The Reach of a Father’s Love

Friends of ours lost their only child several years ago, the victim of a relentless disease.  He left behind a grieving wife, two young children, and a sparkling future.

In the years since, our friends have doted on their grandchildren, taking great delight in watching them grow from infants to toddlers, and onward to adolescence.  They’ve invested time with them, knowing they can never make up for the loss of a father, but determined to keep his memory alive.

A while after their son’s death, I wrote a piece to commemorate his life and the legacy he left behind.  I post it here now, adapted somewhat, to mark the advent of another Fathers’ Day

The little boy is eight-years-old, and loves to visit his grandparents at the family cottage.  For him, every day is an adventure, a surprise, a delight, as he wanders the woods, swims in the lake, and fishes the waters in the old, wooden skiff.

For the older folks, these activities hearken to an earlier time with another fair-haired lad, and they treasure the memories, even as they create new ones.

A while back, the little boy was in the musty basement of the cottage with his grandpa, when he made a great discovery.  “Grampy, what’s this?” he cried, pointing to a bright-yellow model boat.

Sitting astride its pedestal on top of an old workbench, the craft was almost three feet long—a racing boat, bred for speed, its tall sails still unfurled.  Three small passengers huddled in the cockpit, as if awaiting the starting gun for an impending race.


“Oh, that?” his grandpa replied.  “That’s a boat your daddy built a long time ago.  He used to race her on the lake with his remote control.”  He lifted a dusty metal box down from an overhead shelf.  Two toggle switches protruded from the top, and a long antenna jiggled slightly as he set it down.  “This is how you make the boat go where you want it to.”

“Can I make it go, Grampy?”

“Mmm, I don’t think so, l’il guy.  I don’t think she works anymore.”  Together they lifted the cowling off the boat, behind the drivers, and peered at the mysteries of the small motor inside.

“It smells funny,” the little boy said.

“That’s oil you smell,” his grandpa replied.  “Your daddy always made sure he kept her cleaned and oiled.  He really liked this boat.”

“What’s her name?”

“Your daddy called her The Yellow Flash.  Here’s her name on the back, just the way he painted it.”

“Can I make her go, Grampy?” the little boy asked again.

The old man shook his head.  “The batteries are probably dead,” he said, “and look at these wires.  They’re corroded at the junction plates.  The sails are pretty ratty, too.”

“Well, can we fix her?” the little boy said.

His grandpa stared at him for a few moments, a faraway look in his eye.  “Y’know,” he said finally, “maybe we can.  Shall we give it a try?”


Over the next couple of weeks, the two of them dismantled the boat in order to clean every part, separating the batteries and wires that would need replacing.  They opened the remote box and cleaned it out as best they could, removed the sails for a gentle cleaning.  On his next trip to the city, the old man took the hull and box to a hobby-shop, where the owner walked him through the steps needed to restore the boat to operation.

On the little boy’s next visit to the cottage, they began the rebuilding process.  As they soldered new wires in place, the little boy was fascinated.  His grandpa let him set the new batteries in their proper slots, showing him how to ensure the contacts were touching.  He watched as the little boy lovingly polished the hull, restoring it to its original gleaming glory.

Together, they replaced the sails, and tested the remote box, working the toggles to control the boat’s tiny propeller and rudder while it still sat on its dry-dock pedestal.

“She works, Grampy!  She works!”

“I think she does, l’il guy.  Shall we put her in the water?”

And so they did.  Carrying her gingerly down the slope to the dock, they lowered her carefully into the lake.  From a silent vantage point on the rocks, I watched them—a grandfather and his son’s son, with his son’s boat, launching their labour of love.

“Which one is the driver?” the little boy asked, pointing to the three small figures in the cockpit.

“Well, this one is you,” his grandpa said, indicating the figure in the middle.  “You’re the skipper.”

“Okay,” said the little boy.  “Then this one on the right will be you, and this can be my daddy over here.”

The old man had to look away for a moment to collect himself.

“What if the waves tip her over?” the little boy asked, suddenly apprehensive.

“Well, it’s pretty calm right now, l’il guy.  I think she’ll be okay.”

“But what if she goes way out there and we can’t bring her back?”

“She’ll come back,” his grandpa said.  “She’ll come back.”


As they perched on the dock, legs dangling over the water, the old man gave the boat a push away from shore.  The little boy, the remote box between his knees, began to steer her—hesitantly at first, with fitful starts and stops, over-correcting erratically.  But in moments he was sure, and the boat skimmed atop the surface, speeding and curving gracefully, immediately responsive to his commands.

I watched the boat for awhile, then turned my attention to the old man and the boy.  Their faces were split with grins, happily alight, as they raced The Yellow Flash to and fro along the shoreline.

“Take a turn, Grampy,” the little boy yelled, handing the remote box to his grandpa.  And he squealed with delight when the old man almost capsized her, righting her just in time.

“Grampy?” the little boy said after a while.

“Mmm?” his grandpa replied, seeming lost in reverie.

“I love my daddy’s boat!”

