Ray Duckler: Bond forged years ago draws NYC man back to his 'other' family in Concord
Obreight Ingram reflects on his childhood memories on the porch as Carol McCarthy gets a kiss from O.B. and holds Obreight's baby Kai.
(GEOFF FORESTER/Monitor staff)
Carol McCarthy's son Jared lines up with Obreight Ingram to see who is taller during a visit last weekend in Concord.
(GEOFF FORESTER/Monitor staff)
Obreight Ingram stands tall at Josh McCarthy's playoff game in Suncook with family and friends in the 1990s.
Jordan, Joshua, Jared
Read the text, from a man who once raced down a dangerous road in life faster than a New York City cabbie, and you begin to understand.
“If I ever become rich beyond my wildest dreams I’ll be sure to donate to the Fresh Air Fund,” Obreight Ingram, who lives in NYC, texted in February. “My family gets to know y’all as a result, and I get to still have you guys in my life. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed. I mean, look at us now.”
Now, Ingram and Carol McCarthy’s family, who hosted this troubled kid in Bow through the 1990s thanks to a program that allows inner city kids to breathe, are back in each other’s lives.
The next group of Fresh Air kids hits 12 cities and towns in the state tomorrow. Each child will move in with a host family for two weeks. Who knows what sort of relationships may surface there?
Ingram and McCarthy, who now lives in Concord, lost touch 15 years ago, for reasons that are not totally clear. What is clear is that Ingram, with no father and an addicted mother, began to slip into reckless, criminal behavior, yet he never forgot lessons learned here, that family and work and dignity could replace drugs and addiction and jail.
“It helped coming here, knowing there’s another part of life,” Ingram said last week at McCarthy’s house in Concord. “It anchored me. I thought that maybe I could have a family and bring these things to my own family.”
Facebook brought the two families together recently, and another gap like the last one appears to be a long shot at best.
Ingram, his wife, Sheena, and their two young sons came to visit, their third trip in the past two years after so long apart. They sat on McCarthy’s porch on a cloudless day. They looked at old photos, when Ingram was in grade school and towered over McCarthy’s three sons. They tossed around memories like a baseball in the outfield.
That Ingram has emerged with a GED, a college education, a high-paying construction job in New York City and a family that smiles all day is remarkable.
That he cried when he realized, via the internet, that he had reconnected with these people is priceless. Ingram, after all, is big like a mountain, 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, with a background as tough as the bricks and cement that always surrounded him.
“This is my family here, man,” Ingram said.
‘The best she could’
Born and raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Ingram’s biological family included a father he never knew and a mother who was addicted to heroin and drank too much.
Give her credit, though. Something told her it’d be a good idea to bring her son to a drop-off point each summer for a bus ride to New Hampshire.
“This was peace,” Ingram said. “My childhood was not the best. My mom did the best she could.”
He first came at age 6, playing with McCarthy’s three sons: Jordan, now 26, Jared, 28, and Josh, 30, the same age as Ingram. If Ingram saw a toy on a neighbor’s driveway, he assumed it was up for grabs and pocketed it, just like he’d always done in NYC.
They camped, hiked, went to Story Land, played baseball and played flashlight tag. Ingram did his best to blend in, which is hard around here when you’re black, you have no discipline back home and you’re a foot taller than everyone your age.
So when they went swimming, Ingram pretended he could swim and did his best to splash around. And when they biked, he pretended he could bike, doing his best to keep his balance and create a smooth pedaling motion. He messed up at least once, and pointed to the scar on his calf to prove it.
McCarthy didn’t know all the details behind the boy she was hosting. She’d pack him a sandwich and coloring book for his ride back to New York.
She says she always wondered about his home life.
“I assumed some things,” said McCarthy, a former teacher who now works as a special education coordinator in Concord. “Our impression was he was pretty well cared for, but we were not sure. As a child we put him on the Fresh Air bus at Everett Arena and we thought he was crying because he would miss us. We had a good time.”
He cried because he loved his “other” family, true, but he also cried because he could smell alcohol on his mother’s breath when she picked him up back in the city. Fighting was part of the family dynamics, in a crowded, hectic environment, a sharp contrast to those airy two-week romps through the state’s beauty.
‘Turn it around’
So it surely wasn’t surprising when Ingram began getting into trouble. He stopped visiting McCarthy by age 15. One summer, with his Fresh Air family waiting at the Everett parking lot, he simply didn’t show up.
“We had moved to Manhattan and my mom didn’t take me to the bus station,” Ingram remembered. “Life started to move 100 miles an hour. Stuff happened. I missed that summer here, started running around, not being focused. Mom wouldn’t check on what I was doing.”
He dropped out of high school, got arrested for swiping a teacher’s bike, drank in the morning, smoked cigarettes all day.
Then, in a sudden twist, he earned his high school equivalency diploma by age 17 and graduated from a state college in upstate New York. He got a $60-an-hour construction job and helped build the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. He’s also working at the World Trade Center site.
Ingram said maybe 30 out of every 100 freshmen at his high school graduated. He beat the odds.
“Maybe these guys had something to do with it ,” Ingram said, nodding toward McCarthy and Jared, who recently returned from the Peace Corps. “Not maybe, definitely these guys. And me being a positive person helped me turn it around.”
He married Sheena, an EMT whose maternity leave ends soon. She’s going to school in January to become a paramedic. She laughs at the name “Delilah,” tattooed on her husband’s oak tree-like arm, which also includes the New York City skyline.
“An old girlfriend,” Sheena said, laughing. “From a long time ago.”
A lifetime ago, really. O.B., 5, and Kai, 3 months old, are new to this life. In fact, Kai wasn’t born yet when the family spent a weekend here during the last holiday season.
That had soon followed the Facebook connection between Ingram and Jordan, McCarthy’s youngest son. (He was working during our meeting last week; Josh was at a wedding.)
Once reality hit, Ingram cried, but his tears had nothing to do with life’s pain. “I didn’t do anything for an hour,” he said. “This is part of my childhood, which makes them part of my life. I feel more complete.”
“And so do we,” McCarthy added.
She and her family hosted several other children through the years, before McCarthy and her husband divorced and their children grew up.
But this child, this story, this ending, which is really a second beginning, is unique.
Ingram and his family stayed for the weekend, with O.B. remaining behind a few extra days. He played outside, like his dad once did. He went to Market Days. The plan calls for him to have a lifetime relationship with this family.
Ingram’s text five months ago made that clear.
“The love is everlasting and a poignant time in my life’s history. When the time is right you will know more about what I was coming home to, which directly translated into my appreciation of your love and time. Thanx again.
You’re the best.”