A red rubber ball
“I know it is silly,” she told me during the interview she gave me at the senior citizens center. “ A cheap rubber ball. And I can’t forget it. God.”
I had picked the woman out from among the two dozen elderly people in the place because of her insisting on sitting alone. She didn’t mope. She seemed standoffish in some regard, even dignified, as if I had stumbled onto royalty in a charity nursing home.
She picked the subject to talk about, I listened and jotted down the notes, later assembling them again later, although for the most part she hardly deviated or drifted off the way many seniors decades younger than she was sometimes did.
“I was a little girl then, all of 8 years old, maybe,” she said. “I remember it must have been 1913 or so. It was before the war started in Europe. We lived someplace else by that time. And maybe it had to do with how innocent I felt. And vulnerable. Later I realized that the whole world changed with the war, and I couldn’t get back to the way I felt before it had begun.”
She was the same age as most of my grand family, that accumulation of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters, and their wives and husbands. Yet to look at her, she seemed younger, her skin lacking the thick accumulation of wrinkles that plagued my family before their deaths. At 95, she could have passed for any age over 60 without question, her bright green eyes flashing as each new recollection came to her mind.
“I’m not saying it was a good time,” she said. “ We were in the house because my mother and father had died, an accident of some sort which I still have the gotten straight in my mind.”
She was not alone.
“There were nine of us, all crowded into my aunt Bertha’s spare room, living on top of each other, struggling to like each other, and settling on comforting each other.”
The old woman – whose first name was Doris – kept talking about a red rubber ball she’d owned, and it took me a long time to understand her obsession with it.
“Maybe because we lived so close that ball seemed very important to me,” she said. “None of us had much. Just a thing or two taken in a rush from our former life. Belle had heard sweet green hat. Shelly had a penny whistle. And I had the ball.”
Which she apparently lost in the crack in the floor when bouncing its in the house at some point. She considered it a great a tragedy.
“Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I cried more over the loss of that ball than I ever did over the death of my mother and father,” she said. “Later, I felt ashamed by it, thinking about how cruel that seemed. Maybe all children are that cruel at that age. I don’t know. I remember the racket I put up, and how all my brothers and sisters tried to reach the ball wedged somewhere between the floor of our room and the ceiling of the room below. Even the adults tried, and failed, and while there was some talk of tearing up the boards, nothing came of it. No one saw a reason for saving such a silly ball when it could be so cheaply be replaced. Oddly enough it never was. We moved on soon after that, and the ball was soon forgotten by everyone but me.”
Yet even she seemed to have forgotten it eventually, the thought of it, returning to her sharply years later when she and her husband passed the house.
“I was married a week and we acted like teenagers,” she said. “I saw the house and insisted we stop the carriage.”
She said carriage although I suspect she meant car.
“`What for?’ my nosy husband asked. `Do you know the people living there?’
“What exactly to tell a man after only a week of marriage? It seemed foolish even to me, yet staring up at that door, the urge to knock upon it was overwhelming,” she said. “I wanted to ask them if in their cleaning or their repairs they had come upon such a small thing as a silly red ball.”
The pure possible humiliation of the request turned her away from the house before she could go up to knock.
“It was the vision of myself a grown woman pleading with them for the return cheap ball that dissuaded me,” she said. “I didn’t want to hear the house owners saying I could get a brand new one at the corner for a mere ten cents.”
Some time many years after that, she read about the house in the newspaper, some local historian seeking to preserve the building, which was slated for demolition.
“I went down there again -- now, a fully mature woman with children grown and married, feeling more than a little out of place as my heels clicked on the broken pavement he and I climbed the dusty steps to the porch,” she said. “Whereas my last visit had seen in the house still useful, it was now quite dead.”
Pieces of its trimming came off in her hands, walls she remembered as freshly painted during her time there, now looked dingy.
“If the house was crumbling, then so was I,” she said, claiming she had never come to terms with her graying hair and changing moods. “I never really pictured myself as anyone other than the little girl who had bounced and lost her ball in the floor cracks here.”
This time, she knocked.
“No one was home, but the door was open,” she said. “I felt as if I was stepping into a haunted house, from which even the ghosts had fled in shame. I saw only dust and desolation.”
That trip, she claimed, was the most courageous of her long life, one that not only took her up a crumbling set of stairs, but back through time as well as she returned to her room.
“Maybe it had been painted and papered since my last time there, but it didn’t looked,” she said. “Time had worked its magic in making the room look exactly as I had left it. And perhaps that was the problem if it had look different, or felt different, then maybe the old feelings would not have come flooding back into my head. I found myself standing there crying over that lost ball.”
At this point, she shook as she talked, moaning a little:
“Why did they leave me,” she said. “Why did they love me enough to give me something more substantial than a silly ball. And only of all things had been so careless as to lose the one thing they did leave behind?”
She gathered up her dignity again, staring not at me, but at some vision she held still in her head.
“I was crying when I left that house,” she said. “If there had been a crack, I didn’t find it. Let alone the elusive ball contained within it. Maybe an owner had founded in repairs over the years. Maybe it would be buried with the house when it was finally demolished.”
Then, for a moment, she ceased talking altogether and continued to stare.
“After that I didn’t think about that ball again until I came here,” she said. “Maybe I resolved something going back to the room. Maybe the only thing I needed to was to give that red rubber ball a decent burial”