“I love her, too,” the old man said, leaning in close to his grandson.  “And I love you, l’il guy, very much.”

I left them on the dock, locked in silent communion.  And it may only have been my imagination, but when I stole a glance back, I could swear I saw a third person there—ephemeral but real, lovingly watching them both.

At once apart from, yet a part of, the old man and the boy.

And I marveled at the reach of a father’s love.


The Games

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will soon be upon us, that quadrennial gathering of the world’s best athletes.  But we are hearing from so many of them that they plan not to attend, citing a host of reasons—their health, fear of terrorist activity, unfair competition because of doping, or the unpreparedness of the host country.

I remember a different set of games, played by girls and boys in the schoolyards we frequented.  No one was obliged to take part but nearly everyone did, in one fashion or another, because it was fun.

There weren’t a lot of specific rules involved because the games varied tremendously from one day to the next.  There were always a few standard guidelines that everyone was familiar with, but usually nobody bothered much with them—unless, of course, someone violated the sense of fair play that was commonly shared.  Whenever that happened, which wasn’t too often, arguments would flare up, each side would proclaim its case, and finally—perhaps so as not to waste too much of the playing time—a consensus would emerge and the games would continue.

Winners predominated, but only because the games allowed more opportunity to win than to lose.  And since nobody made any effort to keep track of scores and points once the contests ended, every kid in the schoolyard could be a winner in retrospect, a champion in classroom reverie.  Every participant could find some measure of satisfaction in the play, some joy in the sport of it.


After a while, though, those games changed.  Some of the adults in the schoolyard, for the purest of reasons, decided to contribute their time and energy to help the kids organize.  They offered the advice and assistance that comes with experience; and out of the chaos the adults thought they observed in the schoolyard, they brought order.

The vague and tenuous rules that previously governed the games were sharpened and recorded.  And all the girls and boys were made to learn them.  No disagreements were tolerated, and some of the adults volunteered to serve as game officials to ensure fair play.  Many of the games—those that didn’t lend themselves easily to such organization—were dropped in favour of those that did.

A lot of the kids were dropped, too, because there were no longer as many opportunities to compete for those whose game-playing abilities were not as fully developed.  These children were kept in the schoolyard, but off to the side where they could watch and cheer the others at play.  They became onlookers, hero-worshippers, only able to enjoy the experience vicariously.  And gradually, the games became The Games.

The Games, remember?  They were played by the very best girls and boys in every schoolyard.  But because there weren’t enough top-calibre kids in any one yard to sufficiently challenge their skills, the adults arranged for them to play against girls and boys from other schoolyards.

They played hard.  They did themselves proud.  In their various sweaters and uniforms, decked out in colours unique to their own schools, they vied with one another to see who was truly the best.  The purpose was not just to compete, but to win.  Records became increasingly important, first to establish and then to shatter.  And over a period of time some schools gained reputations as powerhouses in the competitions.

Winner, Winning Stairs, Olympic Games, Silver Medal

In order to attain such heights, or to remain on top once there, some schoolyard teams resorted to additional measures.  They enticed the best of the younger children to attend the big-name schools; they lobbied for changes to the rules of the contests to favour their own talents and skills; and they began to heap criticism on other schools who engaged in the same sort of tactics.

Eventually, one schoolyard team had had enough.  Perhaps because of an inability to compete at the highest level, or a sense of futility when playing the better school teams, a decision was taken to stop competing in The Games.  The other schools protested loudly, but to no avail; the boycott held.  And then more of the smaller, less successful schools made their decision to drop out, too.  In just a short time, The Games were reduced to a shadow of their former glory.

The kids, of course, were rather confused by it all.  After being told by the officious adults to work and train and practise, and just as they were beginning to take their exalted status for granted, they discovered that it had all been in vain.  There would be no more competition.  The Games were finished.

So they returned to their respective schoolyards, disheartened, disillusioned, downcast.  And there, to their surprise, they found that no one else in the schoolyard cared.  All the other girls and boys had long since lost interest in what the more skilful of their peers were doing in their more highly-organized competitions.

Back in the schoolyard, the other kids, the ones  left behind, had begun to play on their own again.  Free of the interference and regulation of the over-zealous adults, they had rediscovered their games.  There weren’t a lot of specific rules involved because the games varied tremendously from one day to the next.  There were always a few standard guidelines that everyone was familiar with, but usually nobody bothered much with them.  They just played to the best of their abilities, and enjoyed the freedom and the exhilaration of being included.

The games.  Nobody was obliged to take part but nearly everyone did.

Because it was fun.

Playing Catch

It’s been a long time since I’ve thrown a baseball around.  I used to do it all the time as a child, playing catch with anyone who would consent to chase after my wild throws.  Even as a younger man—into my mid-forties, actually—I tossed the ball back and forth with a myriad of teammates, all of us chasing visions of grace and glory.

My father was one of my earliest playmates, out on the back lawn.  Struggling to balance my oversized glove on my hand, I marvelled that he could catch the ball barehanded.  Whenever I tried that, it hurt my hands.  So instead, I’d make a stab at each toss with my glove, only to have the ball more often than not bounce off and hit me in the forehead.  That hurt, too, but I was determined to at least look like a ballplayer.

