Our family icon is in the driveway

Michael Bliss

National Post

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.

- - -

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 riding lessons.

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.

My 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.

Go To The Next Article