Searching for Sanctuary and the Kindness of Strangers

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Sometimes it is the next door neighbor or the checkout lady at the store. Sometimes it is a friend’s mom or dad. Sometimes it is an aunt or an uncle, a grandparent or a teacher.

Their role is to provide a glimmer of hope, kindness, and a little bit of the love that by rights should come from the parent, but doesn’t; just enough to make life tolerable; just enough to get the child through the bitterness of life at home with some small sense of self-worth and the hope that the future might be better.

Benign and caring adults are remembered all your life, even if you passed through a less than dire childhood.

I can recall two men in my own life who showed kindness and an interest in me, whose connection felt good to me, who offered respect and seemed to enjoy the times that we talked. One would play catch with me on occasion, something I dearly treasured because my father was often at work. Mr. Maddock, our next door neighbor, was a handsome man with two sons of his own, but always had a good word and took the time to say it.

Another, Bob Hanel’s dad, a man tall and slender, talked baseball with me when he walked down the alley with his small dog. “Such a big man and such a small dog,” I remember thinking. He was blond, like his crew cut son. The younger Hanel, my older buddy Bob, became a dentist, I believe.

And, now that I think of it, there was the owner of a soda shop/candy store on Lincoln Avenue near Washtenaw, Mr. Sharon, who was loved by all the kids who frequented his establishment. A roundish and white-haired man with a warm and soothing manner, and a ready smile. He called me “son,” a common mode of address from a “stranger” to a male child in the ’50s and ’60s that implied a certain kind of protective relationship between a man and a boy.

A heart condition eventually laid Mr. Sharon low and he had to sell the store.

Ironic that his heart should have caused him trouble, because — for me at least  — his heart was the best part of him.

I’m sure that adults who fill this saving role in the lives of troubled kids think nothing of what they are doing. They probably don’t know how tough it is for the child.

Parents usually succeed in hiding these things from the public. The household ethic is to keep up appearances. And the warning is never to talk about what happens inside the house while out of the house. Most children keep to this admonition, honoring the parents’ concern for reputation over reality, not wishing to disappoint mom or dad by an act that would be considered disloyal.

So much can be achieved for kids like this, just by being stable, smiling, asking a question, offering a cookie or a soft drink.

It means the world:

My last name begins with the letter “M.” Jane’s begins with “N,” so she sat behind me in the first grade. We lived just a block from each other. We became friends.

The first time I was allowed to go to Jane’s house, I was amazed at how different it was from my home.

Janes’s mother was out of bed, dressed, made meals, did laundry, cleaned their home and took Jane and her siblings places outside their house. I felt terribly sorry for them. Everyone knew that moms were supposed to lay in bed all day and give orders!

Making meals, cleaning, laundry, etc. were what the maid did. They didn’t even have a maid!

As I later realized, my mom’s illnesses were the kind that no doctor could diagnose, nor persuade my mother that they did not exist.

My family had more money that Jane’s. In retrospect, it must have been a hardship to keep feeding me, year after year, yet Mrs. N never even hinted that I should go home. Not even once.

Jane’s father came home every evening and had dinner with the family. Very strange. I wondered why he wasn’t always at work like my dad.  Jane’s father wasn’t all that fond of my omnipresence, however.

I’m guessing Mrs. N never let him tell me to go away.

Over the years, Jane and I became inseparable. We spent almost every waking moment together. We  did this at Jane’s house, rarely at mine. My home was bigger — had more room and more quiet. Neither one of us wanted to be there, although it was never discussed, simply understood. We played at her house, we ate dinner at her house, every weekend I slept at her house. This went on from age seven to approximately age 16.

During all this time, I never realized what a gift Mrs. N was to me. It was only much later that I came to understand that this woman probably saved me. I had a safe place to go. I had a place where no one criticized me. Where people were alive, not constantly “dying.” It was a relief not to be in the tomb I called home.

