36: My Uncle and Me

36: My Uncle and Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

My Uncle and Me

My uncle Ben Diamond was a draftsman, and it was the perfect job for him. He had a clear, logical mind and an esthetic sense to go along with his devotion to detail. He dressed in a preppy way—navy blazer and gray flannel slacks—and his gestures were mesmerizing. A courtly man, he seemed to move a beat or two slower than others.

When I was a boy in Fairfield, Connecticut, I would walk to his place for breakfast every morning. I left early, before my parents began their daily argument. My father was a gambler, and life in our house was at the mercy of his dark moods. So I’d escape to my uncle’s childless apartment, which was always as quiet as a church.

I would sit at the dining room table, surrounded by Aunt Ada’s knickknacks and little boxes of violets, while Uncle Ben made our breakfast. (Aunt Ada always slept late, it seemed.) It was an elaborate ritual, and always the same—orange juice, two pieces of buttered toast, one soft-boiled egg and a cup of coffee (mine mostly milk). It was certainly not the usual breakfast for a child, but Uncle Ben made it sound like a king’s feast.

He explained how he squeezed the oranges by hand in a cut-glass juicer, never grinding them too hard or there’d be too much pulp in the juice. The toast had to be a perfect shade of tan, he’d say, holding out a slice for me to see. Then he’d lay a pat of warm butter on top, let it melt and spread it evenly over the toast. The egg was cooked for exactly three minutes and brought to me in an eggcup. He showed me how to tap around the shell’s circumference with the side of my spoon to remove the top half.

Uncle Ben had a way of singing the praises of the most mundane thing so that it became something of wonder to a child.

While we ate, for instance, he read the major-league baseball scores from the newspaper out loud. We were Yankee fans because the Yankees had many Italian Americans like us: Raschi, Berra, Rizzuto, Crosetti and, of course, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. I clapped my hands softly at his mention of their success and dreamed of being a part of that someday.

After breakfast, I helped do the dishes. When we finished, Uncle Ben would take a tiny porcelain Buddha from Aunt Ada’s china cabinet and let me rub its belly for good luck. Then we’d go play catch in his narrow driveway.

He’d lay a piece of folded cloth on the pavement as a plate and get down stiffly into his catcher’s crouch, pinching the knee of each pant leg. Then I’d pitch to him. We made believe I faced the mighty Yankees. After each pitch, he would bounce out of his crouch and fire the ball back. “Attaboy, Paddy!” he’d say. “You got him!”

He was always tough on me, until I got behind in the count on Joltin’ Joe and he saw my face flush with panic. Then he’d give me a break on a pitch even I knew was off the plate. “Strike three!” he’d call, then fire the ball back so hard it stung my hand. I always pitched a perfect game with Uncle Ben.

Like many childless adults, he didn’t have to feign having fun with children. He really did. Adults, with their neuroses and duplicities, made him nervous. Children, in their innocence, calmed him, which was why he jumped at the opportunity to be our town’s Little League baseball coach when it was offered to him.

The job came open every couple of years because the coach was usually the father of one of the players.

He’d coach until his son graduated from Little League, then he’d quit. It was assumed that Uncle Ben would coach for the two years I was eligible to play and then quit. But twenty years later, after I married and had children of my own, he was still our Little League coach.

Uncle Ben was harder on me than he was on the other players. We both knew this was a ruse to hide his obvious affection. On the field he called me Jordan, not Paddy, and he made me carry the heavy canvas bat bag from his car. At batting practice he grunted a little harder when he threw me his fastball and he never told me when his curve was coming, as he did for others.

I was the team’s star pitcher, and no matter how hard he tried, my uncle could never really hide his pleasure when I was on the mound. It would be the final inning of a one-run game, with a runner on third base and two outs. He would pace back and forth, yelling encouragement. “Come on, Paddy! You can do it!” (I wasn’t Jordan then.) I would get two strikes on the batter, and before I delivered, I’d give my uncle a wink then get strike three. He would charge out to shake my hand.

Uncle Ben ran constant herd on us to act like men. I remember the one time he ever really spoke harshly to me. It was before a game I was not scheduled to pitch. I was fooling around, showing off for the benefit of some twelve-year-old girls who had come to flirt. I put my cap on backward, and my shoes were unlaced in a deliberately sloppy manner to elicit laughter. “Fix your hat and shoes, Jordan!” my uncle barked at me. “Look like a ballplayer!”

