Their Own Field of Dreams

Another post from a few years ago…

Soon in Downers Grove, Washington Park will reopen. It has been closed for the past fifteen months in order to create vast retention ponds to manage the excessive storm water runoff in the surrounding neighborhood. Before Washington Park was designated as a site for storm water reclamation, there was a lot of discussion about what would be the site’s best use. Should it remain a park? Should it become a pool? How would any choice affect the neighborhood, the Village, the tax base?

Perhaps overlooked, Washington Park is a neighborhood park. It’s not as large as some of our other parks such as McCullom or Doerhoffer, but it’s big enough to contain a parking lot, playlot, and a sports field – not to mention infinite dreams and memories. The general configuration of the park will be much the same as it was prior to the project, but upon completion, the playground and the baseball field will be gloriously improved.

That baseball field. At this point in construction, the outfield is occupied by an oversized, abandoned digger, but it should be clear to anyone driving past that the field is going to be something spectacular. The ballpark reopening is an event of immense anticipation in my house. Before Washington Park closed for construction, and the last rubber cleat stomped triumphantly on home plate, my husband and our boys called it “their field.” Many times they set out to play at Washington only to find it occupied by the girls’ softball league, or another family playing, but more often it was open, waiting for the next group of kids and their big league dreams to drop their equipment behind the backstop and take the field.

It has been said that in our modern world, a good, kids-only game of pick-up baseball is nearly impossible to find, and that is indisputable. But in our family, the biggest kid is my husband, so there’s no need to find a pick-up game. My husband creates one. He has yet to outgrow that childhood urge to hit the field with a ball, bat and glove, waiting for friends to show up to play. Time passes and a few things have necessarily changed. As an adult, to get to the ballpark, he no longer lurches across town on his Schwinn, wearing his glove for a bike helmet. These days, my husband loads his equipment and our two young boys into the mini-van – his teammates.

And so there they are, my two little boys and their dad, still a boy at heart – throwing fast balls and change-ups; calculating the trajectory of high flies for easy outs; clinching their bats, digging in their heels and pointing their shoulders to the outfield, keeping their chins high and waiting for the right pitch; rounding the bases quick as licks. Their dad alternates between player and coach, gently explaining the finer points of technique to any kid who happens to make it to the field that day. It’s a pick-up game, but so much more.

Whether a park is simple, as Washington Park was years ago, before the former elementary school building was razed and neighborhood kids played on the playground when school was out; elaborate, as it was prior to this current project; or deluxe, with a cherry on top as it’ll be when construction is finally complete and the park re-opens, it makes no real difference to children who play baseball there. It may be more glamorous to sit in a concrete dugout than on a galvanized metal bench tucked behind a makeshift backstop, but the game is still the same. In essence, it’s a simple game, comfortable and familiar, like vanilla ice cream or mashed potatoes. It’s beautiful because of its simplicity and in spite of what grown-ups and construction crews do to improve it; and crossing home plate feels just as exhilarating in a new ballpark as it does on a grass field with a trash-can-lid home plate. The milestones and victories are just as sweet.

I watch proudly as my little boys grow increasingly mature playing this sport, their self-esteem growing more positive with every good play, and their character built with those less brilliant. It isn’t the bells and whistles of a particular ballpark that matter, the importance lies in the dreams and imaginations of the children who play there.

So while the Persons Who Are in Charge of These Things sort out their contracts and revised timelines, my boys will continue to play in the backyard and on other fields, and will wait impatiently for Washington Park’s reopening so they can play again on the field they consider their own – a field that will be elaborate in design, but where the simplicity of the game of baseball and the lyrical dreams of children will still be the rule.

Cirque du Sill-ay

Being five-two is just fine as long as you have a few good stepladders and some comfortable, yet very high, high-heeled shoes. Just like anyone with any size of frame you make adjustments. You learn which styles of clothing work and which don’t, where the car seat needs to be when you drive a particular car, which hole to choose for your belt buckle. And you learn where your advantage lies. Cereal boxes in the cabinets over the refrigerator – not the best option for my kitchen, but sitting in the unoccupied side of the babies’ double stroller on the sidelines at the flag football game? Thanks. Don’t mind if I do.

When you are a certain size – a certain smallish size – flying coach is also more comfortable. United has more leg room? Who needs it? With legs like these, I can curl up and fit just about anywhere. I am portable. Still, there are limits.

A few years ago, I was seated in the center seat, next to a largish and sleepy man who was on the aisle. You would think that because I occupy a smaller cubic space than the average person, it would be a very compatible seating arrangement. His overflow would naturally fit with my under. His yen, my yang. But no, I am terribly greedy about my space and don’t like to share my seat with anyone. I like to put my water bottle on this side of me and my wrap and things to read, on that side, so there’s little room left for another person’s elbow, arm or worse. Though my neighbor might crowd me, I’d never say anything because I wouldn’t want to make him feel hurt or mad, so I just scoot over into a corner of my seat and pray for an early arrival.