My mother believed that if something was easy for her, it should automatically be easy for me. One day she wanted me to swallow a Coricidin capsule. I couldn’t. My usually “bed-ridden” mother chased me around the house trying to force me to swallow. At last I was backed into a corner in the kitchen and told that I was going to swallow that pill or “I am going to know the reason why!”

It wasn’t a pretty day. Pill swallowing was enormously difficult for me. I don’t remember if I ever got that pill down.

As soon as I could, I fled to Jane’s house. Mrs. N made no comment about the incident. I’m not sure if it was then or a little later she suggested that if I put a tablet in a little applesauce, it might make it easier to swallow. It worked and mother never gave me grief about pills again.

As a young adolescent, I would run away from home, usually leaving in the middle of the night. I’d walk the streets of our neighborhood. Eventually, I’d head for Jane’s house and climb in the front window.

The first time this happened, Mrs. N was up waiting for me. My mother had called her looking for me. Somehow Jane’s mom knew that I’d show up at her house. She immediately called my mother, who had called the police. Mrs. N then said she would put me to bed with Jane.

For a couple of years, I ran away a lot. The police told my mother not to call them anymore. Eventually, she stopped noticing that I was gone. So, when I was ready to come back, I’d just crawl in through the window in Jane’s house, not my own. Mrs. N let me.

No critical comments.

She never, ever told me I was a bad kid who should stay home.

She never told me not to do it.

She simply accepted me.

On rare occasions, she would very subtly say something that led me to believe she didn’t approve of the way my family treated me. However, she never put down anything my family did.

Twice a year my father would take me shopping for seasonal clothes, to up-scale stores like Marshall Fields and Saks Fifth Avenue.  I had nicer clothes and many more of them than Jane and her siblings.  When, on occasion, Mrs N would be taking Jane and her other children shopping for clothes, she took them to what we called “schlock shops.” Basically, these were the counterparts of today’s Loehmann’s.

She would take me also. I wonder if she knew how wonderful it was to have a woman’s point of view and a “family” experience?

Mrs N never said a word, really. There was just her unending acceptance. I actually thought it was normal, unremarkable. After all, Jane and I were best friends. She never let me believe that I was getting anything special.

Mrs. N allowed me to be in every part of her family life throughout my entire childhood. I never wondered, until this very minute, if she loved me.  Perhaps so. Perhaps not. I was not exactly a lovable child. Yet, she saved me. I don’t know if she did it consciously. Although I think she knew how desperately I needed her.

The years went by. Jane moved out-of-state. The only time I saw Mrs. N was when Jane came home for a visit with her husband, and later, their children. Once again, I fell back into Jane’s family. I hung-out at Mrs. N’s house whenever I could. She was still welcoming and accepting.

When I got married I asked Jane to be the matron of honor in our very small wedding. My husband and I had no plans after the ceremony. The next thing I knew, there was a luncheon following — given by Mrs. N at her home.

Mrs. N died a while ago. In adulthood, I often tried to tell her she saved me and how much I had come to appreciate her. She pooh-poohed me. Yet, she was always there for me, without my really knowing it.

That, I think, was the greatest gift of all.

The above image is I Wait, an 1872  photo of Rachel Gurney by Julia Margaret Cameron, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Fathers and Children and Stories of Old Ball Games

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Dreams, like spider webs and hard-hit softballs, are difficult to hold on to.

But sometimes those dreams and the stories of those hard-hit balls connect us to both our past and to our posterity.

In my case, to my father and my children.

Let me tell you a story…

On a recent morning I awoke in the midst and the mist of a just-ended dream, thinking about something that happened a long time ago. An event of no particular importance, but just about the most intense moment of my life.

I was playing right field in a game of 16″ softball at James Park in Evanston, Illinois. The team was called the Psyclones, a pun on the fact that most of us were graduate students in the “Psyc” department at Northwestern University. A pretty good team for a bunch of educated guys, one that won more often than it lost.