I sulked for the entire game. Afterwards, as my uncle drove home, I sat in glum silence. I felt humiliated. He tried to explain why he had snapped at me over such an inconsequential matter.

“It’s important how you look, Paddy,” he said. “Details, like wearing your uniform just so, add up. They count. If you do all the little things right, then when the big things come it’ll be easier to handle them. And sometimes the little things are all you have in life. You can take great satisfaction in those details.”

As a child of twelve, I only vaguely understood what my uncle was talking about. I understand now, of course. He was talking about pride in oneself. He was talking about his own life really.

People came from all over the state to see me pitch that year. In the six games I pitched, I threw four no-hitters and two one-hitters. And our team also won when I wasn’t pitching.

My uncle’s secret to success was to know the limits of his boys, never push them beyond those limits. He kept things simple and orderly. Other managers overextend their players by concocting elaborate plays that always seemed to backfire and humiliate the boys in front of their parents. Those managers wanted to show the fans how much they knew. My uncle always managed in a way that kept the attention on us, not him.

We were a heavy favorite to win the state championship on our way to the Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pennsylvania. But we lost our final game and were eliminated. I pitched a one-hitter that day before three thousand fans. But I threw wildly on a bunt attempt early in the game, which let in what proved to be the only run. After the game we were presented trophies at home plate. When my name was announced, the crowd rose and gave me a standing ovation. My uncle walked out to the plate with his arm around my shoulder. I began to cry, and he was crying, too.

We drifted apart as I became a teenager. He still saw me as a child. I began to see my uncle as lovable but eccentric. He seemed fussy and enmeshed in the myriad details he felt were so important. His interests seemed trivial.

When I was eighteen, I signed a thirty-five-thousand-dollar bonus contract with the Milwaukee Braves and went away to the minor leagues. After three years of diminishing success, I was released by the farm club. I went home, depressed and confused by this first failure of my life.

My bride and I were living, temporarily, at my parents’ house near the ballpark where I had had so many youthful successes. My parents had offered us the use of their house until, as my mother put it, “you get back on your feet.”

But I couldn’t get back on my feet. I spent most of each day lying on the bed in my old room, staring straight ahead. The sun came in through the window, illuminating in a dusty haze the mementos of my career arranged on the bureau: bronzed trophies from Little League, scuffed baseballs from notable high school successes. What had gone wrong?

I stared at those mementos for hours, not really seeing them, but rather lost in a kind of lassitude that made even the simplest tasks—dressing, reading the newspaper, going down to dinner, talking with my wife—seem superfluous.

Downstairs in the kitchen, I could hear whispering voices.

“What’s wrong with him?” my mother said.

“I don’t know,” my wife answered, sobbing softly.

Then one day my uncle called. “Paddy, it’s me, Uncle Ben,” he said, as if I could ever forget his voice. “Why don’t you come over tomorrow for breakfast?”

“I’ll see,” I said. I had no intention of going, but my mother insisted. “It will hurt him terribly if you don’t.”

It was just the way it had been when I was a child. The orange juice. The perfect toast. Uncle Ben showing it to me before he buttered it. “See,” he said. “Tan.” He wasn’t trying to humor me; he was just transporting me back to that simple time of my childhood.

After we did the dishes he smiled and said, “I’ve got something for you.” He went into the dining room and opened Aunt Ada’s cabinet. Returning with her Buddha, he said, “Remember this, Paddy?”

I smiled. He held it out to me. I rubbed its belly for luck.

Maybe it was the Buddha. Maybe it was just seeing my uncle still take such pleasure in the little details of his life. But I was all right after that. It dawned on me that my life, far from being over, was just beginning. I had a wife. I was twenty-two years old, and there were so many things out there for me to do. I went back to college. Had children. Taught school. Became a writer. Filled my life with a host of things that give me pleasure.

Then, suddenly, my uncle was gone. I was stunned. I thought he’d always be there. And in a way he is.

I think a lot about my uncle these days, especially when I begin to feel sorry for myself. He never allowed himself to indulge in self-pity, even in the face of the one great disappointment of his life—not having a child of his own.

For Uncle Ben, happiness was never a given. It had to be worked at, created. He was a master at finding joy in life’s details. He showed me how to take delight in small, everyday pleasures. Like perfect, buttered toast.

~Pat Jordan
Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan’s Soul

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