coach's office. I read where it was from, a return address in Boston. At first, it didn't make sense. There were a couple of pages. In one passage he wrote that he hoped I was well. "Just wanted to say I'm sorry," it read. I refolded that letter, carried it to the post office and wrote "return to sender" on the envelope. I never told my mother. I knew what she thought about the dude: He was a loser. I didn't want to ruin my senior season with a messy reunion with a guy who had deserted us. He didn't deserve to share in my good fortune. Things were going really well for me. I was scheduled to graduate from college - as my brother had done - and I was the leading scorer in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. I held dreams of reaching the NBA, and a few scouts had been to my games.
The season before, I had been named CIAA player of the year. I was featured on the cover of Dick Vitale's magazine, and newspaper articles were circulating about my feats. This was a mighty convenient time for my father to send a letter and try to reinstate himself in my life.
I was so angry with him, so full of hatred and hurt that I could not think beyond my feelings. I should have given him an opportunity to explain, but I could think only of negative things to say to him.
My thoughts returned to the years he missed. Where was he when we were living in the projects? Every day I'd walk home, and it was life and death on the streets. My route was littered with so many cats who were up to no good. We were living in undesirable circumstances, fending for ourselves with little resources. Many people and songs glorify the ghetto, proclaiming its beauty and wonder. Those who grow up in the ghetto want nothing to do with that description. They want out. There's nothing appealing about broken wine bottles and winos, crack houses and crack whores, murders and funerals. I watched my mother struggle to find financial stability. We used food stamps. We ate spam. There were days I couldn't fix my mouth to ask for a quarter, much less a dollar. My brother and I took turns walking to the public assistance office for government cheese. Things might have been the same - or even worse - if my father had been there, but at least he would have been there going through it with us. When that letter arrived, I couldn't see through the pain and hurt clearly enough to give him an opportunity to explain. So, yeah, I mailed it back.
I never heard from my father again.
I learned to live without my father, and I believed I could handle any situation. Then one day my 3-year-old daughter Brooke landed an unexpected punch through my defenses. Dropped off after a weekend at grandma's house, she ran into our house, crying, and clasped her arms around my knees.
"I want a new MeMa," she said of her grandmother. "She wouldn't let me ride that bike."
"Why," I asked, interrupted by my mother, who was trailing my daughter.
"I don't care about you telling on me," my mother said. "Go ahead and ask him why you can't ride that bike."
I cut a glance at my mother and her expression said, "Yeah, I'm talking about that bike."
Caught off guard, I had to regroup before kneeling down to explain why my daughter couldn't ride the rusty bike in my mom's shed. It was truly a Huxtable moment. Click on the television to "The Cosby Show" and replace Bill Cosby with me. I explained that no member of the Moton family would ever ride that bike. I emphasized that her daddy was not like my daddy; I wasn't going anywhere. I couldn't believe I was having that conversation with my child.
I fumbled through an explanation about my father leaving and then coming back to deliver a sky-blue bike. My daughter is inquisitive, and she put together that my father was connected to her grandmother, like I was connected to her mother. Then she asked, "Why did your dad leave?" That hurt.
I had kept that bike for 35 years, and it had turned a wood-like color. The birthday bow was still attached. The frame was rusty and dirty. I kept the bike as memorabilia. I'm strange that way. It was the only artifact I had of my father besides a worn picture. I didn't have much to remember him by, so that old bike served as a reminder of the man they say looks just like me. It wasn't in shape for anyone to ride. It was something dear to me because my father had given it to me, and no matter the circumstances, you want to love a gift from your father. Yet it was a reminder of the damage my father had done to my family.
I must prepare myself to have this conversation again with my daughter. She is full of questions and will no doubt pass information to her brother. Sadly, they will never know their grandfather and will have only melancholy, passed-down stories about him.
As for that rusty bike, I finally tossed it in the trash.