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On Learning a Lesson

March 5, 2011


I underestimate my youngest boy. Most of the time he surprises me in the end.  He decided, at the last minute, to try out for the high school baseball team.  In our town, if you don’t start baseball at the earliest age, follow through with private hitting lessons, then Fall ball,  and finally, Winter conditioning, you are not taking the game seriously. You don’t get picked. Everyone knows it.

Ryan’s older brother did all the  things expected of him.  In thirteen years of baseball, encompassing all the above into his routine, and with his determination, love of pitching, and the defensive play of his equally committed teammates, he won a State Championship. Ben never missed a practice, or a game until his face caught a line-drive off the bat of the player he was pitching to. He refused to have his nose reset and his sinus bone was too fractured to be repaired. The one game he missed was under doctor’s orders. His spirit was on the field. His body stood behind the fence at home plate, clinging, cheering his teammates on. He was back on the pitcher’s mound in less than a week, throwing for thirteen strike-outs. Baseball kept him together. Baseball was serious business. Baseball was his passion.

Ryan does things his own way.  His priorities are what suits him at the moment.  Baseball is a spring sport that takes a back burner to a birthday party or a trip to the theme park. No summer ball for him, he goes to the beach when the weather’s hot. To heck with Fall ball, bike rides on mountain trails are much more fun.  His thumbs are the only parts of his body  that get a serious workout in winter, playing Xbox-Live with his buddies. It’s all about his friends and fun. That’s his passion.

He put his baseball bat down two years ago in favor of a paintball gun, and hadn’t picked up the Louisville Slugger again until the night before tryouts. He hadn’t thrown a baseball in two years either.  His cleats no longer fit and his baseball pants had long been donated to the local thrift store.

“I need some metal cleats for tryouts,” he said to me Monday.  He had the day off from school for President’s Day.  “and some baseball pants.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m trying out for the baseball team,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. He’d just bought a new paintball gun, and won all kinds of nifty stuff at a paintball tournament for his tactical skill. He hadn’t practiced or played baseball in two years.  Why would I waste money on a pair of metal cleats that would last him a week of tryouts?  Baseball pants are twenty-five dollars a pair and all the ones at the thrift store are picked over or sold already.  Baseball season here starts at the end of January (not the actual season, but for the serious players it begins while snow is still forecasted.)

“When are tryouts?” I asked.

“They start tomorrow afternoon after school.”

“And you didn’t know this until today?”

“No I knew about it last week. I just decided I’d go out for the team today.”

This is Ryan, flying by the seat of his pants, decisions made at the last minute, hoping for the best. It’s a wonder I have hair left on my head.

 “Do you know how much I’m going to have to pay for cleats this close to season, even if we find a pair in your size?”

“My old ones were too little anyway,” he rationalized.

We went to the store, and Ryan found cleats on clearance a half size too big.  “I’ll wear an extra pair of socks,” he said.  We found a pair of gray baseball pants in his size.  He knew better than to ask for a three hundred dollar bat.

When we got home, he went into the attic and dug around for his brother’s gear.  He dragged the bat and glove downstairs and went outside for thirty minutes of practice with his Dad.

I heard the “ping, ping, ping” of ball on bat and a bit later, the “twack” of ball in glove. They are sounds I associate with spring and boys. I smiled a bittersweet smile.  It was a shame that he would have to learn the lesson that putting down a bat and glove for two years, at the crucial point of eighth and ninth grades, would land him a cut on the high school team.  This was a lesson he needed to learn on his own though. I was supportive of his efforts and gave him the supplies and encouragement he needed.

We were eating supper that night when Ryan said, “Oh, I need a physical before I can try out.”

My hand hit my forehead and I glared at the boy. “Tryouts start tomorrow Ryan,” I said. “You have school tomorrow.”

“School doesn’t close and the doctor’s office doesn’t just stop what they’re doing to let you come have a physical,” Bruce said, looking up from his potato salad.  “You need to learn to plan ahead, son.”

