Monday, December 2, 2013

Mrs. Gamble's Grave


I am seventy years old.  The preceding sentence is simple and declarative, yet for me it is as unfathomable as time itself.  How did I get to seventy years, and why am I still here while some of my closest childhood friends are gone?  These were my thoughts as I stood over Mrs. Gamble's grave.  Her tombstone is a simple gray granite marker.  Wreathed with grass and leaves, it lies flush with the ground.  It measures three feet by eighteen inches.  The inscription is brief.  In letters worn smooth from a 145 years of weather, it reads "Mrs. Gamble, Died Dec 17th, 1798." Her tombstone is the only visible reminder that she rests in a colonial cemetery.  Over the years the earth has absorbed the tombstones of the others who share Mrs. Gamble's final resting place. Located in the middle of a north-side neighborhood in Syracuse, New York, the cemetery covers a square city block.  It has no name

         In 1955 the cemetery's green fields were interspersed with stately elm and shady chestnut trees. In the days before adults commandeered kids' sports, the cemetery was alive with activity. Four dirt paths divided it into quadrants.  Each path started at a corner of the block, and they intersected at a group of bushes at the center. The paths served as an informal boundary between kids who lived on the north side of the block and those who lived on the south. We called our makeshift playground "the park."  During the spring and summer we climbed trees and played baseball. In the fall we played football, and during winter the small hills on the west side of the park bristled with sleds.

         Summer was the best. Baseball games followed the sun. We started early, suspended play for lunch, and resumed until supper.  (No one ate "dinner," except on Sundays.) We chose sides by picking the two best players as captains. They threw fingers, odds and evens, to determine the first pick and which team would get the final at-bat. Being chosen last to play was a temporary humiliation that quickly dissipated as we embraced the flow of the game. The batting order was determined by the quickest to speak up. "I got first ups," "I got second ups," the chorus continued until the sequence of "ups" concluded with the last batter.  Soon the delightful crack of wooden bats smacking baseballs resonated through the neighborhood. We kids sailed together through the boundless summer joking, teasing, swearing, and playing. They were precious times, and we knew it.

    We devised several ball fields, each with its own set of ground rules and tricky golf-course contours. On one field a ball hit over a path was a home run.  On another fielders tracked a fly ball as it bounced through tree branches. An improbable catch earned a week of bragging rights. Trees, rocks, and stumps served as bases. In my favorite field a chestnut tree was first base, a forlorn baseball mitt usually served as second, and Mrs. Gamble was third.  I liked this field best because it was too small for baseball, so we played softball, and girls played along with us.

        I was twelve when I fell in love with Donna Jean. She had wavy brown hair and azure eyes.  When she ran the bases on Mrs. Gamble's field her long tanned legs flashed in the sunlight. She smelled like lavender. Some called what I felt "puppy love," but there was nothing puppy about the pain I felt when she "went steady" with the kid from the other side of the park.  Doug was handsome and a terrific athlete. He had crew-cut blonde hair, brown eyes, and a sturdy build. A small scar above his right eye gave him a rakish look. He lived a few blocks from the north side of the park with his mother.  They shared  a small apartment above a dry cleaning shop. His was a rough neighborhood that I avoided.

        In the past Doug and I occasionally played ball together, usually on opposite sides, but this summer we became inseparable.  I didn't understand his sudden interest in me, but his status among the other boys and his fun loving personality drew me to him like a moth to a neon sign. We decorated our bikes, with mud-flaps and reflectors and we rode around the neighborhood, preening like bantams roosters. We drank Pepsis and licked popsicles at the corner grocery store while listening to Buddy Holly, Pat Boone and Elvis on his transistor radio. We ate bologna sandwiches with mustard on white bread in my back yard. The coolest kid in the neighborhood was my best friend, which I figured made me the second coolest kid.

