Silence

The radio scratches in my ears, and from the back seat I can just make out the balls and strikes count through the AM static. My little sister is next to me in the back seat, jabbering to my mom, who is the front passenger seat, her head turned around jabbering back at my sister. I have no idea what they are saying, and I do not care. I am trying to read my book.

My dad is driving and smoking and keeping a score card. The car windows are cracked open to keep us from choking to death, and the wind noise is crashing into the radio static, occasionally mixing with a sudden clarity of the radio signal and the baseball announcer calling a play at the plate. My dad curses and bangs his fists on the steering wheel, and the Reds are losing, and still I am trying to read, dammit, and we have another baseball game worth of driving, and I am losing my mind in the chaos.img_9486

Can’t the quiet of my book overcome us all? What would be the cost of one hour of silence in this car? What could I pay them to whisper? Why is there always radio static and sisters and moms jabbering and wind noise and dads yelling at baseball games?

Today, I live alone. Silence is a precious joy of my life, treasured, filled up with reading one book after another, with New Yorker magazines sprinkled in between. And oh my goodness, but the quiet is divine. But there are days when I would trade in all of my books and my solitude for one hour in the backseat of the car in the chaos of my childhood, my mom and sister jabbering away, my mind unsettled by the wind noise and the Reds playing on the radio through AM static, and my dad cursing the blown call at the plate.

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Note: I was lucky and am grateful to have been invited to join a monthly memoir writing group called Past Forward. It is a group of bold and brave people who write their hearts and memories and share their writing with each other. For each meeting, we write from an advance prompt on a particular topic or theme, and when we get to the meeting we are presented with another writing prompt on which we write quietly for twenty minutes or so. After the writing, we spend the remainder of the time sharing our prepared and spontaneous writing with the group. It’s a courageous new experience for me, reading aloud my creative writing, and it is stretching me in wonderfully uncomfortable ways. Some of the most enjoyable writing I have ever done has taken place in the quiet space of that spontaneous writing, sitting in a circle with other writers who are willing to share and to listen. I wrote this piece at the most recent meeting, the spontaneous prompt was “Silence.” 

 

Black Eye

As a toddler, Mack had uncommon hand-eye coordination and a very good arm. By the time she was three, we made throwing balls in the house a class-one, McDermott-family felony, because if she aimed and fired at a lamp, for example, down it crashed, thoroughly battered and broken, lying on the floor. Mack’s mad throwing skills served her well in her early commitments to football and to baseball, and she loved to practice at home. As the sporty parent, it fell to me in those early years to play catch with her. I enjoyed this interaction with my cute little athletic daughter at first, but then practices became painful. And dangerous. Especially with the baseball. Even a catcher’s mitt failed to provide adequate cushioning for my delicate hand, and missed catches often left me crying and bruised.

When I started doctoral work at the University of Illinois in the fall of 2000, I passed off the baseball-catching responsibilities to Kevin. I did this partly because working a full-time job and working on a Ph.D. left me with little spare time. But, mostly, I just used that as an excuse. I could no longer handle the heat that the six-year-old Mack could put on a baseball thrown across the front lawn. Kevin was happy to pick up the slack, purchased his own mitt, and took over this duty with the good sport of a naïve angel sent down from the baseball heavens above. Every night after dinner, he dutifully stood on our driveway in the front lawn. Mack stood on the neighbor’s driveway on the other side of the lawn. And as if staging a Norman Rockwell painting, father and daughter played catch until dark, while I studied history in my attic loft.

Just behind my built-in desk in the loft, there was an adorable little window that overlooked the front yard. Many evenings, I would take a break and gaze down upon my sweet husband and my athletically gifted daughter playing catch in the twilight. The window was small, but if I wiggled a little, I could stick out my head and interact with them for a few minutes and give my brain a brief respite from my studies. Sometimes I would critique Mack’s pitching arm or comment on Kevin’s white athletic socks pulled up to the middle of his calves. Sometimes I would just watch quietly, feeling grateful that they were having this time together. Feeling happy to be with them for a bit, but grateful to be safely two stories away from the danger.

One night when Mack and Kevin were playing catch, I positioned my body in the window, called Kevin’s name loudly, and lifted my shirt to flash him. To this day, I am still not certain why I did such a thing, because I’m generally a modest sort of person. Perhaps I was punch-drunk from my graduate school reading list in American legal history. Perhaps I had one too many beers (yes, I have been known to drink while writing). Perhaps I wanted to give Kevin a little gift for keeping me out of the line of baseball fire. Whatever possessed me, I did it, and my timing could not have been more terrible. Mack had already started to deliver a throw across the lawn to her dad. When he heard me call, Kevin looked up to the little window, taking his eyes off that speeding sphere flying across the lawn. The baseball hit him square in the face, sending his glasses flying and his knees buckling. Down his body crashed, thoroughly battered and broken, lying on the ground.

I did not see the impact of the ball, because my chest covered the entirety of my little window. But I heard a girly scream from Mack and a painful man-grunt from Kevin as the baseball struck. By the time I was able to stick my head out of the window, Kevin was a heap of bones on the grass, and little Mack was standing over him. I think Kevin yelled a swear up at me and then called for ice. When I arrived in the yard, Kevin and Mack were laughing about how boobs and baseball are a bad match, and a black eye was already in evidence.

playing catch

Mack and Kevin playing catch, Field of Dreams, Iowa.