Our family icon is in the driveway
The National Post asked eight "seasoned" parents to write
about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or
something that just seemed to work for them. This is the third in our series,
which will run Monday to Friday in this section. Michael Bliss is an author and
professor of history at the University of Toronto.
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Ours is the house on the block with the basketball standard in the
driveway. It's a backboard and rim on a post set in cement, and it's been there
for 25 years.
The children were eight, six and four when we had it installed. It
would be about seven more years before the kids' team could beat Mom and Dad in
family basketball games. That was about the same time they started leading
rather than following us down the ski slopes. Soon they would have to wait for
us at the bottom. They had long since graduated from backyard baseball to
organized leagues in our Toronto suburb, Leaside. At camp and cottage they
could paddle their own canoes. As they grew up to do their sports without us,
there would always be the memories of how we had played together.
Of course we also read books to the children, took them to plays
and the museum, made them take music lessons, let them know we expected good
work in school. Still, I think we put more emphasis on the family life of the
body than the mind, and, despite my profession, I think we were right in the
long term. Healthy spirits do depend on healthy bodies, and healthy families
recreate themselves together.
The kids could barely walk when we began tossing balls at them,
strapping boards on their feet, putting them in water. One of the neatest
things about parenthood was the opportunity for Liz and me to recreate our own
childhoods. That's why basketball -- the sport we favoured over hockey in sunny
Essex county in the 1950s -- was so important to us. That and downhill skiing,
the winter sport of choice for young marrieds by the '70s. We skated too, but
we'd not played hockey, so we never had a backyard rink, and our first-born,
Jamie, did not play much hockey.
For half a dozen years he and his sisters were fanatical baseball
players. His first time at bat for Tidy's Flowers in the Leaside atom league,
Jamie was hit by a pitch. He wiped away the tears, took first base, and by the
end of that year was a pitcher himself. I wasn't able to persuade Laura to try
to be the first girl to play hardball in Leaside, though she could have done it
because she could throw and catch. She and Sal were content with softball on
soft summer nights, their dad one of the umpires, their mother cheering. Sally pitched
and Laura was the star shortstop the year I switched to coaching and our team,
"Sheer Bliss," won the trophy.
We were taken by surprise when the girls, influenced by their
friends, decided they wanted to play in Leaside's pioneering women's hockey league.
Away went five years of Sunday afternoons, and the challenge to a father who
knew nothing about hockey to wind up coaching a girls' hockey team. No
championship there, though we had a better outcome than the year there was no
teacher available so I coached the Leaside High School Junior Boys Basketball
team, on which Jamie was a starter. We had a 1-11 record.
Our driveway basketball court eventually produced two star centres
and a point guard for Leaside High teams. The Bliss kids went out for practically
every sport going in school, from volleyball and cross-country to gymnastics
and soccer. They liked competing, but never became obsessive. When I'd try to
persuade one of my athletic kids to take a sport more seriously, I'd be told
that there were too many things to do in life.
We took 14 family ski holidays over the years. That's where most
of my income from writing went. The rest of it went on fees for summer camp in
northern Ontario and, after the first time Dad put her on a horse, on Sally's
Then they grew up and went off to college. The baseball and the
skiing ended and we stopped going to family camp in Algonquin Park. But when
they came home on holidays we might go for a run in the Don Valley or persuade
Liz to come out and shoot a few baskets. Fifty years on and Mrs. Bliss still
has a scoring touch Michael Jordan would envy.
Hockey kept haunting us: Liz and I were in the stands at Varsity
Arena when Law met Victoria College in inter-faculty women's hockey. Playing
against each other for the first time, our twenty-something daughters
threatened to drop the gloves, but only threw sisterly elbows.
Mom and Dad are now mostly listeners and picture-viewers -- the
photos of the West Coast Trail, the Knee Knacker 50K run, the canoe trips and
winter camping in Labrador. We take in Raptors and occasional Blue Jays games
with the kids (poor Laura is stuck in Vancouver, a loyal fan abandoned by the
NBA), and the other week Liz put on skates for the first time in 20 years to
help Sally, a phys ed teacher, introduce some of her immigrant students to
another Canadian sport. My favourite album contains the pictures of
father-daughter canoeing in Algonquin only three years ago.
study window looks out on our benighted little driveway basketball court. We
really should take the net down. But if we did, when the kids came home there'd
be hell to pay. More than anything in my study, or on our bookshelves, or in
any of our photo albums, the basketball standard is our family icon.
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