, June 25, 2012, 6:30 p.m. — It’s been a while since I’ve walked the dogs on the field. Both of them are too old for the heat we’ve been slogging through lately, so our energetic loops around the field have turned into a series of very slow stop-starts, accompanied by limping and panting. And that’s just me! Lulu, the abused dog, has issues with all of the limbs she broke when thrown from a moving car, while Beanie, at 14, one bout with cancer behind him, is just ancient and always has been.
The evening can only be described as "crisp." The sun has begun its return to the other hemisphere and has now dipped below the tree line. The field is busy with games of soccer, baseball and, because school is over and structure has been replaced with freedom, games of tag and hide-and-seek. Even before I open the gate and step onto the field, I can hear the pinging of baseballs connecting with aluminum bats. It is a sound I love; a sound that instantly transports me back to a time when the boys were little guys. We'd grab the bucket o' balls, open the gate, and climb up to our "backyard." We'd claim the closest field and the boys would start swinging.
My relationship with Memorial Field is rich and complicated, and like many relationships, filled with good times and bad. For many, many years when the dogs were spry, I'd walk them before work. Despite the bitter cold of winter, the field is beautiful at 5 a.m., with zillions of stars decorating the navy blue sky. There are still critters around at that hour, so the dogs tug at their leashes, great puffs of frosty breath like cartoon balloons chuffing from their mouths. They'd run off if they could, but instead are tethered to me as I coldly pray they'll do their "business" so I can go home and make some coffee.
I have always felt a responsibility to Memorial Field, an ownership. This proprietary feeling led me to care for the field in ways that embarrassed my children. They started telling me I reminded them of a bag lady, as I scooped up bottles and cans for recycling. They would grouse and roll their eyes when I would make them join me for my yearly trawl around the field, picking up trash. I needed their muscle, since my yearly haul was always at least two large black trash bags, filled with the dregs of many games, many drinking parties and, for a while, potatoes from some guns the local boys had made from PVC pipe. "Don't tell our moms," they'd beg me. My response was always the same: "Don't poke your eyes out!"
I've witnessed tragic events on the field, as flashing red and blue lights alerted me to a drama unfolding outside my kitchen window. Before the restroom facilities were upgraded, I shouted, fist wagging in the air, at grown men urinating behind the refreshment stand, too lazy to walk around the track to the portable toilets. Most of the time, kids had upended them anyway, putting them out of commission and generating many foul sniffs for the dogs. Dangerous liaisons are an unfortunate part of life on the field, especially at the end of the very long driveway that runs parallel to Church Street. It is there that cars park and lust bubbles over behind black windows. It is here that I saw a woman from my gym, nuzzling a man who was not her husband. I could never look at her again without wondering how someone so young could already be cheating on her spouse.
Tonight, however, Memorial Field is a sparkling advertisement for Moorestown. The track is filled with walkers and runners, some talking but most of them in their own private Idaho, earbuds negating the chirping birds and the laughing children. Crouching in the cinders are a boy and a girl. They have sticks and are making piles of sooty grit, their faces, arms and once-clean playclothes now gray and smudged. I laugh at my own description, remembering there is no such thing as "playclothes" anymore. I am sure their mother is not going to be happy to see their hobo-like faces, now dusty and dirty.
The closest field is filled with little boys playing baseball. Moms are clustered on the bleachers and in folding chairs, gabbing and laughing. Some watch intently, some don't. A dad is hitting slow balls to a line of boys. Other dads on the field shout out instructions to jittering boys who are either mostly engaged or looking elsewhere, at the trees or the geese. Many of them have moved beyond goofy and are beginning to take the game seriously. I guess them to be around 7 years old. When asked, the moms confirm my estimate. I know little boys.
At the lowest baseball field, a father tries coaxing his very young son into a game of catch. The boy is probably 3 or 4. All he wants to do is dance on the pitcher's mound. He is in no way interested in the fine art of throwing and catching as he twirls and sings. Give it up, I feel like telling the father. You will have years and years of baseball with your son. Enjoy this lovely evening and let him dance.
As I round behind the diamond, I see a group of little girls plucking clover. I stop to let them fuss over the dogs, then show them how to make necklaces from the white flowers. Usually, I would remind them to watch out for bees, but there are very few this evening. The dogs are plodding, ready to lie down. We cross the parking lot, avoiding cars and people chatting. Everyone is happy. The school year is over and the summer has begun.
I wonder if anyone else in town has such an intimate relationship with so public a swath of grass. Memorial Field is my field. For as long as I live here, I will continue to spray the poison ivy and recycle what I can. I will beg coaches to clean up after their games and trade words with those that don't. I will pick up after other people's dogs, swearing at their neglect. I will clean up after underage drinkers and grouse at litterers. And I will always be grateful to live where I live.