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The true hero of Craig Melvin's book 'Pops' is... Mom

In chronicling his journey to reconciliation with his father, Melvin feels bad about someone he overlooked.

The most powerful character in Craig Melvin’s new book, “POPS: Learning To Be a Son and a Father," is, surprisingly, not the namesake of the book, Craig's dad Lawrence Melvin.

Yes, Craig wrote the book in honor of his father and their long journey to reconciliation after a lifetime of a fraught relationship fueled by Lawrence’s addiction to alcohol and his absentee parenting. And, yes, Craig poignantly portrays how Lawrence, at age 67, finally faced his demons, enabling him to redefine his relationship with his son and grandchildren.

But the person who stands out as the true hero in “POPS” is Craig’s … mom.

"I would not be where I am professionally and personally had it not been for my mother.”

In an interview with TODAY Parents, Craig said he feels guilty that his first book is about his dad when his mother, Betty Jo Melvin, has been his rock his entire life.

Craig gave both his parents an early draft of the book to get feedback and make sure it was factually accurate. Dad Lawrence had “no notes,” Craig said. “He was pleasantly surprised that I remembered so much.”

Craig Melvin at his college graduation with his brother, Ryan, mom Betty Jo, and dad Lawrence. Courtesy Craig Melvin

Betty Jo, on the other hand, wanted to offer “some unsolicited editorial input, as my mother is inclined to do from time to time,” Craig said, adding that he understands why reading the book would be tough for his mom.

“For her, I think it was hard because the title of the book is ‘POPS.’ And the reality is, for most of my life, she played the role of Mom AND Pops,” he said. “And here, I wrote 200-plus pages celebrating fatherhood and celebrating my dad climbing this mountain. And the reality is, I would not be where I am professionally and personally had it not been for my mother.”

“It was a little difficult because I know how much she sacrificed for us, for our family,” Melvin said, choking up during a phone conversation. “And here I go writing a tribute book to my father celebrating his three or four good years. And the reality is she has given me 40-plus great years. And I struggle with that.”

The book is out June 15, 2021. Courtesy Craig Melvin

In “POPS,” Craig describes his childhood growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, where his alcoholic dad worked the graveyard shift at a postal facility while his mom worked first as a teacher and later a bank teller. She was also the person who took care of the extended family, took Craig and his younger brother to church every Sunday, kept them on task with school and demanded they get involved in other activities.

Craig writes in the book that he was 7 when Betty Jo, the first in her family to graduate from college, became a kindergarten teacher.

“It was a forty-five minute commute each way, and that’s how I became a latchkey kid. She would have to leave early, before I was off to school, and she get home long after I did. Ryan would be at an informal day care setup at a neighbor’s house, and Pops would be home, but asleep or drunk or both.”

A young Craig Melvin on his dad's 1973 Pontiac LeMans. Tinkering with the car was one of the few ways Melvin bonded with his dad, Lawrence. Courtesy Craig Melvin

In scene after scene throughout “POPS,” Craig chronicles situations where Betty Jo would have to pick up the slack because Lawrence was either intoxicated or gambling or just absent. When Lawrence squandered tens of thousands of dollars on video poker, and the bills weren’t getting paid, Betty Jo got a second job to make ends meet. She eventually earned a master’s degree to make more money in her job. Betty Jo was also the reason the Melvins moved to a diverse neighborhood in a solid school district.

In writing the book, Craig learned that his mom had an additional “stipulation” for choosing the neighborhood. “It had to be a house I could make payments on if your daddy left, I had to be able to afford it on my own…”

Betti Jo Melvin, shown here in a family portrait with Craig, his dad Lawrence and brother Ryan, was a fiercely protective mother who held the family together. Courtesy Craig Melvin

Craig writes that by the time he got to high school, his father’s drinking and gambling didn’t bother him near as much as the fact that his father was never around and wasn’t a part of his social or school life.

“Everyone knew I had a father. It wasn’t like he was dead or in prison or sick. He wasn’t an invalid. He had absented himself. In fact, he was spotted so rarely in public… that one of my friends started calling him the Ghost, which became my father’s nickname among my friends.”

Craig poignantly writes about how, as an adult, he finally understood the toll his father’s addiction had taken on his parents’ marriage and he tried to convince his mother to leave the marriage.

“I told her I wanted her to be happy and that I thought she would be if she divorced him… Mom did consider leaving him several times… At one point she rented a storage unit, in preparation for moving out. But she never did,” he writes in the book.

“My mom has a saying,” Craig said. “It's 'We don’t do divorced.'”