“Can you call them Mom and just see if I can get one sometime tonight or tomorrow?”

I could feel the steam rising in me, now a physical.  I slammed the phone book onto the table and started flipping pages.  Ryan came up and hugged me from behind.  “Here,” he said, taking the phone book  from me, “let me look it up for you.”

“We can fit him in at 5:45 tomorrow evening. That’s the earliest we can do,” Sharon, the evening nurse said to me. I growled out my frustration to her about teenagers, and she said, “Yeah tell me about it, my Jared was in here for his physical just today because he didn’t tell me about baseball tryouts until Saturday.”  It made me feel better, that I wasn’t alone in this journey through teenagedom.

“I’ll just go to the first meeting after school and tell the coach I have my physical appointment at 5:45,” Ryan said.  “Maybe they’ll let me practice without the form.”

They didn’t.  He called at five minutes after four to tell me that the coaches had to have his physical form before they would let him step foot on the field. I picked him up from the parking lot.  He missed the first day of tryouts.

He remembered to take his physical form to school the next day and knew to turn it in to the Athletic Secretary.  She wasn’t at her desk when he went by, so he kept it in his bat bag.  The baseball field is behind the Elementary School,  a half mile across the road from the high school. The potential players were there, answering roll call for practice the second day when Ryan’s name wasn’t called.  He raised his hand with his form.

“You have to have the initials from the Athletic Secretary before you can practice,” the coach said.  “You can run up to the school and bring it back signed if you want to practice.”  

Now he had two strikes against him, but he ran to the school and back with the signed paper, got in line for drills, and when he poured himself into the car at six thirty after practice, he was more tired than I’ve ever seen him.

Later that night, he came into the bedroom where I was.  “You’re going to be really mad at me,” he said.

That statement is usually followed by a reason why he failed a test, quiz or couldn’t hand in a paper on time. “What now?” I asked.  

“I left my backpack on the baseball field,” he said.

I put my coat on over my pajamas, handed Ryan the flashlight, and drove him to the school.  His backpack  wasn’t there.

“I hope one of the coaches put it in his car,” Ryan said.  “He probably did. I’ll check in the Athletic office tomorrow.”

All I could do was shake my head and think.  Hmmm, there’s your third strike.  Coach figures 1.  Kid can’t get his physical on time, misses first practice. 2. Can’t follow directions, has to miss part of second practice running to have form signed. 3. Now, can’t keep up with his things, I have to tote his books around for him.  In my mind, Ryan didn’t have a chance.  I began wondering what use I might have for a size eleven and a half pair of metal baseball cleats.  I guessed I could put them on myself with four pairs of socks, and aerate the yard.  The baseball pants would just be a loss, too stretchy, too small.

Thursday was rainy, no practice. Friday brought high wind warnings with sixty mile gusts, no practice. I got a text message from Ryan before I left work.  “If it’s OK, I’m going to Tomas’ to spend the night.  Tryouts are from ten to one tomorrow.  Can you pick me up at nine, so I can get some breakfast first?”

Sure, I thought. You’ll stay up until all hours, refining Xbox or paintball strategy with Tomas and drag around on the baseball field tomorrow morning for the coaches.  Lessons, I thought to myself, we all have to learn lessons.

Ryan is not a morning person.  He was standing at the end of Tomas’ driveway with his arms folded and his eyes closed.  He dropped into the seat and laid his head over onto the passenger window.  We drove home in silence.  He sat for twenty minutes watching cartoons, eating an egg and cheese bagel I handed him, then got dressed fifteen minutes before ten.  He arrived on the field at exactly ten o’clock.

My phone rang at five after one.  “I’m ready,” he said. “Can you come and pick me up?”

He got in the car smiling.  “Good practice?” I asked.

“I made the team,” he said.

