Childhood memories

When I was a year old, my uncle gave me an old-style wool jersey of my beloved St. Louis Cardinals.

It came with pants and jersey.

I have a spot on my wall where I keep that jersey, next to a photograph of me wearing it on my second birthday. I'm holding a bat, though at two the weight of the bat is such that all I can manage to do is keep the handle under my arm while the front end of the bat rests on the ground in front of me.

I also wear a Cardinal hat and clutch a baseball to my chest. I couldn't be happier.

Surrounding the jersey and that picture on the wall are three others (pictures, not jerseys): one of each of my children wearing that jersey on their first birthday. (The third child, my only daughter, got me in a spot of trouble. When I asked to have her picture taken in the jersey, my wife objected. She taped a damn bow on her head and took her picture in a dress she made just for the occasion. I had to sneak my daughter out of the house a week later without my wife's knowledge and get another set of photos taken, this time with her in the jersey. Guess which one hangs on the wall?)

My living memory doesn't take me back quite as far as the day I wore that jersey and had that picture taken, and while I am sure I am projecting my lost dreams back into it, I look at it now and know - I mean I know - that even at two I was fantasizing about my time years into the future when I would be playing for the Cards, wearing the real thing.

My memory does go back to my first trips out of the house on Halloween nights. I don't know how old I was when I stopped wearing that jersey as my annual Halloween costume, but I remember wearing it until I couldn't shove the extra body parts into it without threatening the integrity of its threads and seams. I remember the sadness, yeah even anger, when my Mom told me on that last Halloween that I couldn't wear it any more. That's not the saddest part about that night. The Cub scouts were having a party, and my Mom - when the jersey didn't fit and I didn't have an alternate costume because I knew I would make it one more year with this precious outfit - put one of my sister's dresses on me, one of her wigs, and some makeup. Yup, I went as a girl. And as if to add credibility to the charade, I spent most of the night crying - I was so upset.

We all have these items - these sacred pieces of cloth or leather or cardboard that the world looks at and wonders what madness has overtaken us that we would choose to keep them over our jobs. We hang them on the walls. We keep them in our wallets. We pull them out on winter nights to keep ourselves from going insane, and to remind ourselves that like spring - with spring - warmth, green grass, leaves, and - yes - baseball all return. And when they do, life returns with it.

But the picture tells another story - and one that damn near every one of us has learned to tell with some regret.

Ok, I'm walking through Grand Central Station - my first trip to New York. My sons and one of my brothers are with me. We are trying to navigate our way through a maze of tracks and trains and tunnels, one of which we know - if we do this correctly - will take us to Yankee Stadium. We walk up to a glass booth, behind which stands a single man. It would be he we would choose to ask which train would take us to the temple that is Yankee Stadium.

His reply would be his version of the story: "Yankee Stadium," he says in a thick Bronx drawl while rubbing his shoulder. "I coulda been a stah. Blew out my damn shouldah in '83."

And there it is - the lingering regret that this picture and that our sacred objects haunt us with every damn and miserable day of our lives which, as precious as they may be, didn't produce what the child wanted, what the child hoped for, what the child needed: a major league career.

The hope is there - in the eyes, in the smile, in the tight clutch of the ball against the chest, in the belief that one day he WILL be able to lift that bat and swing it with a purpose.

But the picture and the jersey hang side by side to remind us all that the hope is gone, the dream not so much deferred as destroyed.

Baseball does this to us. It builds up hope and destroys it - and not just as children. A season that finds us sitting on the couch watching someone else's team celebrate when the last pitch of the season is thrown is always one that tears at our hearts because every spring we delude ourselves into thinking this is the year. Even the miserable Cub fans end every season with the same mantra: "Wait till next year."

And so we do. We wait - till next year. And as the pitchers and catchers report we let the dream come alive once more. It is a strange and blessed thing baseball does to us - building us up and breaking us down. And always, and evermore, we come back and let it happen again.

How can we not?

This will be my first spring in Phoenix. When the pitchers and catchers report, they will do so damn near in my own back yard. My pulse is already quickening, the promise is already blooming. And come October, I will more than likely hang another object on the wall that will serve to remind me that, precious as this time - this season - was, it did not fulfill all my hopes, dreams, and expectations.

And like a moth to the light, I will return to it again and again - each time torn somewhere between the tease and the tear.

There it will hang, a testimony to hope and a reminder of banished dreams.

Where hangs yours?


Jay said...

Ahhh...what a memory. I think of that guy behind the glass at Central Station constantly. Could he of really played? I don't know but I believed he could, and you can damn well bet he believed it. It's the dream I had to, I wanted to be Ozzie, and I hope to God it's the dream my kids have (Peter already wears a wrist band. Just like Albert he says). Hope springs eternal.

Kincaid said...

I wanted to be Ozzie too, and I was left-handed. I still have dreams of coming out of the bullpen for the Cardinals.

I finally got a new Cardinal hat this Christmas to replace the one I wore through all my childhood dreams. That hat accompanied me through everything year after year after yera. I wore it completely through in several places before I finally quit wearing it, and I still never replaced for years. I've still got it, and it's one of the last things I could ever give up.

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