Reginald Mason was 11 when his father died, so his mother raised him in Harlem by herself.
"She made me and shaped me as a man," Mason, now 47, told StoryCorps, "which, to me, was very difficult for a woman to do without a father being around."
She did a good job, Mason said — despite her toughness.
"The first time my mother told me that she actually loved me, I was 32," he said.
Mason recalls watching his mother struggle financially.
"I remember many months with no lights, and, you know, being laughed at at school for wearing blue and black mismatched socks," Mason said.
But his mother bought lots of candles and always made sure he had something to eat.
"You know, when you start living off ketchup and hot water and black bean soup, and it's all you can afford, you start to think -- I don't want to go back to this," Mason said.
Mason noticed that his mother's jobs were taking a toll on her, so he went out on the streets to make some "fast money."
"And I did," Mason said. "I was hustling. And I knew if she saw me, she'd pin me down, so I just avoided her. You know, I'd have people in the streets say, 'Your mom is coming,' [and I'd] run around the corner."
Years later, Mason worked for the city's Department of Sanitation and the post office. He later attended college, and today he is a consultant for nonprofits.
His mother moved into a nursing home, where Mason regularly visited until her death in 2009. He spent every Sunday reading her the paper, which she could no longer do because she was blind.
"I remember when I was telling my mother that I got promoted," Mason said. "She took her glasses off — like she could see — and she said one line: 'It all paid off.' And she was right."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And it is Friday morning; time for StoryCorps, the project recording the lives of everyday Americans. Today we hear from Reginald Mason, who came to StoryCorps to talk about growing up in New York City. It was the 1970s, and Reginald was being raised by a single mom in Harlem.
REGINALD MASON: My mother was very tough on me because my father passed away when I was 11. So she made me, and shaped me, as a man; which to me, was very difficult for a woman to do without a father being around. But she did a good job. She was very strict. The first time my mother told me that she actually loved me, I was 32, you know.
And growing up, she couldn't handle the household financially. So I remember many months with no lights and, you know, being laughed at - at school - for wearing blue and black, mismatched socks. And she would just try to compensate. She would just buy a whole lot of candles, and try to make it so I can at least get dressed for school and have something to eat, you know. When you start living off ketchup and hot water and black bean soup, and it's all you can afford, you start to think: I don't want to go back to this.
The jobs that she was doing, it was tearing her body down. So I was headed for the streets. I needed to make some fast money, and I did. I was hustling. And I knew if she saw me, she'd pin me down. So I just avoided her, you know. I - have people in the streets say, your mom is coming! Run around the corner. But years later, I've worked for the Department of Sanitation; worked for the Post Office. And I went to college.
Now, my mother, she's in a nursing home. I go every Sunday and take the paper, and I read to her. She's blind. I remember when I was telling my mother that I got promoted. She took her glasses off, like she could see, and she said one line: "It all paid off." And she was right.
INSKEEP: That's Reginald Mason at StoryCorps, in New York. His mother died shortly after he recorded that interview. His interview will be archived, along with all the others, at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. And as always, you can get the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.