It wasn’t much of a soccer ball. Somebody in the bottom of the Great Depression bought it from somebody else, and it passed from cousin to cousin, brother to brother, and there it was, lying in dirty snow by the fence at the bottom of the yard, covered with grass stains and bruises. I guess you could call it an heirloom if you wanted to. Why not?

It first belonged to my cousin Billy Devine, who played the guitar and who was the first to die in the war to come.

Next it fell to my oldest brother, Bud. Now he was stationed in the sun of Pearl Harbor, where he had given up soccer for surfing and swimming off of Waikiki Beach, so the ball went to the twins, Kerm and Kenny, and Jim, who stopped playing when he fell in love with opera.

Then it was left to the twins with their gang of “Soper Street bums,” who kicked it around the yard and then up the alley and down nine or ten streets to Carondelet Park, where there was a real pitch.

I was never good at kicking balls but would always tag along and sit on a park bench nearby and watch.

Soon the “bums’” passion for soccer began to fade with the emergence of Mary Villa and her pack of bobby soxers who hung out in the shade of the park’s gazebo.

After a while, the twins and the bums let the ball roll to me and began to drift into the shade with Mary and friends.

But then there was this day I remember better than any of the others.

It was Thanksgiving, and we were all trying to get over the death of my father, the big man with the Irish nose who after 30 years in the Navy had come home to St. Louis to rule over the old decaying brick house on Minnesota Avenue.

It was in March when he fell dead on the street, and we spent the rainy days of April and right up to the cold edge of December wondering who we were without him.

The usual noise, the chatter and squabbles at the supper table had since faded into the simple scrapings of knives and forks on our old china plates, and maybe the slamming of a door or the Angelus bells from the convent across the street.

My older sisters had married and gone, and when supper dishes were washed, my mother sat at the table staring out the window, sipping from her last cup of coffee, and that, I believe, was probably Saturday, Dec. 6. I wanted some of that coffee. She said I was too young.

The Sunday that followed was Dec. 7. By Sunday, Dec. 14, the house became a chapel of shadows and echoes.

The twins and Jim were gone to Naval Station Great Lakes for training along with the “bums” of Carondelet Park, all of my cousins, and even Father Winkleman from the church up the street, who had become an Army chaplain.

That Christmas, my married sisters came and went, leaving me and my mother and baby sister Dawn alone with an unlighted tree and a piano top full of pictures of men in sailor suits.

While Dawn sat in a pile of wrappings in the living room, I went, as I always did, to sit by Momma in the kitchen while she had her end-of-the-day cup of coffee.

I am, in these end years, still cursed with an unforgiving memory of things like summer songs shared with a girl, the first taste of my father’s beer, parades on Memorial Day and sparklers at twilight.

For me, the most vivid will always be the expression on my mother’s face that day, as she sat sipping her coffee and staring out the window at the open backyard gate.

It was at that broken gate she saw her husband walk away for the last time and her four sons in Navy blue wave goodbye. She always remembered Jim kicking the ball into that corner before he waved goodbye.

Maybe all of that was what she was reliving on that gray Christmas afternoon, as she stared down the yard. I like to think so.

I remember even now, as I sip my morning coffee here at my table by my window, the expression on her face as she slipped her cup across to me, watched me take my first taste of coffee flavored with her beloved chicory.

It was a healing moment passed between two humans who had just lost the man they both adored, while watching the old world slowly slip away.

Suddenly she perked up, looked out at the yard and tapped on the window. “Oh, honey, the ball. Go get the ball,” she said. “Bring it in.”

There it was, lying in the snow by the fence at the bottom of the yard. It wasn’t much of a soccer ball, grass-stained, snow-chapped and bruised. I guess you could call it an heirloom if you wanted to. Why not?

Happy Memorial Day.

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

 

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