Ties that bind

Stan Burns

December 01, 1992|By Stan Burns

I SAT at the dinner table and listened to my father tell my son about Shoeless Joe Jackson, about how when my father was growing up, he used to deliver newspapers to Jackson in Greenville, S.C.

My 11-year-old son is an avid baseball fan who wanted to hear every detail: Why was Joe Jackson banished from baseball for life? (For my son there could be no punishment worse than being banished forever from playing baseball.) Why did they say he "threw" that game, what does it mean to throw a game, why didn't the people believe him, what did he look like, did you know him? Bit by bit, my father recalled more details about baseball's lost hero as seen from his eyes as a young newspaper boy, and by the time dinner was over the story had become vivid and full of life.

"Scoop Latimer was the sports editor of the Greenville News, and he went to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was the commissioner of baseball, with information showing that Shoeless Joe was innocent, that he got drawn into a bad situation. Joe couldn't read, and a lot of people thought it wasn't his fault, but he was kicked out of baseball anyway with the rest of those guys who were called the Black Sox. They never believed either Joe or Scoop, and after he left baseball he moved from Chicago and lived over in West Greenville. He used to put on hitting exhibitions with the mill teams since he couldn't play, and he always used his bat called 'Black Betsy.'

"People who had watched Joe swing that bat said later that Ted Williams took his stance from Joe. I delivered papers from Pendleton Street to West Greenville where Joe lived. I delivered to his house and collected for the paper from him at his store. He'd opened a store when he came back to Greenville."

But why, I thought as I watched my father and my son share this story across my dinner table and across generations, why had I never heard it? I'm well into my 40s, and my father and I have been close for many years, but this new and important story was one I had never heard. A few days later I called my brother and asked him if he'd ever heard Dad's story about Shoeless Joe. He hadn't.

Then a little later I heard my father telling my son about the time he went rabbit hunting with his father, and his father shot a rattlesnake right in front of my father's feet. This was another new story, and again my brother said he'd never heard it.

As more recollections and stories emerged, I was increasingly puzzled. Why was my father's memory suddenly flourishing? Then I began to focus on my mother. She was sitting across the table from my father and had a vacant look in her eyes, the most visible indicator of her own failing memory. Mother has Alzheimer's Disease, and some days her mind and memory work right, but many days now they don't. But an amazing thing has happened: As her memory has faded, Dad's has become more %% acute.

They have been married for almost 50 years, and just as married couples often grow to look like each other, my parents seem to be communicating on an intuitive level, the one life partner compensating for the other's loss of memory.

At the same time, my son's ability to remember and, more important, to respond to my father's memories and stories has forged a new relationship between them that each considers special. Dad's relationship with Mother crumbles as her memory is lost forever, and as his role shifts from husband to grandfather, this new relationship with my son is grounded in special memories that he shares as stories. As Mother's responses to Dad grow dimmer, my son's eagerness grows brighter. "Pap, tell me again the story about Shoeless Joe," he'll say. The link between them is as clear as the links of DNA.

As I look at my son, I see a boy eager to build a relationship based on simple stories and simple pleasures. For a boy, that is the stuff of which life is made, and those stories are the ties that bind.

As we remember more, as we probe those dark corners of our memories for more stories, and as we share those stories and recollections, my father, my son and I open ourselves more to each other and keep our relationship alive and well. We laugh together, more now than ever, maybe to fend off things we dread, and my son says, "Pap can tell a story and make anybody laugh," and I know he sees the stuff of which his grandfather is made.

I know eventually there will be the story about the day Mother didn't remember any of us, and that story, like the story of Shoeless Joe, will be one more tie that binds.

Stan Burns writes from Baltimore.

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