We spent a lot of hours playing catch, my dad and I, but never too long at any one time.  When he wanted to quit, he’d start throwing harder and harder until I suggested we take a rest.  After all, I only had one forehead.  My early school pictures show me with a round, red mark above my eyebrows.


My neighbourhood pals were faithful playmates, too.  Two of us could while away a whole afternoon, just throwing and catching, often fantasizing that we were making remarkable plays on some distant major-league outfield.  If there were three or four of us, we’d play “running bases”, where the runners would attempt to steal from one base to the other without being tagged out.  It was not allowed to have two runners on one base, so when one guy took off, the other had to hotfoot it in the other direction.  Once in a while, there’d be a tremendous collision in the middle of the base-path.

If five or more of us were gathered, a favourite game was “500”, usually in a park or schoolyard.  One player would toss the ball in the air and strike it with his bat, while the rest of us would mill around in the outfield trying to catch it.  Fifty points were awarded for successfully fielding a grounder, seventy-five points for a one-hopper, and one hundred for catching a line-drive or fly ball.  The first guy to reach five hundred points would take over at bat.  The batter who didn’t want to yield his spot too quickly always tried to hit a lot of grounders.

Collisions in the outfield were a hazard, particularly on long flies.  For self-preservation we took to calling for the ball, as in “I’ve got it!  It’s mine!”  Anyone who called off the other players, but then missed the catch, lost the equivalent points.  I think that’s where I first learned the concept of negative numbers.

Younger kids could play this game with us, but only if we were shorthanded.  Generally, they just weren’t good enough.  I remember to this day the first time my younger brother played.  I patiently explained (as patiently as an older brother can) that he’d have to call for the ball so as to avoid potential injury.  When the first fly ball came his way, looming ever larger as it dropped out of the sky toward him, he settled under it, planted his feet…and then, to my horror, turned away from it.

“Yours!” he shouted.  The ball bounced to a stop on the grass.  And my brother decided he didn’t want to play anymore.

playing 500

Another game we played a lot was “Work-ups”.  When we got to school in the morning, we’d race for the ball diamond, grabbing our positions in the sequence we arrived.  The pecking-order ran from batter, four of them, all the way down to last-outfielder.  There could be as many as seven of those.  As each batter made an out, he’d trot to the outfield while everyone else moved up one position.  Third base was the first infield slot, followed by shortstop, second base, first base, pitcher, and catcher.  It often took a long time to become one of the batters.

 When the bell sounded to start classes, someone would instantly yell, “Same positions at recess!”  This was usually one of the guys who had worked his way into the infield, and didn’t want to risk losing his spot if he was late getting back to the diamond.

Although I was far from being a gifted athlete, I was good enough to play with guys a year or two older.  Guys who were bigger and faster.  Guys who got to the diamond to stake their positions before I did.  Consequently, I spent a lot of time patrolling the outfield in these schoolyard games, only rarely making it to the infield, and almost never to the batter’s box.

But I think that paid off for me in the long run.  As many of us began playing for real teams, both hardball and fastball—all the way to middle-age for many of us—I became a pretty good centre-fielder.  I was fast and could track a ball right off the bat.  I was never much of a hitter, though, so it was my defensive prowess that kept me in the line-up.  Secretly, I would have preferred to play second-base, mainly because I didn’t have a strong throwing arm.  If a fly ball got past me, the batter could scamper a good way around the bases before I got the ball back to the infield.

Nobody ever said about me, “Watch this kid’s arm!  He’s got a gun out there!”  Instead, I was known as a ball-hawking centerfielder with a second baseman’s arm.  I got fairly good at three-bouncing the ball to my cut-off man.  On one ignominious occasion, my throw actually rolled to a stop on the grass before it reached my guy.

But as I said earlier, it’s been a long time since I threw a baseball anywhere.  The teammates I once played with are boys no more.  My wife, who used to play shortstop for a women’s team, is into golf now.  The broken nose she suffered on a bad bounce those many years ago helped convince her to take up another sport.  My two daughters are grown and gone.  Four of my grandchildren are old enough to play with me, but their game is soccer.  They can do more with a ball using their feet than I can with my hands.

I miss it, though.  There’s something about the feel of a baseball, the smell of the leather glove, the satisfying thok! as the ball smacks into the webbed pocket.  It evokes wonderful memories of long-ago days.  Perhaps it’s just an older man’s yearning for his youth, but it’s real, nonetheless.  Watching baseball on television is no substitute; it’s the playing of the game that counts.

Recently I decided to get out there, even if by myself, and re-live the experiences I treasure.  Alone on the grass, I tossed the ball high in the air, over and over again.  Joyously at first, I settled under each ball as it came back down, deciding whether to try the basket-catch made famous by Willie Mays, an over-the-shoulder catch such as I used to make routinely, or even a behind-the-back catch.

But I had to quit when my forehead got too sore.