This column won’t be overly long.
That seems appropriate, because it’s about little things. Little things mean a lot. I found that out 53 years ago – in a big way.
It as Easter 1965. For those who celebrated it, which was everybody in my neighborhood growing up, Easter was a big deal. For all the kids in the neighborhood – and there were plenty of them in the post-war baby boom as families headed from the cities to the suburbs for land, fresh air and ranch homes with two-car garages – Easter was like a second Christmas, but a much smaller one in terms of what you received in, and around, your basket.
Amidst all that bright green tinsel-like grass bedding, you got lots of candy but there was always one gift setting next to the basket that, while not edible, was still something you couldn’t wait to sink your teeth into because of how cool it was.
That year, though, all I got was a card.
And some string (or so I thought).
It was the Easter version of receiving socks and underwear.
Well, at least I got candy.
"Open the card, honey," encouraged my mom.
She called me by my full first name – Stephen – when she was ticked at me. I got "honey" when I was in her good graces. Well, of course, she was being nice to me then. She knew I had gotten cheated by the Easter Bunny, and she was trying to make me feel better.
So I did what she said.
Inside the card was an Easter greeting and instructions to follow the string.
Follow the string?
In my disappointment in the Easter Bunny laying an egg with his gift-giving, I had failed to notice that it wasn’t just a piece of string, but a long string the end of which I couldn’t see.
It went to two spots in the living room, two in the bathroom, one in the coat closet, one in the book closet, one in the linen closet, two in my parents’ bedroom, two more in my bedroom and then back to near where I started in the kitchen.
At each stop was a small note card with a message written in my father’s fancy, left-handed, perfect penmanship telling me to, "Follow the string to the next spot."
Little boys can get frustrated easily, and I got more frustrated, quicker, than most. As such, my patience was thread-bare by that point – thinner than the string – in not having any resolution to this string-chasing.
But I persevered. What did I have to lose?
The string had covered all of the upstairs, and now I was sent downstairs, to the basement. There were three stops there, finally leading me to a spot tucked away between the natural gas meter and the fruit cellar.
The string ended as it was taped to a big, square, gift-wrapped box. When I removed the wrapping and opened the box, I found a brand-new, bright-shiny orange Pennsylvania brand basketball.
I learned to play the game with that ball. I have a picture of me shooting a jump shot with it on a court in a neighbor’s driveway.
That ball lasted a long, long time. It lasted longer than my dad did, in fact. All the other boys in the neighborhood went through two or three basketballs during that time, and I was still using the Pennsylvania, which was the sport’s version of the Energizer Bunny in that it just kept going and going and going. I was into my early 30s, still playing some pickup basketball, when the ball got a bubble in it that kept growing and growing until I could no longer use it. It was everything I could do to throw that ball away.
For as memorable as the ball was, it was the thought behind it – a big, World War II veteran squeezing every drop of creative juices out of his veins and spending probably several hours carefully laying that string throughout the house without me finding out – that was even better.
For the 8½ years my mother lived out the rest of her life in that house after my dad died, I saw in my mind that string taped to the ceiling above the basement stairs every time I went down those steps. For the cost of about 50 yards of string – which amounts to practically nothing now and was even less back then, more than a half-century ago – he made that Easter better than any Christmas I ever had as a kid.
And I had a lot of great Christmases.