My mother told me . . .
There’ll be hard times.
DELICIOUS AROMAS FILLED THE HOUSE. MY MOTHER HAD been cooking all day. Barbecued chicken, sweet potatoes, biscuits and gravy, food for the body and the soul. My brothers and I were squirming with excitement, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on the toy soldiers scattered across the den floor. The sound of a car door slamming brought us running past the living room -toward the front door, and I heard my mother call out, “You slow down, you hear me? You all are going to break your necks!”
I skidded to a halt in the entrance hall, my younger brothers piling up behind me like train cars on a railroad track. We heard the rattle of a key ring and the door opened. The man who walked into the foyer wore a white shirt, black suit, and dark sunglasses. I glanced back at my mother, who had come up behind us, and she smiled and nodded at me. “Go on, now.”
As I ran -toward the open door, the man’s dark face split wide with a brilliant grin. “Baby,” he murmured, as he knelt down to meet me. His fingers sought my head, feeling its shape, then moved gently over my eyes and down my face. He gripped my shoulders, running his hands down my arms, squeezing my wrists, feeling the shape and the height of me. He nodded, saying, “All right, then. You’re gettin’ big.” Only then did I throw myself into his arms, his silk shirt liquid against my face, his cheek rough as he turned to kiss me. I breathed him in, that trademark blend of Brut and cigarettes that was my father. Daddy was home. Nothing else mattered.
I spent most of my childhood waiting for my dad to come home from the road. It always felt like he was never coming back. It has been six years since he passed away, but I still feel as though I’m waiting. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him—each time I look in a mirror, each time I introduce myself, each time I remember who he was, each time I wonder who I am. My father was Ray Charles, and I have the honor and the burden of carrying his name. I have never been certain what I was supposed to do with that name. When he left us for good, I knew it was time to figure it out. If I am to have a future, I must begin by understanding the past.
MY FATHER WAS BORN in Albany, Georgia, on September 23, 1930. His mother, Aretha Williams, was only fourteen when he was born, and she had been sent away to relatives to have her baby, where the gossiping neighbors -couldn’t reach her. She returned to her hometown of Greenville, Florida, a few weeks later with my father in her arms. She named her tiny son Ray Charles Robinson. My grandfather, Bailey Robinson, had given his son a last name but little else. He was already married to another woman named Mary Jane, and there would be other women and other children as well. I don’t know much about my paternal grandfather. My father never spoke to me about him unless my brothers and I asked questions. I’m not sure how much he even remembered. My grandfather had passed by the time my father was ten. He remained in my father’s memory as a shadowy figure, a tall presence that showed up in my grandmother’s tiny home every now and then to be with her, leaving before the sun rose the next day.
Greenville was no more than a speck on the map when my father was growing up there. The entire town was less than a mile and a half wide, and everyone was poor. It was just a question of how poor. My father’s family was at the bottom of the economic ladder. As he put it, there was nothing between him and the bottom but dirt. Still there were blessings. A year after my father was born, my grandmother gave birth to another son, George. George and RC, as everyone called my father, were inseparable. Wherever my father went, neighbors recall, George was right behind him, a small shadow struggling to keep up with his big brother. And they went everywhere their feet would carry them. My father still had his eyesight then, and he and George loved to explore, running barefoot down the dirt roads, through the fields, and in and out of the small jumble of buildings that made up the town. George was a whiz with numbers, and by three years old had such a remarkable ability in math that people came just to watch him do problems. The brothers had no toys, so George made little cars and gadgets out of scraps of wood and wire. He had a gift, my father said. George could make anything.
Then there were the Pitmans, the couple who owned the Red Wing Café and general store. My father called Wylie Pitman “Mr. Pit.” He loved to run through the little town to Mr. Pit’s store, sometimes to fetch things for his mother, sometimes just to see Mr. and Mrs. Pit. He still spoke about Mr. Pit when I was growing up. It was Wylie Pitman who taught my father his notes on the old upright piano in the store. I don’t know if the Pitmans recognized my father’s musical ability or if they just liked him. Either way, it was Mr. Pit who gave my father his start in music when he was just a little boy.
Most important, my father had his mother, and he also had the woman he called his “other mother,” Bailey Robinson’s wife, Mary Jane. Mary Jane and Aretha could easily have been divided by jealousy, but that was never the case. Mary Jane loved and watched out for young Aretha, and she watched out for my father and George, too. Mary Jane had lost her own son shortly before my father was born, and Aretha’s small boy helped fill the hole in her heart. Much older than Aretha, Mary Jane became the only grandmother my father ever knew She nurtured him, bought him little presents, and was lenient with him. My dad said his mother was the exact opposite of Mary Jane, very strict, always trying to instill discipline in him. He would tell us about his mother if we asked him. He spoke of how strong she was in her spirit, how beautiful she was, how he loved to touch her long, soft hair. It seemed like his mother was my father’s world when he was a child. My grandmother -didn’t have money to buy her sons shoes or much else, but she gave her boys freedom to explore and a safe place to come home to. Those first years were dim in my father’s memory, but the memories were all good ones.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from You Don't Know Me by Ray Charles Robinson Jr. with Mary Jane Ross. Copyright © 2010 by Ray Charles Robinson, JR.. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.