I grew up in a predominately female household. My mother, my sister and I lived on one side of the gender fence while my brother resided on the other. Even with a ratio of three to one, I don’t remember the household being particular frilly but it must have been somewhat feminine through the interests of the majority. My mother was married a number of times but none of them really took for one reason or another and through default my brother almost always sat in the King of the Castle’s empty throne. As titular male head of the household, though, he had no actual parental permission or political power which my sister and I were sure to remind him of on a regular basis.
In the house of my childhood, growing up a boy meant that it was your job to cut the lawn, take out the garbage, do any heavy lifting and make sure you didn’t knock your head on the kitchen cupboard doors regularly left open by the shorter females you lived with. It did not release you from the regular girly stuff like doing dishes, covering your bed or cooking meals which we all took a crack at while our mother was at work. The one thing my brother didn’t have to help with was canning. He came with us to pick the apples, strawberries, cherries and whatever else. He would get as sick as the rest of us as (at our mother’s urging) we filled up in the field because whatever we took home was going into jars. But by the time he was old enough to be any real use in the kitchen his man hands were much too large to pack cucumbers for pickles and he could never get the hang of jam making. He was excused from the steaming hot kitchen to do what ever he wanted while we sweated it out over sterilized jars, pitted gallons of cherries using bobby pins and peeled and blanched enough peaches and tomatoes to build a skyscraper.
For a while he had an old Chevelle that he worked on out in the driveway and he liked to lift weights down in the basement. After my mother had given up drinking for good he’d moved all his stuff down there and made it into a bedroom. There were mirrors on the wall behind the old bar that she’d never taken out and he used to watch himself as he ran through his routine lifting the bars and counting out the reps. My sister and I would laugh at him thinking that he was stuck on himself with his mirrors and his Charles Atlas and Arnold Schwarzenegger books but of course he wasn’t. He had an old pair of Tacks skates (when they used to be brown) and I think he could skate okay. There wasn’t any money for hockey but he went to Boy Scouts for years and he had an old canteen and a pair of snow goggles he’d made out of two spoons, some felt and an old piece of elastic binding. There was no hockey night in Canada at my house, no male banter, no baseball bats by the door and as our family went their separate ways comparatively early there were no whisker filled sinks and no clouds of Old Spice to fill the air.
Today my household couldn’t be more different. For one thing the ratio has changed and I find myself for the most part in the minority. I’m not a weak woman and I get my way somewhat about the larger decorating choices but I do have to make small concessions to the sports enthusiasts in my life. Laminated newspaper headings of the Blue Jays World Series wins share space with pen and ink drawings of various garden blooms. The Boston Bruins logo is prominently displayed in my bedroom but it is picked out in a counter cross stitch that sits on a miniature easel atop the wardrobe beside china plates commemorating the Huddersfield Town AFC (1908-1998) and the Miami Dolphins Dan Marino. An autographed picture of the captain of Canada’s 2000 Gold Cup winning soccer team is margined by acrylic folk art sketches in the west bedroom and the themes of fishing and hockey fight it out on the walls of the east bedroom. The bookshelves are liberally sprinkled with books bearing the names of such sports greats as Muhammad Ali and Wayne Gretzky while decades old Sports Illustrateds sit stored in cardboard boxes slowly inching their way toward antique status. Those aren’t the biggest changes though.
Along with the dominant presence of males in my life have come the trappings of their male activity. Any time of the year, day or night, my mudroom and the backdoor of my house play host to any number of objects meant to be used in physical and decidedly sweaty ways. There are golf balls, golf clubs, Frisbees, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, baseball bats, softballs, soccer balls and footballs… ad nauseum. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg for these are only the tools of each particular trade. The meat of the matter, of all the matters, resides a little further below ground in the back room of the basement. It is here in this subterranean grotto that the flotsam of the years of masculine existence has come to rest. The hopes and fears, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (to quote the old ABCs Wide World of Sports) or just the smell of de’ feet, de’ soccer shoes, de’ hockey bag and de’ athletic supporters.
It’s a strange sort of alchemy, a laboratory filled with mysteries and formulas. It is a territory that I’ve come to somewhat late in my life and though I’ve purchased, washed, repaired and even used a number of the objects shelved in this room they still speak a foreign language. It’s the language of boys and men. It is a language that rolls out in terms of competition, not just first place or second place, win or lose but the value of a person rated through skill and agility, bravado and blood, endurance and the downright stubborn stupidity that makes old men smile.
The baseball gloves must be stored wrapped around balls so they don’t lose their shape. Skates must be totally dried, the blades wrapped in old hockey socks or laid on wood to protect the edges. There’s toe black on the shelves along with 4 different kinds of tape and paraffin to wax blades. There are helmets and air pumps and buckets of pucks, weighted and regular. There are balls of all shapes and sizes, shin pads, cleats, nets and gloves. All of it is different but all of it is the same. The shape and the heft, the stink and the sweat sheened stiffness, the dirt and the tears speak the language of boys and men.
The shelves are turned out regularly with the seasons and often I’m the one left to gather it all together before the cat decides that the stinky pile of general mess and mayhem is his new litter box. I complain a bit but it always falls short to ears deafened by the sounds of TSNs Top 10 Plays of The Day or the discussion concerning Maggie the Macaque monkey and her bottom scratching ways. I have seen all these things in use by more then one of the “men” in my family but separated from their users they take on a life of their own. I’m a stranger here amongst all the testosterone memories.
It really is a mystery to me how anyone would want to wear an item of padding that was so sweat and dirt entrenched that it had taken on a permanent “corn chip” aroma. Yet I’ve seen these same items bring smiles of delight and hours of enjoyment to the masculine members of my family. It is the mechanics of their essence, lessons learned on the field, the ice, the floor that they’ve taken into themselves to become the very breath they breathe. Like a knight with his armor these bits of plastic and padding embody and strengthen these men. They create a world of black and white, of good and evil, of us and them and like the Paladins of old these men, these boys, have found a wholeness and a clarity, a nobility that is otherwise lacking in an everyday life.
So these are the things of men and boys, the things that I don’t remember from my childhood. But perhaps they were there and I did not know enough to recognize them back then. It is a wonder to me how a ball or a stick, a helmet or a pair of gloves, a poster or a jersey can alter the nature of a person making them more or less then their everyday self. There is no use questioning it, one must simply accept the reality of it. To me these are the things of men that add to the attraction and mystery of them.
Now there are whiskers in my sink, Old Spice in the air and dirty socks on my living room coffee table and I find myself bemused by the state of things but not totally displeased. I could do without the Blue Jays and soccer posters but it’s a small price to pay. I may not understand the language of men but I like to sit and let it wash over me. Like a tourist in a new place I’m drawn by the arguably bizarre, the unknown and the beauty of a foreign land.