I’m cleaning closets and donating clothes and other items I no longer need. Some are just old collectibles in boxes shoved beneath beds and in the attic. If I could fit junk in the crawl space under the house I probably would. I have too much stuff. Soon, most of it will be gone, but it isn’t easy deciding what to keep. I can easily make a case for retaining every item. Sometimes it is comforting to pull out an old trinket and tell stories about what happened. I have an ashtray from a resort in Palm Springs from when I was fifteen, but I can’t mention it without my mother reminding me how I wandered alone for hours in rattlesnake country in the San Jacinto Mountains. I’m keeping that one. There are postcards and paperweights from family vacations and solo trips out west. Most of it is going. I can remember what happened without a cheap plastic prompt. And if I can’t remember then the item is a waste of space.
But last night I came to what I call the “Long Island Box.”
At fourteen years old we moved from my childhood home on the Island to Virginia—that was over half a century ago; so far in my past I am closer to ninety than I am to then. And so much has happened since those days to make those first fourteen years little more than a title page; at best a brief introduction to the rest of my life. In fact, it seems that boy might easily be someone else save one particular item: the baseball my friends signed and gave me when I moved. On the rare days I pick it up it connects us across time and distance. I can look at the ball as proof I actually knew those people, and if I were to go back to Long Island, I’d almost expect to see them in their youth. Memories trick us into thinking of some places as special when, in fact, it is usually a particular time we relish. The truth is, when I hold the ball I don’t want to go back to New York; I want to go back to 1975.
When we were young we played baseball; we listened to music; we hiked the woods of Heckscher State Park; we skated across the Connetquat River and waded well into the Great South Bay. We hopped the fence of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum and camped out and kept secrets; we built forts and fought over stupid things. We came of age during the Vietnam War, and music was part of our blood. Now as if to symbolize all those days, I have the baseball. The names have not faded even while most of the faces have, though I certainly can conjure up the idea of who they all were. Over the years I’ve been back to New York, but never saw those friends again. Still, when I return I say I’m going “back” to New York, not “up,” as if New York will always be a time more than a place.
When those friends gave me the ball that last day, I wanted to stay in that town and finish growing up with Steve and Todd, Eddie and Paul, Janet and Lisa and Essie and Norman and Mike. So the ball remains my sole possession from life before the fall. I have wondered if we had stayed would I have pursued my burning desire to play baseball, or would the music and restlessness that eventually took over my life catch up with me anyway. Smack dab in the middle of my youth, in a small idealistic town, in a time when my friends and I were pushing the limits and planning our exit strategy, I got traded to another existence five states away. I have no regrets at all, but I have the baseball, and it teases me toward the proverbial road not taken.
Now I’m thinning out my collections of books and art, pawning off possessions and boxing up souvenirs. I have no emotional connection to many of these things other than the people I met along the way. But now I also have my own books and journals for when the memory fades. The further through life I paddle, the more I’m interested in what I can enjoy at the time, not stow away like pirate booty. How many times do we buy things while traveling, bring them home and display them, and eventually replace them with new souvenirs? Even if I do take the items out and look at them or show people, the significance eventually ebbs. I have stories and memories, and sometimes I have a longing to return, but I quickly realize that an object is not a memory, it is a symbol, a window through which we can watch our youth. I can hold the ball and see us in Steve’s backyard, yelling as we ran the bases, and I can still smell the marsh near the river that time we found an old shack for duck hunters and carved our names in the walls. The ball is proof I was there and it all happened. Souvenirs play an important role in moving on. They keep us from carrying the guilt of complete abandonment. Once in awhile I pick up the ball and can hear their voices calling across the yard, across the years.
Sometimes I get this crazy idea that we’re all going to meet at a pub, probably on the Island, and hug and laugh and drink and tell stories of then. It will be across the river in Oakdale, on the water, and we’ll get tables on the deck. Eddie and I will make fun of Todd for the way he used to follow us through the marshes and kept cursing whenever he stepped in the mud. Steve will talk about baseball and the terrifying afternoon I hit a fly ball right at the sliding glass door on the back of his house. We’ll both remember at the same time how we used to see who could hit the ball over the roof, and then we’d retrieve it from the street and see who could throw the ball the farthest. And right at that moment I’ll pull the ball out of my pocket and show them how bad their signatures were when we were young, and we’ll laugh and pass it around, but in the presence of these people the ball will suddenly seem irrelevant. We’ll break into a chorus of the Zombies “Time of the Season” like we used to while walking to the deli. Then we’ll order more wings and beers and someone will inevitably have to leave early because of family obligations. Still, for a few short hours we’ll gather and maybe convince the bartender to play some early seventies music like the Beatles “Let it Be” album. And Todd and I will tell everyone how we were sitting in his room listening to the radio when the story came through that they broke up. It will get quiet and someone, probably Janet, will say she has to leave, so we’ll all stand in the parking lot and shake hands, and hug, and say we must do it again. They will drive off but I’ll wait, because that’s how I see this going down. I’ll stand there four decades after seeing them last and wonder how it is possible to live this long and still remember details. I’ll be glad I went back, but I’ll remind myself I really must move on and simplify my life, so I’ll turn toward the river and wonder just how far I can still throw a ball.
We didn’t drift apart; we grew up. The ball will go back in the closet, and my friends will go back to their faraway towns scattered from Long Island to Florida. All of us probably keep neat houses with boxes stowed behind stairs just beyond reach. Even this house I’m organizing and which I built twenty years ago is little more than a hotel to occupy as long as possible before I check out and others make themselves at home. Maybe someone will find my baseball behind a cabinet, and the names will be worn off when the kids here take it outside and toss it around. Anyway, it’s a ball; it’s probably how it is meant to be used.
(photo of the Great South Bay at Heckscher State Park)