BOSTON — It takes a hard squint to see the possibilities for a muddy swatch of field, dotted with late-winter snow and littered with shreds of corn stalks left from the harvest. But my father's eyes were edged with the furrows that form when one has looked hard at fields and life. He saw no mud in the full acre of soggy field for sale before him. He saw only fertile ground, just right for growing dreams.
"Let's buy it," he said. Seeing the dreamy look in his eyes, no one questioned him.
At first we called it "the land," a title suggesting we were owners of something akin to a small, unsettled nation. That spring, my father marked off a corner of the land, and tilled an area large enough to satisfy my mother's desire to grow strawberries and tomatoes. The rest of the land, seemingly grateful for a break from growing field corn, made good return on a heavy sowing of Kentucky bluegrass. In a matter of weeks, our field had turned into a great expanse of turf, inspiring us to change its name to "the lot."
The lot gave us grass to mow, weeds to pull, vegetables to pluck, and a place to track down an occasional garter snake. But mostly, it gave us a place to think, play, and imagine. While coddling her baby berry plants, my mother talked of curtains, cabinets, and carpet. My father spoke of a two-story house with a blacktop drive. I imagined a bedroom with a window seat overlooking a rose garden and a shady lawn wrapped in a white picket fence. My three brothers, however, had a different idea.
Surveying the freshly mown grass, my little brother declared, "Hey, we've got a baseball field!"
We had almost forgotten what it was like to play a backyard version of our beloved game. For a time, we had managed to adapt the game to the Lilliputian yard of our city home. But my brothers' hitting abilities soon came into conflict with the neighbor's garage, forcing us to bunt or go for a fly ball over the roof. Our approach worked fairly well, except for one ill-placed window.
The window hung about where the shoulder of a second baseman might have been, if we'd had one. The window had a way of acting as a target, and one of us - on a regular basis - hit the bull's eye. Its dimensions and my father were well-known at the local hardware store.
One day, our neighbor traded his patronage of public transportation for an aging Cadillac. He parked it in his driveway, a place we had defined as left field. It was only a matter of time before that absurdly large windshield became our next target - but only once. In a single heroic moment, that great expanse of glass fielded one of the hardest line drives in our history, putting an end to backyard baseball.
"The lot," however, promised its return. Home plate formed in the very place I had imagined a white lilac should grow. Before long, "the lot" had become "the diamond." At last we had a place to indulge our most unbridled swings, to hurl our wildest curve balls, to snag wide-hit grounders and high fly balls. We even drew my mother into the game, assigning her to cover center field, which fell conveniently in the vicinity of the strawberry patch. The farmer who'd sold us the land often stopped his tractor to watch the action. He seemed only proud when we hit a ball deep into his field.
Two years passed, and the lot next to ours was sold. A house went up and a garden went in, followed by a fence, trees, and a paved driveway. Our new neighbors were quiet but happy to share their faucets for a drink and to throw back baseballs that passed over their fence.
Best of all, they drove a Dodge and kept it in a windowless garage.
One early autumn day, the neighbor lady was unpinning a line of laundry as the first fall leaves began to trickle down. The aroma of pot roast drifted out the kitchen window while their dog sniffed the air and wagged at the back door. My mother, pretending to pluck weeds, took in every detail. Suddenly, the garden and even "the diamond" seemed incomplete. That night, another transition began.
All through the fall and well into winter, my parents traipsed through model homes, talked with builders, and negotiated prices. By the time the last of the spring snow melted, hands shook to confirm the deal. When the first batch of sweet corn was ready to shuck, the house was finished. It wasn't the manse I'd erected in my dreams. But it was neat and practical, with ample space for a family with two dogs, one cat, and five children.
With a house stretched across the pitcher's mound and first and second base, we could no longer call it "the diamond." We just called it home. Once again we adapted our game to a field of insufficient dimensions. The neighbors and the farmer took notice of our need. The next spring, the farmer sowed his corn in a great arch, leaving a vast crescent of bare ground to serve as an outfield. The neighbors became even more attentive to our need for fielders. The teenage girl would sit on a backyard swing with a book during our games, always returning the baseball with a sweet smile for my brothers.
My father's field of mud was the buy of his life. I never suspected that, in purchasing that forbidding field, part of his plan might have been to inspire in his children a faith in possibilities. That only occurred to me 20 years later as I stood beside my husband and a "For sale" sign. Gazing up at an old house sided in olive green and topped with a crimson roof, its insides harboring a kitchen paneled in turquoise and a bathroom tiled in flamingo pink, I said to my husband, "Let's buy it." Seeing the dreamy look in my eyes, he didn't question me.