My father grew up in a small North Carolina mill town called Cornelius. My grandmother continued to live there in that little white plank house until she moved to Phoenix when I was in high school. Every house in her neighborhood looked the same, and the same skeleton key opened every front door on the block.
We'd visit once or twice a year, but I'd quickly get bored during these visits. It was completely unlike visiting my maternal grandmother in Charlotte. There was nothing to do in Cornelius except to sit on the front porch swing and listed to the old folks talk. Now, of course, I'd give a thousand dollars to go back to that same porch swing and drift off to sleep to the sound of the creaky old swing chains and my grandmother's even, droning voice, repeating the same old stories and tales. But what can I say in my defense? I was ten.
I think my grandmother was well aware that these visits were tough for me, and she kept a special drawer in her dresser, the bottom one, full of an assortment of small toys and games that were mine to play with whenever I'd visit.
I remember sitting in front of that drawer one Sunday afternoon realizing I'd played with everything in there at least a dozen times and was desperately looking for something new. I didn't find it, of course, but what I did find was something very, very old, so old that I'd ignored it up until now. It was an old leather drawstring bag filled with glass marbles. I'd seen marbles before, of course, and even had a few back home, but I was never really sure what you were supposed to do with them.
My dad walked into the room at that moment and sat down beside me. I can't say why he chose that particular moment -- maybe he'd heard a heavy sigh or two of boredom, or perhaps the distinctive clinking and rattling sounds of a full marble bag, or perhaps it was simply dumb luck.
"That's my old marble bag," he said. "Want to play a game of marbles?" I confessed that I didn't know how, and his reaction seemed one born of horror. "That's unacceptable," he said, standing abruptly. "Come on, let's go. Bring those."
I followed him out the door and up the street, and when we arrived at the old grammar school he'd attended as a boy, I still wasn't sure where we were going, because in all the years we'd been visiting Grandma, I had never once seen his old school house. It felt odd to be there. I knew, of course, that my father had once been a kid and attended school himself, but I knew it only a very abstract sense. To actually be there, and see it with my own eyes was... strange. "This spot looks good," he said, standing in a rust-colored patch of hard, dust-covered earth. He grabbed a nearby twig and drew a large circle in the dust.
At that point I realized we had an audience. The older kid could have easily been Opie Taylor with a crew cut. He and his younger, tow-headed brother stood there watching us in nearly identical t-shirts and shorts. I felt for a moment as if I'd truly stepped into a time machine. These did not look like the kids I knew back home, and I could have easily imagined them right here, forty years earlier, shooting marbles with my dad on this very playground. "Whatcha doin'?" Opie finally asked.
"We're shooting marbles," my father answered, dumping the contents of the marble sack on the ground.
"I think I've heard of this game," Opie said. "Isn't that where you try to knock the other guy's marble out of the circle? Or something?"
"This is really sad," my father sighed. "You kids these days don't even know how to play marbles. All right, get down here. All three of you."
He patiently explained not only the rules, but the culture. How certain marbles were prized more than others, and some were "lucky" and some were "shooters" and all manner of rules and customs which I'm ashamed to say I forgot in fairly short order once this crash course was complete.
But for this one day, for this one golden, summer Sunday afternoon, the four of us knelt in the ochre dust of that ancient playground... and shot marbles. We played game after game while the shadows lengthened and the light faded. We played until my grandmother called us home for supper, just as I imagine she must have done in the old days.
It's funny what you remember as you get older. It's funny why you remember the things you do. I hadn't thought of this marble game in years, if not decades. I can't tell you what suddenly made me remember it now, on this particular Father's Day weekend.
I only know that I miss you, Dad. And I wish we could be remembering it together.
Happy Father's Day, everyone.