The drinks were served and I had my usual club soda or club soda and bourbon as well as the giant one-point-five liter bottle of Evian from the concourse newsstand, so naturally, after a while it was time to go to the little lavatory. A problem: my neighbor was sleeping – deeply sleeping with sound effects– snoring and heavy breathing. His eyes were moving under his eyelids. I was definitely not going to wake him, but he was generously proportioned, occupying his entire seating space and all of his legroom as well as half of mine, so getting out would be tricky. I thought about it for some time, plotting my route using my best visualization techniques. If I stood on my seat and grabbed the top of the seat in front of the big guy with my hands, using my full arm strength and core Pilates muscles, I could vault up and over the man’s lap, curling my legs up into my stomach to avoid kicking him in his  (an unpleasant way to awake); then, while hovering over the sleeping giant, I would swing and twist my torso so I would land, cat-like in the aisle where I would smooth out my clothing and walk casually to the lav.

What actually happened was this:

I implemented the plan. I stood on my seat, crouching, so as not to attract unwanted attention, possibly necessitating my being sedated and handcuffed to the flight attendants’ station for the duration of the flight; while in the crouched position, I reached up to grab the top of the seatback directly in front of my sacked-out neighbor – this was going according to plan so far, and I paused briefly to appreciate my imminent success and to self-praise.

Then, while reaching for the seatback, I analyzed my seat-mate for clues as to his sleep stage. It was a mistake, and I realized that immediately. I should have been looking down at that forward seat before outreaching my arm, because what I held in my hand was not the scratchy airline upholstery of the seatback or even the cottony, fabric-paper that is sometimes use to cover it, instead my hand rested upon the mostly bald head of the unsuspecting man seated one row ahead. The air vent was pointing directly to the crown of his head, so it was freezing, his head, and a little slippery, hard, yet with a slightly cushioned feel to the clammy skin.

Well, this development surprised us both. And normally, the escape would have necessarily been aborted, but with a bladder full of Evian and Canada Dry Club Soda, it was essential to make the international shush sign, while pointing at the sleeping man with my free elbow, and then whisper a quick apology before I vaulted like an acrobat across the narcoleptic man, dealing him a swift kick to the gut with both of my heels before landing in the aisle, smoothing out my clothing and running casually to the lavatory which was, naturally, occupied.

I don’t care if you’re six-two, five-two or two-five, grabbing a bald man’s head and then, in quick progression, kicking a fat man in the stomach with all the grace of a nanny goat is not the preferred way to make friends. My trip back from the lav included a feverish, yet unsuccessful search for new accommodations. I returned with apologies and promises of good behavior. On the plus side, my neighbor, now wide awake, was eager to stand and let me slide into my seat just like United intended.

 

I Won’t Grow Up

Written when Claudia was only three… 

 

Claudia wants to be a lot of things when she grows up. A doctor? No. The president? No. A princess? Still no. Not any of those things for her future. What she wants is to be a puppy, or a baby, or a little boy, or a mommy – specifically me. She’ll say, “When I grow up, and I be a big mommy, I wear that necklace.” or, “When I be a big mommy, I drive this car.” She imagines she will transform into a specific thing or person rather than a taller and more mature version of herself.

Yesterday when we were reading from “Winnie the Pooh,” she pointed to one of the illustrations. It shows Christopher Robin walking home with Piglet and Pooh, all holding hands – Christopher Robin holding Piglet’s hand and Piglet holding Pooh’s. She pointed to Piglet and said, “When I grow up, I be Piglet.” “Oh, really?” I said, thinking – how cute is that? Piglet? Adorable. Then still pointing, she said, “And Nahn be Pooh, and Henry be that boy (Christopher Robin). You see in the illustration, Christopher is bigger than Pooh, who is bigger than Piglet – just like little Claudie and her two brothers, each one bigger by age. She knows she will grow up someday, and maybe she even senses she won’t be with Jim and me like she is now, but I don’t think she can imagine not being with her brothers. They are together– the three of them. They fight, and they scream and cry at each other, but they are joined and I don’t think Claudia can imagine a time when they will experience diaspora and go live their individual lives, or that there will be another boy in her life who she’ll love even more than her brothers or her daddy.

