Pattern of life indelible. —E.B. White
I’m sitting on the patio in my son’s backyard, on an oddly cloudy cool June Saturday in Downers Grove, Illinois. I’ve just helped Andrew get ready for grandson Ollie’s sixth birthday, putting ice in coolers, spreading cloths on tables, placing an extra tank of propane, just in case. Party favors of sunglasses, bubbles, and small toy cars stand next to cupcakes and hot dog buns and Dixie cups of blueberries The driveway is strewn with trikes and scooters and foot-push conveyances. The yard beneath the elm offers two soccer goals and a slackline taut between mulberry trees, American Ninja Warrior obstacles overhead—and of course the standard slide and swings and monkey bars.
“The Chicago Cubs are on the air.”
In my childhood, Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau opened every WGN radio broadcast with that declaration. Starting the summer I turned ten, when I used to run my Dad’s bait shop, the Cubs’ first pitch at 1:10 pm (in those day-game-only days) relieved the boredom. The Cubs were the soundtrack of summer, a pattern repeated through Andrew’s childhood. Painting the William Drive house? (One side every year, in a four-year endless cycle owing to the paint-defying properties (neither latex nor oil) of cheap siding.) Cubs. Weeding? Sealing the driveway? Washing the car? Cubs.
Of course, twenty plus years ago, Boudreau and Lloyd were long dead, so it was Pat and Ron, Hughes serving wry humor to Santo’s hearty enthusiasm as an unabashed homer. As Andrew and I sit on that patio, beers in hand, the broadcast wafting from a garage speaker, there’s the voice of Pat Hughes still, even calling to his partner Ron. For a moment, history flickers, but Ron isn’t the reincarnated Santo, instead some guy named Coomer. I know none of the Cubs players and have to rely on quick appraisals from Andrew. Still, there is instant, easy familiarity in the sounds from Wrigley Field, just a couple dozen miles east toward the lake. There, I’d seen my first major league game with Dad and Uncle Jan, a double header against the Dodgers, when the infield was Banks, Beckert, Kessinger, Santo, and Hundley, when Billy Williams played outfield and hit a ball onto Sheffield.
Time passes, folding onto itself. Andrew is my age sitting next to some old guy lost in nostalgia. There comes the tradition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the seventh inning stretch, continued by a succession of guest singers after Harry Carey’s death, from Bill Murray to Ozzy Osborn, in a famous Roseann-Barr- national-anthem grade performance. Carey died 25 years ago. When your guest singer is the University of Oklahoma basketball coach, maybe you need to retire the ploy.
Birthday guests started coming around 4, except for a surprise early family playing with a more fluid clock. Soon the yard was filled, four dozen people, an energetic swarm of kids two-years-old to ten, plus their parents, both Ollie’s friends and Isaac’s. Andrew grilled burgers and hotdogs, and I sat to the side with the other grandparents, thinking of my Mom and Dad a quarter-century older than everyone each time they attended a party, performance, or ceremony for one of my kids, rarely missing anything even with a three-hour drive. I’d become them. I felt the need at one point to circulate, so I wandered the yard (did I fancy myself host?) and struck up conversations, learning about, for example, life as a real estate photographer. (It was interesting to hear how every professional photographer suddenly in the pandemic fancied themselves in real estate once the weddings, events, and portraits dried up—to the insult and financial detriment of longstanding pros in that field.) I learned about the state of pub trivia in Chicago’s west suburbs and even chatted about the films of Stanley Kubrick.
But at some point, something switched. I realized that, duh, Andrew and Molly were among friends bonded through children, church, school, and neighborhood, people to whom I was an outsider, an apparitional elder. At most, I’d cross paths with some few in the unpromised future. A Christmas concert. A graduation. I figured out my role was simply to be there and that I’d moved imperceptibly into the previous generation, a representative of the past, come to give context. I could do that, just as my parents had done, as my Grandma and Grandpa Gribbon had done and my Grandpa and Grandpa Krukow. Grandpa Krukow spent the end of his life, an amputee blind from diabetes, in Ida Mae’s nursing home in Calamus. He was a White Sox fan, and I remember visiting him with Mom at night, listening to the Sox on a transistor radio in a darkening room. “Now pitching, knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm.”
The yard was pure kinesis, kids chasing one another, inventing contests on the fly. There were boasting and climbing, shouts and feats of derring-do, games of chicken with next-generation Big Wheel-like machines. There were trips and falls, including some that took kids a few seconds to figure out if there was an advantage to crying. Only one band-aid needed deployment, for a mashed finger a little girl first tried to hide. A boy sobbed a half hour, clinging to his mother, face buried in her blouse. Ollie, the soul of empathy watched with silent worry. I figured the worst, perhaps sudden shunning by friends who’d evolved a new Lord of the Flies class system. But no. It was revealed his mother had told him to eat some blueberries before having a cupcake, and this was simply punitive and humiliating. Despair beyond hope.
I walked past a group of Isaac’s friends sitting around a cold firepit behind the garage. One said, “Let’s do the dark magic,” and I looked to see that they all had slim foot-long sticks—wands, I imagine. Later they were all digging industriously with bigger sticks and sharp rocks. Maybe they’d found worms? Pretty soon Isaac went into the garage and came out with a trowel, followed by another kid carrying a garden claw. Things were getting serious. I retreated to the grandparents’ zone and my now-warm beer.
Ollie’s teacher arrived with a toy Tesla, his favorite. He didn’t know what to make of a teacher out of context, this collision of worlds. Would he hug Ms. Lynette? Uncertain. Another of Ollie’s classmates, a girl with cerebral palsy or something similar, was sitting in large stroller, and when she saw Ms. Lynette, her big grin could have lit Wrigley’s left field. At one point, the two big dogs, Chad and Chloe, burst from the basement, a new element of chaos. No hot dog was safe.
Then everyone was gone but for family and grandparents. We gathered the sparse uneaten food and unclaimed favors, bagged the trash, and carried presents into the living room for opening. This was only the second time I’d been with Isaac and Oliver in two pandemic years, a quarter and a third of their lives respectively, and in the relative quiet, I watched the easy familiarity with which Joy and Dawn interacted with them. They’d been regular parts of the kids’ lives in ways I’d not, owing to a thousand miles and my own choices. I felt more longing than jealousy, more regret than longing.
Andrew had kept the radio playing the summer soundtrack. I had lost the station.
Toward the end of the evening, Molly’s sister Flynn facetimed. She’s an avid Cubs fan, too, and she chatted about the earlier victory, noting that it was just the first game of a doubleheader. The Cubs were leading in the second. For a moment I imagined we’d turn on the radio, just in the background, just loud enough to confuse time. It would be my son’s birthday, and we’d have been to Ash Park pool, and we’d hear Ryne Sandberg hit a double and Harry Carey sing, and there’d be another game tomorrow, and the day after that, an inexorable schedule of possibility, unbroken from present to future to past, this year’s 162 joining last year’s and the years’ before, Sandberg to Beckert, backyard to bait shop, nothing urgent, always a game tomorrow.
But I was boarding a plane to Denver at seven the next morning, and no number of extra innings would change that or the choices I’d made so many years ago.