My dad grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and like nearly everyone else who lived in the borough during the 1950s, he was a die-hard Dodgers fan. During the team’s final season at Ebbets Field, my ten year-old father caught a ball in play while seated in the stands, and leaned out over the dugout to have the ball signed by his favorite player, Gil Hodges. That ball was one of my father’s most prized possessions. It was never displayed, but sat for years in a box in our basement. I occasionally took it out to marvel at both Hodges’ signature, and at the smudges of Brooklyn infield dirt still embedded in the stitching.


For years, my parents blamed me for losing that ball. There’s no question that my father also blamed me for ruining his life.


We didn’t watch baseball in my house, even though my father and I both loved the game, even though the Mets had told New York City ya gotta believe in 1969 and my father said they were still a poor excuse for a ball club, even though I was growing up in Queens in the 70s and every kid in my neighborhood wanted to be Ron Guidry or Thurman Munson or Reggie Jackson. It didn’t matter. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957, my father made a lifelong pact: he would never follow baseball again. He kept his word. I was expected to follow suit.


Yet, in those early post-Title IX days, he encouraged me to play softball, played catch with me in the alleyway behind our house, and schooled me on my footwork when scooping up grounders. It was what his father had done with him. It was what he thought he should do for me, too.

He also took care to season my softball glove in the first earth-scented days of April, just as his father had seasoned his. He’d get a bottle of neats foot oil from his workbench and a handful of rubber bands from the junk drawer in the kitchen, and tell me to find one of my softballs in the garage. Then, he’d open the black plastic screw top on the bottle of oil — the same bottle that had belonged to his father — and he’d pour a small amount onto a wadded paper towel. Not too much, he always said, or you’d oversaturate the glove and break down the leather too quickly, shortening the life of your mitt.

Then, he’d oil the glove. The caramel leather would darken to chocolate-brown as he worked the yellow liquid into the hide.  The first time he did this, I fretted that he’d ruined my glove, but he reassured me that the leather would return to its original shade over time. Then, he’d nestle my softball inside to form a deep pocket, and he’d secure it with the rubber bands.  I was told to leave the glove someplace safe, someplace where I wouldn’t be tempted to touch it until it was ready. It would take several days for the leather to give, to soften, to form. It was worth waiting for, just like the season itself.


My father was young, just 28, when he lost his father suddenly to a heart attack. He had walked in the door from work, and answered our Harvest Gold-toned wall phone as it rang. His hard briefcase fell from his hand, clattering to the kitchen floor as his sister shrieked the news on the other end of the line. Pop was dead. He was gone.

My grandfather had died in the early spring, just before Easter.  Yet for several springs after that, there was softball season, and Pop would still be with us, present in the simple ritual of glove seasoning. Each spring, my father worked the leather, patiently and quietly, and my mitt would be ready for dusty games on poorly kept baseball diamonds in the outerboroughs.


In the seventies, when we’d visit my grandmother in Brooklyn, sometimes we’d drive near the housing projects that were built over sacred ground: Ebbets Field. I’d hold my hand out the window, trying to touch the air that those men once swung through, with ropy forearms and taut biceps, while clutching pine-tarred bats. Trying to touch my grandfather, I now realize. Trying to touch my father, too, young and stripe-shirted and innocent, before life had done a number on him.


My father once told me, I realized a few months into the marriage that I had made a mistake. I silently counted the months in my head — July, August, September, October. My mother got pregnant with me in October. She stopped taking the pill and didn’t tell me. 


When we moved to Connecticut in the early eighties, my parents asked me what had happened to Hodges’ baseball. I had no idea, I said. It was always kept in that box in the basement. One of your friends must have taken it, they countered — especially since the signature had become more valuable after Hodges’ untimely death in the early 1970s from a heart attack. You must have been playing outside with it. You were careless with it. You probably lost it in the sewer. I insisted that I had not, that I knew its sentimental value to my father, and that my friends weren’t thieves. The ball never resurfaced, and whenever someone made mention of it, I was named as the cause of its disappearance. The accusation always stung me. At some point, I began to believe that I had lost the ball, and that I was to blame.


My parents have been divorced for 15 years. The unraveling of my parents’ 36-year marriage was both long and short. Their unhappiness had persistently lingered, but the dissolution of mortgages and bank accounts, belongings and photo albums was frenzied, quick work. Items were hastily and nonsensically packed into boxes and storage containers. Let’s just empty these rooms. Let’s just get everything out of here. Let’s just be done with all of this.


I am napping on the couch after a difficult, peri-menopausal night’s sleep, and my smartphone buzzes. It signals the receipt of a long, rambling text from my mother, who is planning an upcoming trip, and partaking in our Irish familial tradition of sharing flight numbers and hotel itineraries with other family members before traveling. Our DNA is still woven with shame, 

and with the vestigial belief that nothing good can come of a pleasure trip. Surely something terrible will happen while she’s away. There’s always a price to pay for happiness.

My mother says that she’s found the Gil Hodges baseball somewhere in the recesses of her storage unit — which has largely gone untouched since the divorce. She casually mentions it in paragraph sixteen of her lengthy text — I found that Gil Hodges ball — and moves quickly to another topic of conversation. There is no apology for the mistake or the accusations made. For a moment, I expect one while scanning the text, but then I remember who we are.

I am stunned at the baseball’s re-emergence after so many decades. I feel vindicated. My parents and I now have a strained relationship, one chinked and scarred by alcohol abuse and mental illness, and none of that — so much of which still smolders in my life’s rear-view mirror — was my fault. Although it has taken years to wipe away the soot of my burned-out childhood, I have come to believe this — I was a good kid who grew up in a bad situation. Not the other way around. 


A few weeks later, the ball arrives in a crinkled brown paper bag when my mother comes for a visit. I hold the damaged thing in my hand, marvel at the hold it once had on me. The autograph is long worn away, and the dye from the red stitching has bled into the leather, because it was never properly cared for. It no longer has any value to others. 

There will be no further mention of the incident, other than my mother’s request to forward the ball to my father’s apartment, where he lives with his second wife. If I return the ball to him, I’ve no doubt that he will lose the ball again. He’s not always careful with precious things.


Hodges’s jersey number — 14 — was often the uniform number assigned to my daughter, whenever she played on a rec softball team. It was just a coincidence, but she always liked the “evenness” of the number, and I secretly liked the similarity. She was a catcher, like he was, and an occasional first baseman, as he became. I used to mention Gil to her sometimes, when she’d be unable to recognize her unique ability as a utility player, expertly moving to whatever position her coach had want of. He was the only player never to be booed at Ebbets Field, I’d tell her. I’d explain the importance of being a peacemaker and a benevolent leader on a team as Hodges was, of doing what’s needed when it’s called for.


I’ve decided that my daughter should have the ball. She loves baseball, just as I do, just as her grandfather and great-grandfather did before her.  It closes the wound over. It settles the score, somehow. 


There are only so many seasons left in our lives. 


Kathleen McKitty HarrisKathleen McKitty Harris is a fifth-generation native New Yorker whose work has appeared in Longreads, CRAFT, Creative Nonfiction, McSweeney’s, and The Rumpus, among others. Her essay, “A Timeline of Human Female Development,” was recently published in the body-image anthology My Body, My Words. Kathleen has performed on The Moth Podcast, and co-hosts the “What’s Your Story?” reading series in northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two children.