Anyway, I'm not black, but when I was growing up in the projects in Southern California, I, too, lived in a matriarchal society. (My parents were actually married for 40 years before my dad died, but when I was growing up, he was in and out of the VA Hospital for more than a decade with World War II-related injuries, so my six sisters and I were basically raised by my mom.)
I hung out with a group of about a dozen guys, all jocks, all pretty much more athletically talented than I. Only three of us had fathers who were in the house at least part of the time. I just figured that's the way things were supposed to be. For us, Leave It to Beaver was as far-fetched as Lost in Space.
My three closest friends--Gary, Nippy and Bobby--were all fatherless, albeit for different reasons. Bobby Chacon never talked about his dad. We used to theorize that he was in prison or something, but we never knew. Bobby went on to become the Bantamweight boxing champion of the world in the late 1970s, but then things went horribly wrong. His wife, Val, tried to get him to retire, and when he refused, she killed herself. About 10 years ago, his son--living with Bobby's mom in the same projects that his dad and I grew up in--was killed in a gang shootout. And now Bobby has sunk into boxer's dementia and is living in a ratty old boxing gym in downtown Los Angeles, earning room and board by sweeping the place up at night.
When Nippy's oldest sister, Andrea, was 13, their mom was 26. That should tell you all you need to know about their dad. Nippy always took mad grief about how good-looking his mom was. She eventually became a nurse and got her family out of the projects. One night, she had a date with a white doctor. We all showed up to watch, figuring the guy would look like Adam West of Batman. Instead, he looked like Obi-Wan Kenobi. We later figured that he was old enough and established enough to say "screw you" to anybody who questioned his choice of dates.
My mom was unable to work, so she stayed home with the kids. She quickly earned a reputation as the best cook among the moms, and she would make these huge Italian meals for all the guys. She also became real popular with her sense of humor--most of her jokes were aimed at me. Her schtick still works with my kids, who invariably point out how Grandma is way funnier than Dad.
Gary's mom was probably the most amazing. She and her husband had had three sons who were roughly two years apart in age. The parents decided to move from the South to California, but while driving across West Texas, there was a horrible crash, and Gary's dad was killed. Gary's mom had a broken back, but somehow scooped up her three sons--who were 2, 1 and a newborn at the time--and carried them more than 10 miles back to the nearest town. Not surprisingly, for that time and place, nobody stopped to help her.
After recuperating, she eventually made it to L.A., and that lady worked three jobs to keep her family afloat. She even got a house, about a block away from the projects. When Gary got this huge signing bonus from the San Francisco Giants, he offered to buy her a newer, nicer house, but she refused, and the last time I saw her, she was still living there. After a 15-year, major-league career, Gary is now the hitting coach for the Chicago Cubs. He was in Phoenix last week, and I meant to go see him, but my kids had sports, and I never made it up there.
We were all raised by our own and by each others' mothers. Most of us turned out OK, but I've often wondered what would have happened if the other guys had had dads. Would the presence of a man in the house make the kids grow up to be better men themselves? I don't think there's any doubt. That's why it makes me wanna holler when I hear young women talk about "my baby's daddy," as though it's some meter reader who shows up once a month (which, of course, it might very well be).
Our moms did an incredible job in a tough situation, and wherever they are, I wish them all a well-earned Happy Mother's Day.