Sixteen-inch softball is a game played almost exclusively in the Chicago area. Everywhere else a softball is 12″ in circumference and caught with a gloved hand. But “real men,” as Chicago males fancy themselves, favor a game with a bigger ball caught bare-handed, one that is rock hard at the contest’s beginning and softened, but never really soft even after it has taken a pounding from wooden and metal bats.

In truth, the ball is your enemy. Sixteen-inch softball — Chicago-style softball — is a game that leaves you with broken or dislocated or jammed fingers if you play it for any length of time.

On the day in question the Psyclones were playing the best team in our league, the outfit that had won the first round of a two round championship season. But as the second round drew to a close these two teams were tied. If only we could beat the other guys, we would win the second round and face the same team once more in a single contest to decide the league championship.

As the final inning began, our team was ahead 3-2. We were three outs away from victory.

Their first batter took a ball. Then, on the second pitch, he hit a low line-drive like a laser headed for the right-center field gap. It was clearly mine to catch if it was to be caught, but I didn’t know if I could get to it in time to prevent it from going for a home run and tying the score.

An outfielder learns to gauge the flight of a batted ball — the speed, the distance between himself and the ball, the effect of gravity, and his own movement — so as to intercept it just before its return to earth. You do this instinctively. It is all reaction, no part thought, entirely based on experience, all the while running, straining, and preparing for the intersection of your body and the “Clincher,” as those softballs were called.

I was not prepared for this particular line-drive, however. No one had informed the ball that gravity was supposed to get the best of it. And as I neared the spot where I might have a small chance to catch it, the nervy Clincher had the audacity to proceed in the most irresponsible way.

The ball was actually rising. It had been hit so hard that it had not yet arced.

My path had taken me to my right, but also away from home plate. In order to intercept the spheroid I had to twist my body back to my left (so that I could more nearly get in front of the ball), turning and leaping and reaching simultaneously.

Wham!

The ball hit my hands as my body faced left field, even as I was moving in the air toward deep right center field.

The Clincher started to bounce free, but I grabbed it a second time, then hit the ground and staggered, running fast, tilting toward the turf, aiming to take a header.

But instead of eating dirt and watching the ball bounce away, I kept my balance.

In another moment I was finally stationary.

And amazed.

I was still on my feet with the ball in my hands.

Shouts of congratulations and encouragement sounded out across the field from my teammates. Other than a few friends and those of the opposition, the grandstand could not have held more than a couple of dozen onlookers, but a few voices called out from there, as well.

Simultaneously, a chemical charge ran through my body, a wonderful exhilaration, a tingling flush of adrenalin. And with it, a tremendous split-second, unrealized urge to cry that took me by surprise.

And almost as quickly, in the time it took for the next batter to come to the plate, all that was gone and the game continued.

The following hitter walked, but then we retired the side and the game was ours.

It wasn’t the very best performance of my exceedingly modest athletic career. I’d played games in which I’d hit two home runs and even a basketball contest where I scored 2/3 of my team’s points on 10 consecutive jump shots. I’d also made “circus” catches before — other successful leaping-diving-acrobatic maneuvers, sometimes to save the game.

But nothing in my life ever came close to the super-charged voltage of “the catch,” the flood of emotion to the point of tears, not as experienced in sadness or joy, but for the need of a kind of fluid outlet for all that high-octane chemical “juice.”

If you’ve played sports with any significant level of committment, then you know how the game becomes more than a game — sometimes becomes a thing that feels like life or death. But realistically, in the big picture, or even a pretty small picture, this game meant nothing. Winning the championship (we didn’t) meant nothing.

All of it was part of a “pastime,” something we do to enjoy ourselves and test ourselves, both at once; something to show what we can do and exorcise all the demons inside of us that are waiting to be purged; a play we act out just because we are human and we need the outlet and the (hoped for) mastery of a physical and psychological challenge.

Why did I think of it just now? Why the dream?

I can’t say for sure, but maybe (in part) it’s because my youngest daughter recently sent me and my wife an outline for a video and oral history that she proposes to do soon with each of us separately. And, of course, she wants to know about all the important moments in our lives. Which would necessarily include this particular athletic episode, an instant of no objective importance other than the feeling it produced; something of value because of the sensation alone. It didn’t mean anything, but it felt meaningful.