“You did?” I asked trying to hide my surprise. I should have known. When Ryan decides to do something, he puts all of his effort into the thing.  He is competitive and tenacious when he wants to be.  He dug deep and remembered all those drills from Little League and Babe Ruth ball.  He caught with two hands, gripped the bat knuckles over knuckles and stepped into the pitch. He made his first step back in the outfield and took a secondary lead off first when it mattered.

“Yeah, JV.  And guess what?” Ryan asked, leaning back against the seat with his eyes closed and a smile on his face.

“What?” I asked.

“Stevie, Aaron and Josh are on the team too. Remember them from Little League? They were hilarious.  It’s gonna be a good season.”

For Ryan, it’s not about finding one passion in Kindergarten and sticking with it to the end. It’s about trying on different suits, maybe a baseball uniform in spring, swimming trunks in summer, and bicycle shorts in fall. He likes the look and feel of camouflage for paintball tournaments  down the road in Glasgow, and a pair of worn sweats while sitting in his gaming chair, headset donned in winter, giving his thumbs a workout. He’s figuring things out his way, and always finding friends along the way.  

He’s also teaching his mother a few lessons in the process.

Homemade Rolls, Pound Cake, and a few Cats

December 30, 2010

Georgia called the other night.

“Hey, when is that boy of yours coming home again?”

“He’ll be home tomorrow,” I said. “Goes back Saturday.”

“I’ve been promising him some yeast rolls for months now. What time do you get off work Friday?”

“Four-thirty,” I said. “Ben wants to go by the Verizon Store to get a new phone and we’re meeting my parents for supper at Teresa’s Café at six o’clock though, so we’ll be on a pretty tight timeline, why?”

“I’m making Ben some bread and I have a chocolate chip pound cake for him in the freezer as well. I’d bring it by, but Earl’s been having some heart problems and I don’t want to leave him here by himself.”

“We’ll be going right past your house on the way to Teresa’s,” I said. “We can drop by to pick up the rolls and cake. That’s awfully sweet of you to do Georgia.”

“You know when Mama was in the nursing home, Ben visited her every week and she loved your boy better than she did cookies, and she loved cookies. He’s a good boy. I want to do this, and I want to see him.”

“Sure we can come by. We’ll see you a little before six then.”

I called Ben to relay the news. He loves Georgia and Earl. They are a married couple who argue and fuss with each other most of their waking hours. They never had children, but take care of everyone around them. Georgia wrote the cookbook for the Volunteer Rescue Squad Auxillary fundraiser, and Earl ran with the fire department until his legs gave out. He’s a long time member of the community Band. He plays the tuba.

We’ve never been to Earl and Georgia’s House. We either see them at the nursing home, or bump into them at the grocery or hardware store in town. Sometimes, they stop by our house on their way to or from Charlottesville. We spend forty-five minutes listening to their bickering banter, not being able to get a word in edgewise, just listening and laughing, before they reach in a bag and hand us a homemade goodie. They hug and kiss us before they leave. It may be a cliché, but Georgia’s baked goods melt in your mouth. We have fought over the last brownie or piece of spice cake.

On Friday evening, when Ben and I pulled into Earl and Georgia’s driveway, cats scattered. There must have been five or six, all colors, all sizes. Three small dogs jostled for position in the bay window facing us and one jumped up and down at the storm door on the side porch, his head, reappearing in the glass every few seconds. All the dogs barked, non-stop.

Ben and I got out of the car and headed to the front door.

“Back here,” Georgia called from the side porch.

She opened the door for us and when we stepped into the house, both of us stopped. The stench was overwhelming, a combination of cat pee amonia, dog poop, stale urine, canned cat food, moth balls and wet dog. Ben and I exchanged a glance. We turned to the couple and we smiled. They reached out, arms open and hugged us tight.

“Well, look at you, young man. How much taller have you gotten?” Earl asked, clasping Ben’s hand in his and slapping him on the back.

Ben smiled and coughed, his eyes watering. I knew it was the smell, not his emotions. Georgia opened the window over the sink to let a cat in. It walked over to the plate of moist gray meat on the counter and began to lick the food. Georgia petted the tabby absentmindedly.

