Friday, March 7, 2014

The Child and the Ball

It was a day for chores, as they often are.  A small list of Things that Must Be Done lay before me, laundry and groceries and cleaning the kitchen.  Somewhere, in there, there was also writing to do.  The laundry went in, and as the machine chugged away, I left the house.

Before going to pick up the groceries, I made a quick stop at a nearby sports store, one of those big mega box super centers.  I was going there to buy a ball.  A football, to be precise.  That's an American Football football, that pointed ovoid pigskin unique to that peculiarly Yankee sport.

Every once in a while, my older son will suggest going out to toss one around.  We've done that since he was old enough to throw, and I mark each occasion now.  He's almost sixteen, and so every one of those moments is precious.  Two and a half years, and he'll be away.   The football we've been throwing reminds me of this, as it's the same one I had when I was his age and tossed it around with my dad.  Meaning, it's many years past spent.

"Dad, we really need a new one," he said, and holding the shredded, slowly leaking object.  Cheap as I am, he was right.

So I found myself perusing a vast wall of basketballs and footballs, all covered in logos.  Forty bucks?  For a ball?  Huh.  It's been a while.  But there on the floor was a bin, filled with footballs.  None had labels or logos, but they seemed identical in every other way.  Regulation size, same manufacturer, same materials, and half the price.  

I picked one of those out, and headed to the checkout aisle.  Only one was open.

In front of me, a young mother was buying workout clothes.  Sitting in the seat of her cart, a tiny guy, a little towheaded monkey with bright green eyes.  He looked to be just a little over a year old, just recently walking, not quite to that age when you stop counting in months.

In his hand, there was a little blue ball.

He held it up in his hand, and showed it to his mother.  He showed it to the cashier, who smiled warmly back.  He looked at it, and patted it with his other hand, and then he dropped it, backwards, over his shoulder into the cart.  His mother smiled at him, and handed it back.

She continued with the transaction, and he patted the ball again.  Then he threw it.

Tonk, tonk, tonk, it went, as it bounced away, back into the store.

I went and retrieved it, and handed it to him with a smile.  "There you go," I said.  He took it and looked at me, a little skeptically.  Then his little free hand waved, very slightly.  He smiled.  I smiled back.

His mother was done, and she looked at her child and sighed.  "Alright, now.  Time to put that back."

There, on the counter, a bin of little balls, placed there for little eyes and little hands.  Ah.  I remember this part. 

She gently removed it from his hand, and put it back in the bin, and began to wheel the cart away.

On five.  Four.  He looked confused, a little baffled, wondering what this had to do with the fun game with the ball.  Three.  Two.  As they wheeled away, the realization: the game with the ball was done, even though he was not.  One.  The face scrunched, and there came the cry.

It did not strike me in that moment as a selfish cry.  Oh, sure, there's plenty of brattishness and self-absorption out there, God help us.  But this was not a greedy child.  Just a confused one.

Here was a ball, set out to play with, one of hundreds.  He had picked it up, because he was supposed to, in the same way a bee is drawn to a flower. The people had smiled.  He had smiled.  He had thrown it.  It had been brought back, with smiles.  And now, suddenly, the ball had to be taken away.

He did not yet grasp the idea of "belonging." Or "ownership."  Or "buying."

It was just a ball, right there to be played with.  Ten thousand years ago, a heartbeat in evolutionary time, a human child coming across such a thing would have explored and examined it, and done as they pleased with it.

But now?  Now the game is much more complicated, in ways that his little mind--just coming into awareness of others---simply hasn't wrapped its head around.

He understood what it meant to be friendly, and to play, and to enjoy and acknowledge the presence of others.  The larger game, though?  That was confusing.

I can understand his confusion.  That "ball" does not "belong" to anyone, not in any way you could discern if you sorted through the atoms that comprise it.  It is not "owned," except by the social agreement of the human beings that blorted it and a couple million like it out of some factory in China.  These are abstractions, part of a vast and complex game we human beings are playing.

For this little pup, just coming into awareness of himself and the selves around him, of course it's a bit confusing.  Why can't I play with the ball that's been set there for me to play with?  There are so many of them.

It confuses me sometimes, too.