Carly, the aforementioned young woman, has watched the same kind of video I produced of my dad that she hopes to create with me; something I did about 25 years ago.

I am touched that she wants this, since I remember very well why I wanted to do it with my father. To bond with him, to receive whatever very personal things he would share in the course of it, to understand him and therefore myself more fully. And most importantly, to create something that would outlive him, leaving some part of him that I might catch hold of and keep hold of, like the 16″ softball. Something that would, like that catch, be over in a short time but last a long time — in the video, in his words, in his feelings, and in my memory.

A thing, like “the catch,” that would be unimportant but all important. And only to me.

My dad was at the game I mentioned, the game where I made “the catch.” I remember him congratulating me, commenting on how extraordinary it was. Extraordinary to me for reasons I have mentioned. Extraordinary to him, I suppose, because I was his son. For others, not so much. No, you can probably watch its equal or better regularly on your TV during baseball season.

When I was a little boy I remember my dad telling me of his own athletic exploits as a young man and being fascinated. Some time later we found ourselves at the site of one of those events. It was a relatively small school yard enclosed by a fence, with a tall flag pole attached to that boundary in deepest, but not very deep center field.

From home plate it was easy to see that one could hit the ball over the fence without too much difficulty, so the ad hoc rules of the game required that any ball hit out of the park in fair territory would be considered an “out.”

The players had to tailor their hitting strokes to the restricted conditions. Only safely hit line-drives and ground balls could be of any help to your team. And money was on the line, so said my dad as he told the story of his game, since the two sides had made a bet on the contest.

The young man who was to become my old man came to bat with a runner on first base late in the battle, with the score tied 1-1. He tried to place-hit the ball into right center field, and normally was quite adept at such a task. But, on that day his efforts to keep the ball in bounds appeared to have failed him. Too much of the 16″ ball struck too much of the wooden bat and the former took off in a long, high arc toward the not-so-distant reaches of the ball yard, sure to clear the center field barrier.

But, to his surprise, not to mention the delight of his mates, the center field flag pole got in the way, and with a dull metallic twang sent the shot back on to the field, by which time Milt Stein was standing on second base, and the baserunner had crossed home plate with the winning run.

Dad was a good story-teller and he had a good audience in his little boy, even when that boy was no longer very little.

What is it about baseball, softball, and the bond between parents and children?

Much has been written about sharing a game of catch, being introduced by your parent to a sport that he loves and you will come to love, watching together in the great ball parks of our country in the sunshine and under the arc lights, cheering together for the home team. It is one of those things many dads are good at, something that doesn’t require very many words.

But, I think there is another feature to this act of bonding.

It is the story of the game itself. The thrills, the disappointments, the surprises — the mutually experienced emotions.

The sharing, in other words, of a story.

And when the story of the game is told (especially if your father was in the game) — your father to you, you to your children — the child “sees” the tale through the lens of your memory and his own imagination. He learns what matters to you, how you shape the words, remembers how your eyes light up, drinks in the moral lessons about effort and courage and winning and losing.

The child roots for and admires the parent, even though the drama may be ancient, unchangeable history. The telling is personal, almost like a secret message, something that can only be decoded by the heart of the little boy or girl who loves the story-teller who is already his hero, with or without the “heroism” depicted in the tale.

Later, the child will take the parent role with his own children, relating the narratives of his father along with his own, tying him to and keeping faith with his hero, now aged or departed; and keeping the chain-letter of attachment alive as he brings the youth and grace and speed and strength of his parent alive once more, along with his own youth, when he first heard the tale told.

It is a sweet and tender and irreplaceable thing, this telling of stories to your children.

Nothing better in the winter for a baseball fan or an ex-softball player who is, more importantly, a father.

Time to start the camera, Carly.

The image above is Baseball Softball Love Festival by THOR, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.