Understanding My Son, One Game of Catch At a Time

I have never played on an athletic team. As a child, I was not fast or coordinated or interested in anything that involved chasing, catching or otherwise playing ball. My mother, who grew up in postwar Germany, associated youth sports with the Hitler Youth and the Nazi obsession with fostering the “prey instinct” through competition and strength.These concerns dovetailed conveniently with my anti-gym-class feelings.

But in the long, cold and gloomy spring of 2020, I found myself the mother of an 8-year-old son who wanted nothing more than to play ball. This was the heart of early Covid; there were no organized sports, no activities, no babysitting, no school. Will’s older sisters (both teenagers) wanted no part in this activity. My husband was game, but Will’s appetite for catch was voracious. So I donned his spare baseball glove and let him teach me how to catch and throw.

American film and literature are threaded through with stories of fathers and sons playing ball, from Donald Hall’s essays “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons” to a father appearing on the baseball diamond in “Field of Dreams,” transcending death to participate in a game of catch with his son. I had always seen the game as a vaunted male tradition, laced with the pathos and psychodrama of inherited hopes and aspirations, the handing down of secret, implied codes of manhood.

But as I picked up a glove, the imagined maleness of the game offered me a certain freedom. I was not modeling what it means to be a man or re-enacting a ritual from my childhood. Will was not struggling to meet my expectations, even as I might be struggling to meet his. He was the teacher here. I got to appreciate his patience, his focus on detail, his encouragement.

We also weren’t talking. I am a writer who loves putting things into words, but Will doesn’t always love my questions or my boring mom-talk gambits. Here our closeness was measured in tosses, not words. Best of all, by the simple necessity of keeping the ball in the air, we were both fully present.

Will was an excellent coach: He broke the actions of catching and throwing down into a series of discrete steps: Crook your elbow just so, put your weight into the throw, follow through after release. Over — a lot of — time (lack of experience did not, in my case, conceal natural talent) I learned to overcome the frustration of a streak of bad throws or misses, to try less hard, sometimes, in order to do better, to take a breath and reset.

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