        After ball games Doug would head to Donna Jean's house across the street from the park.  Addicted to their companionship I would invariably tag along. As they sat on her front steps whispering and holding hands, I stood on the sidewalk not wanting to stay, but unable to leave. I hid my misery behind wisecracks and my keen ability to identify the newest model cars.  Other times when the three of us played on Mrs. Gamble's field, childish glee replaced pre-adolescent self-pity. There was no isolation, no sense of loss. Each of us joined the others in the pure pleasure of running, catching, and throwing a ball.  If Mrs. Gamble looked down on us, she surely smiled.

         Doug and I attended different schools. When the new school year started Doug disappeared. Donna Jean told me she heard he had a new girlfriend. He didn't tell her he was breaking up; he just stopped coming around. It seemed he decided to break up with us both. I didn't know what to make of it.  On a Saturday afternoon in late September Doug showed up with some kids I didn't recognize. Jimmy and I were playing catch with a football on Mrs. Gamble's field.  For no reason I could discern Doug picked a fight with me. He was a tough kid, and I wanted no part of fighting him.

    The commotion attracted a crowd and someone called the police. An adult in the crowd fingered Doug as the instigator. The police officer put him in the back seat of his cruiser. I peered through the cruiser rear window and saw him crying. From the kitchen window of our house across the street my mother spotted me in the center of the throng. I kept repeating to the officer, "He didn't do anything." I begged him to let Doug go. Suddenly I heard my mother's voice. She was at my side. "What do you think you are doing?" she said to the officer. Her statement was more accusation than question, and she didn't wait for a reply.  "Let that boy go," she demanded. In those days no one, not even a police officer, argued with a mother. She meant business. The officer opened the rear door of the cruiser. Doug jumped out and ran across the park. I never was so proud of my mother as I was at that moment.

    I didn't see Doug again for five years. I was a senior, sitting at a table at our high school hangout, Aunt Josie's restaurant. Marines were not a common sight in our neighborhood in 1961 so the kids at my table took notice when two Marines came in the door.  It was  Doug and his cousin Benny. They looked sharp.  I nodded to them as they passed our table. "Who are they?" someone asked. "Just some guys I used to know," I replied. I watched them slide into a booth on the far side of the dining room.  I felt a sadness that I didn't understand. I shook it off and went about the high school business of eating pizza and drinking beer. That was the last time I saw Doug.

    A few months ago I was telling my daughter about Doug and the days in the park.  Later that evening she called. "I think I found your friend, Dad," she said.  "I'm sorry. I found him in the Syracuse obituaries. He died last year." I looked up the obituary online.  I didn't recognize the story it told. Maybe, I hoped, it was someone else with the same name. But, as I studied the photo, there was no mistaking the handsome, square-jawed face. He was wearing a baseball cap. The kid I knew was there beneath the face of a 70-year-old man.
    These days I travel to Syracuse infrequently, but when I do I visit the cemetery. It is always quiet and empty. Kids don't play there anymore.  I clear off Mrs. Gamble’s tombstone, and I look around recalling the bittersweet days of my youth. The neighborhood has changed. The big red house I lived in on the corner is divided into apartments. The surrounding houses need a coat of paint. The Irish and Italian families who were the neighborhood backbone moved to the suburbs years ago. The cemetery seems smaller, almost shrunken. Blight destroyed the elm trees, but a few stunted chestnut trees still stand.  Only Mrs. Gamble is unchanged.  Her solitary tombstone remains, an obscure memorial to the joy and pathos of my childhood.
     During my last visit I was walking back to my car when I saw an African-American boy, about thirteen years old, shuffling along the sidewalk towards me.  He was wearing heavy boots that seemed at least a size too big. The laces were undone. He was dressed in a drab sweatshirt with the hood pulled down, obscuring his face. He walked by me and crossed the street to the cemetery. In the mind's eye past and present coexist.  On Mrs. Gamble's field the kids were choosing sides- Donald, Pete, Fred, my sister Judy, Jimmy, Donna Jean, and the rest. Doug was standing by Mrs. Gamble tossing a ball in the air. He saw the boy and called,"Hey kid, we need someone to play first base." But the invitation went unheard.  I watched the boy's silhouette shrink into the distance as he walked down the hill to Wolf Street. I glanced one last time at the deserted space in the cemetery. Then I got into my car and drove away.