Saturday morning. Central Park. The West Side-Harlem Senior Baseball League. My 14-year-old son is pitching. Everywhere I look are kids and parents I’ve known for years. The racial mix is impressive, and spirits are high.
Not for the first time, I wonder why these games mean so much to me. Know my enthusiasm for watching, as well as volunteering (I’ve recruited umpires for two years now) is, somehow, different from that of other mothers. As a single parent with a full time career, why do I look forward so much to waking early on Saturday for these 8 o’clock games? And then I remember…
My father: a classic gambler, betting to lose. He feels only for the underdog, the bum on the street who mirrors his own sense of failure. My life, before my parents’ divorce, is permeated by my father’s moods, which depend on the performance of the Yankees and the Knicks. My father’s habit is to bet on the Knicks and against the Yankees. (In the early 1960’s these were always losing bets.) My father is a bitter, living ghost in our house. He rarely speaks to me, except to ask me to change the channel on the television whenever I happen to pass through the living room. I see him lying on the couch, radio held up to one ear, an eye on the TV. I am afraid of him. He owes money to bookies, loan sharks, friends, and family. He has already lost his business and is on the brink of losing his marriage. He will shatter my life as I know it. Even now, the familiar background noise of a televised baseball game is enough to send me from the room screaming.
I find myself the mother of a teenager—a boy possessing a combination of zeal, competitiveness, sportsmanship, and athletic ability. His knowledge of “the game” baseball or basketball—equals my father’s. Their voices blend together in my mind as I hear comments on every play and umpire’s call. My son’s love for the game, reflects his hopeful attitude that he will have an opportunity to be one of the players. My father’s love is inseparable from the disappointment and jealousy that comes from not even being asked to the tryouts. My son is the winner my father never was.
My father’s legacy from his father was to expect little from life and other people. My grandfather died two years before I was born. I know him only through family legend of a tyrant, rigid and unforgiving, responsible for denying my father an education.
My father was the youngest of three. The oldest, Uncle Jack, not only graduated from City College, but also went on to finish law school at St. John’s University. Uncle Jack never practiced law but ran a garage with my father on Fourth Street, just east of the Bowery. My grandfather, says the legend, so resented Jack’s education going to waste that he refused to support my father through college. Night school on top of 14-hour days in the garage was too much for him. Dropping out of Baruch Business School after three years, he never overcame his bitterness over having to quit. Turning his disappointment with himself into disapproval of others, he spent his life putting down people who had attained professional and financial success. A month before he died, he told me his true feelings: Quitting college was the deepest regret of his life.
I understood then my father’s self-loathing, his rejection of love and concern, refusing to accept gifts on his birthday, never taking a vacation. He used to say, “Why bother? The first day back, it’s like you never went anyway.” His black humor about pressing the button to drop the bomb, his notion that doom and destruction were the only option for mankind. And yet…..
The few of us who refused to give up on him as he gave up on himself came to recognize that entwined with his dark view of himself and the world were qualities he’d be the last to acknowledge—endearing qualities. He was, somehow, a dependable father. After the divorce, he called me and my sister at home every night at 6:30—every night, no matter what. He met us for movies or visits with my grandmother every Sunday without fail. As I grew older, if I needed help or money, he’d find a way to get me what I needed…and fast. Unlike most compulsive gamblers, he repaid most of his debtors. He refused to declare bankruptcy. He continued those 14 hour workdays. Although his capacity for pleasure was limited, the few things he did enjoy he enjoyed to the hilt. He adored good steakhouses and took me to the best ones in the city. He was an avid reader, mostly mysteries. When I linger, browsing through mysteries, be it on-line or at the bookstore, I breathe in my dad.
He got to share only a bit of time with his grandson before he died. But I am with him behind every wire fence, watching my son pitch, and on every wooden bench as my son plays point guard.
Every now and then, my son makes a bet with a friend on the outcome of a sporting event. It makes me nervous. I hold my breath, give him a short speech on being responsible for his money, and observe the differences between him and my father. And while I am lecturing, I savor the deep love I have for both of them. I feel, keenly, the evolution from a failed past to a promising future.