Backyard ballgames and apple blossoms

Backyard ballgames and apple blossoms

Baseball season and flowering trees equal springtime in my book. Most people love summer, many prefer autumn, but I’ve always been a fan of fielders’ gloves and pink magnolias. Spring is my heart-singing, smiling season.

I think it all began in our backyard in my small Massachusetts hometown. Mom and I lived in the second-floor apartment above the Flynn family. Joe, the oldest of the four Flynn boys was a year younger than me. I was probably seven or eight when emptying and burning the trash became my routine job. On Monday afternoons, young Joe seemed to have the same after-school chore.

The big burn barrel stood in the back corner of the yard. I don’t know why we were allowed to light it and feed it at our age, but we learned some fire safety by experience. I carried wooden matches from the matchbox in our kitchen, but Joe loved to beat me to the barrel to claim the lighting privilege.

It was around that barrel that Joe and I gradually, grudgingly became friends. After all, I was clearly a member of the enemy camp in many ways. Prejudices and intolerance ruled in those days, even among the kids. I was a Protestant. The Flynns were devoutly Catholic. My mother was divorced and out working in a man’s world, and clearly making her own decisions. Mrs. Flynn stayed at home and did what she was told. Mr. Flynn, our landlord, ruled the roost.

Worst sin of all, I was the lone girl in an all-boy neighborhood. Horrors. Fortunately, my slow-blooming friendship with Joe saved me the worst harassment from the rotten other boys. Joe helped me – quietly. He did, however, warn me: “No talking about our time at the barrel. I’ll never be nice to you when they’re around.”

The gang of neighborhood kids nearest my age were Polish, Slavic, Italian and Irish. All boys. And me. A baseball gang of five.

Our diamond was formed by the pear tree as first base, the grape arbor as second, and the large apple tree as third.

The house was the backstop, and a big stone in front of the cellar wall was home plate.

One boy played between first and second base, the other baseman between second and third. The pitcher threw from between the fruit trees to the fourth boy, batting from the house.

The outfield? It was everything beyond the thick grape arbor, a huge vacant lot behind our yard. I was the one and only outfielder. W-a-a-a-a-y out.

At the beginning of each season, when the April mud began to dry, I picked my way through the grape bramble to create a pathway to my position. I was never allowed to pitch, or man a base … banished to nowheresville … out of sight, out of mind. I almost never saw the ball in play because nobody could routinely hit beyond the grape arbor. The boys took turns hitting, which changed the fielding positions with every batter. There were only five of us. They tried to “accidently forget” my turn at bat, but I listened and poked back through the branches to remain in the lineup.

Despite not being one of them, I managed to enjoy my time in the outfield. The aromas of the flowering trees, occasional scents of suppers cooking nearby, and the heavy sweetening of the nearby grapevines led my day-dreaming away from catching a rare flyball. Grasshoppers, dandelions, and four-leaf clovers kept me busy in the lumpy meadow.

And it was through those scruffy baseball games that my love of flowering trees began. The scent of apple blossoms beckoned me to the backyard whether there was a game or not. Sometimes, after the wind had thrown smoke from the burn barrel in my direction, I ran under the trees for a big inhale of that sweetness, occasionally plucking a blossom for my pocket.

I remember how ugly the apples were, but by the time they were on the ground they were edible. Not so the pears. We watched them grow all summer. When the small, dark green ovals fell, they were hard as rocks. Sometimes mis-stepping on a slippery pear sent the baserunner to the ground, yelling “No fair!” while being thrown out at first. It happened to all of us.

The boys nevertheless ate those pears as afternoon snacks, and paid with the bellyaches that followed. My mom had warned me when I brought one into our kitchen.

It amazes me that such simple times still have a tangible presence in my adult life. I know that Joe and Jim of the backyard boys are gone now, though I have no idea of what happened to Paul or Stan. But, our “gang of five” that I was almost – though not quite – a member of, remains today, running bases in my memory. The pictures come flooding back every time I inhale the elegant, flowering aromas of springtime. Happy days.

Marcy O’Brien writes from her home in Warren.


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