“What time do you leave to go back to college tomorrow?” she asked Ben.

“Have to pull out pretty early in the morning,” he said. “I’ve got a staff meeting in the afternoon I have to be back for.”

I knew the staff meeting was at 5:00 in the afternoon. It takes two and a half hours to drive back to Ferrum. Ben was warding off a second invite.

While Georgia wrapped and bagged the bread and cake, Earl took us on a tour of the house. There were dogs and cats, litter boxes, balls of fur and chew toys in every room. Cats perched on shelves, under cabinets, acted as centerpieces on tables, padded across counter tops and lazed in window sills. All the dogs followed after us, barking.

“Shut up dogs,” Georgia yelled from the kitchen.

Earl introduced us, “This is Yellow Cat, Bingo, Jeff, Mutt, Punkin, Spot, Dribbles…” On and on he went, picking them up petting and kissing them. Ben and I petted, patted and cooed to them. Earl showed us his framed goodbye poster from his 30 year anniversary party at GE where he spent his working years. We marveled at Georgia’s salt and pepper shaker collection, her cookbook collection and got to see Earl’s computer where he emails forty lonely old ladies around the world, just to keep them company.

“Shut up that barking,” Earl yelled at the dogs. They didn’t listen.

We walked back into the kitchen. Georgia stood beaming, holding out three packages, each with a dozen homemade yeast rolls. Cats had collected at her feet.

Earl pointed to the rolls and said, “I didn’t get anything but a smell. She didn’t even give me one to eat.”

Ben offered him one of the wrapped ones, but Earl laughed and said, “I was only funnin’ you Ben. Those are yours. She made me some of my own.”

Georgia handed Ben the rolls and he leaned down as she stood on tip toe to kiss his cheek. “We love you boy. You know that don’t you? You were so good to my Mama. She loved you too. You take these rolls and this cake back to college with you and share if you want to, but if you don’t want to, that’s ok, you can eat them all by yourself.”

“Thank you Georgia. I appreciate these. That was awfully nice of you to do. Not sure whether I’ll share or not. Your cooking is the best,” Ben said.

Earl walked us out to the car. He showed us where he’d moved six azalea plants that week and where he’d decorated the hay bale with black and orange ceramic cats for the children in the neighborhood. He picked up another cat, Dumpy, and introduced us. “There’s about six others you didn’t get to see,” he said. “They’ll show up tonight when it starts to get cool. They like to come in and sleep with us where it’s warm.” I imagined all those cats and dogs in Earl and Georgia’s bed.

Earl hugged us. We got in the car, waved to him and Georgia as they stood on the porch, smiling, their arms around each other’s waists. Ben and I were silent until we reached the end of Apple Lane.

“Mom,” Ben said. “have you ever smelled anything so bad in your life?”

“No, Ben, can’t say as I have.”

“If I count right,” Ben said. “they have twenty-two cats and six dogs.”

“Sure felt like that many to me,” I said.

“Do you think Earl and Georgia know how bad it smells?

“I doubt it. They’re probably used to it by now.”

“My head hurts,” Ben said. “Do you have any Advil?”

“Sure, right here in my purse.”

He dug around in my purse, pulled out the bottle and threw two of the pills back with some bottled water. He was quiet during the rest of the ride. We rounded the corner onto Three Notched Road and drove toward Teresa’s Café. We were almost there when Ben said, “Mom?”


“You know I love Earl and Georgia don’t you?”

“Of course Ben, I love them too.”

“As much as I love them,” he said. “I don’t think I can eat those rolls or the cake.”

“I don’t think I could either Ben. It’s alright.”

“What should we do with them? I hate to throw them out. She spent a lot of time making them.”

“I know,” I said. “Georgia did say you could share. I think that might be a good idea.”

Ben smiled, “Staff meeting tomorrow,” he said.