In the springtime when we were kids, we’d pick lilacs off of the bushes in our backyard and wrap a piece of aluminum foil around the stems to bring to our teachers. In the summer, we spent full days in our four-foot above-ground pool, the hopeful smell of charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid in the air. In the winter, we’d play King of the Mountain on top of the giant snow piles in the front yard. And pretty much always, there was wiffleball.
Our Dad had four girls and when people asked him if he ever missed having a boy, he laughed and said he was just athlete enough for wiffleball in the backyard. It’s true, we all played softball in the spring, some of us better than others. My younger sister, Erin, was a strong pitcher and hitter, while my much-too-big catcher equipment hung off my tiny frame as I dutifully ran to the backstop to collect each missed pitch. In the yard, though, Dad was the pitcher and everyone had a chance to run to the broken off metal-flagpole-in concrete that served as first base (we had no idea how dangerous that was!), then to the lilac bushes for second, the edge of a patio stone for third and back to the big leafy tree that was home plate.
When our uncle was struggling hard with both divorce and alcoholism, it was my Dad who threw the ball to our cousins in our makeshift ball field. Our Dad who skimmed and vacuumed the pool we all swam in. Our Dad who raked and bagged the leaves that fell from the many trees that circled our space. As in many households, the yard was our Dad’s domain and the house was our Mom’s. The same is true in my house now, as it may be in yours.
The tree that was home base has been gone for many years, and I can’t remember why exactly it was removed, though it did make it easier to mow the grass. The pool lasted almost as long as our Mom, long enough for her to have some say in what to do with the giant hole that was left in its wake. The inch of flagpole-in-concrete has been covered by grass, thankfully, over time. These days, you don’t smell charcoal in the air and when the snow falls now, it’s never a game but always a worry. So much of what might remind us of our childhood is gone, and this week there was yet another loss. My Dad’s neighbors removed the trees and bushes that once provided a border, lilacs, second base, and an organic backstop for all of our well-hit wiffleballs. My Dad called to tell me about it, and said the difference was pretty startling, but like most changes and losses, we will get accustomed to it. The neighbor has good plans for landscaping and fencing, and he’ll take good care of it I’m sure, but still, our backyard games of wiffleball were the first thought our Dad had. “We had a lot of fun out there,” he said, and he was right.
Of course, you don’t need to touch a physical tree or the lining of an above-ground pool to remember the days spent in the vicinity of those things. Memories live apart from physicality, though holding a photograph can quickly bring a memory back, like the one I saw recently of our friends the Verges and us cheesing in our pool as kids. For my Dad, though, the removal of those trees and lilac bushes brought him that unique blend of pain and joy that is nostalgia. It’s good to remember and it’s also hard, especially in the wake of so much loss.
And that’s why what happened next was so incredibly wonderful.
My Dad’s childhood friend, Tommy, was over for a visit, and as my father showed him the carnage that was his yard, he spotted something along the neighbor’s border, just sitting there in the grass. It was a wiffleball. Maybe it had been hidden in the bushes all those years, covered over by decades of snow, ice, melting, and new and fallen leaves. Maybe it was hit hard and lodged way up high in one of those trees, wedged within its branches and watching over the yard for years, a singular and stalwart witness to all of the changes in our family and home. If that’s the case, one thing’s for sure: it wasn’t me who hit that ball, and the only reason I have it in my possession is a promise I made to my Dad to memorialize the thing. As it turns out, this piece is much more about my Dad than a ball which is, of course, as it should be.
Like that tough little wiffleball, memories are messy and stubborn things. They hold on when it’s so much more likely that they’ll let go. They stick with us through time and loss and change. They remain and endure, made much more valuable with the passing of the years. And on some sacred days, you can hold one in your hand, close your eyes, and experience all of the joy that once was had. It’s precious, unbreakable, and entirely yours while you hold it in your hand, even when the wind blows.
For my Dad: keeper of the yard, the memories, and Home Base.