Once, and in a very casual way, my dad mentioned that there would be a time when I would leave him to get married. I was about six-years-old and I was frankly, appalled. I swore that could never happen. I remember how nervous I felt in the bottom of my stomach that he could be right or that he even thought I could be capable of such treason. Or worse, that he might want me to do that someday – to leave him – to leave my daddy who I loved so much. Never could I do that – but I did. I left him even before I got married, I left him. I grew up and went to college and left – gladly I left, and she will too. Claudie will leave us and so will John and so will Henry. So I hug them tight, and I memorize them, and I adore them, and try to teach them to want to come back to me, and to train a little corner of their hearts to hold us inside forever.

The other day Claudia had something very important to announce.

“Mommy? Mommy? I tell you something? Mommy, when I grow up, I be an apple and you be a pear, and we be friends!”

I picture us sitting in the fruit bowl together. Laughing and playing, joking around with those crazy banana quintuplets. Rolling our eyes at the grapefruit’s worn out stories of his winter in Florida. The problem is, I’m pretty sure Claudie hasn’t thought this one through. What happens if someone in the house gets hungry? I shudder to think of the excruciating pain as those big, fluoridated teeth would crunch us – or maybe we’d be made into a pie! First peeled, then sliced, sprinkled with sugar and cornstarch and roasted. Horrific way to go, but at least we’d be beautiful and delicious – crisp and juicy – nestled inside a flaky, buttery crust.  And we’d be together.

Speaking of flaky, growing up to be an apple and pear is not the final word. Claudia wavers. Her aspirations of adulthood jiggle around like squares of Jello. Just this evening, she said she wants to be a cupcake when she grows up, and I’ll be a cupcake too. Though earlier, in the car, she said, “Mommy, when you grow up, you be baby.” I asked her what she’d be and of course, she’s going to grow up to be a Big Mommy.

Whenever she refers to any one of my friends she first calls her a big girl or a big-girl-mommy, but then it gets abbreviated to “big mommy.” It reminds me of how huge we are compared to her. Can I remember what it felt like to be so really little? Tiny in a world of giants – adults who were more than twice as tall? I used to snake my way through a crowd of them, unseen and small, grazing past their knees. Today, I’m all grown up but at just under five-foot-two, I can still maneuver through crowds of big grown-ups pretty well, but back when I was three or so, just as Claudia must perceive it now, grown-ups seemed to occupy another stratosphere entirely.

Occasionally, my dad would raise me up above them all and let me perch atop his shoulders. How unnatural that felt. It was fun up there in the thinner and glorious grown-up air, but it was also like crashing a party – you want to have fun, but nothing feels right, and everyone knows you don’t belong.

So Claudia is three and tiny because of it. She quizzes me regularly.

“I tiny?”

“Yes, Claudie. You’re tiny.”

“I getting bigger?”

“Of course, very big!”

“You big, Mommy?”

“Yes. Mommy’s big because I’m a grown-up.”

She pauses while she assimilates this information, then:

“When I be big, I be a big Mommy… Mommy, you be baby when you grow up?”

I think it just doesn’t seem possible that her best friend, her very own mommy, is a real grown-up – the same as a teacher or nanny or store clerk. She’s trying to place me and figure out how I fit in because her Mommy simply could not be one of them. She hasn’t quite separated me from herself, therefore she must reason that I can’t be a real grown-up. I must be changing too. And for now, I’m changing into a cupcake. And I’ll be “nummy” – pink with polka-dots and I’ll be dressed in a green paper wrapper – Claudie says so.

Early Departure

I wrote this a few years ago.  It’s taken a while to let it go…

The man who lives across the street from me is dying. Dying from brain cancer. Only forty-three-years-old. Father of two. A boy and a girl. Seven and five. A husband. A son. A professional. A kind, soft-spoken man. He’s dying.

Hospice has been called in to tie up the lose ends of a disease that has ravaged him and his family. The home health aids come in to the house too. The parents and in-laws come. The friends and neighbors come. The man doesn’t come out of the house now though. He’s inside. The visitors go inside, and then after some time, they come back out. They stare ahead or down, and they walk to their cars.

The man’s father just came out and walked very slowly, expressionless and lost to his mini-van. He opened the trunk to get something out, then he put the thing in the front of the car, sat for a second, then opened the side of the van and put it in the back seat, then he changed his mind and put it back in the trunk. All of this was done with a blank look-a limp body-by a man who will outlive his child. A man who will have to endure the worst loss a person can endure. He will endure a loss different in scope than the loss of all four limbs. The muscle that holds his heart down into his chest will atrophy – that unseen muscle that’s knitted into our chests to anchor our hearts in place and keep them from floating right out into space and oblivion.

Or maybe he will survive and be glad his son is at peace. Maybe he will accept and forgive. Maybe he will mourn first, and then he will accept and forgive. Maybe his heart will strengthen as he remembers a son who was a good man. A son who was a father too, and who gave him two grandchildren to keep his heart from floating up to heaven to be held and loved by that boy of his who became a man and who went away too early.