The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Scholastic Press, New York, NY, 2015.
When Peter’s brother, Nelson, is killed in a car accident, his family’s life is changed forever. Once a good student, Peter now forgets to put his name on papers and sometimes skips homework altogether. One day, he comes home to find his sister locked out. He panics, fearing his mother has locked her out on purpose. He runs to the back of the house, looks through the window and is comforted to see his mother sitting on the couch watching TV, like she has done every day since his brother died. Through the window, he sees his father arrive home and calmly walk into the house with his sister racing around him to check on Mom.
“If I could write my own TV show, Ba would hurry inside. He would know that something is wrong when Elaine is locked out. And he wouldn’t act like Mom watching TV all day is normal. I wonder how it is that he can see so little when I see so much.”
Peter knows something is wrong with is mother, but he has no name for it. He makes sure to get the mail everyday so Mom doesn’t see they are still getting things addressed to Nelson. His life revolves around the impossible goal that he has to protect his mother and make her better. His father seems to not notice his mother’s behavior, simply saying, “Leave your mother alone, Peter. She is tired.”
Peter is a twelve-year-old boy struggling with the death of his brother and the emotional breakdown of his mother. His father is distant and seems to only be interested in Peter getting good grades. He avoids his old friends and classmates. Soon they stop coming around, except for Sean, who was more of an acquaintance. But all Sean wants to do is play baseball. Peter can’t bring himself to do that, because Nelson taught Peter everything he knew about baseball, and Nelson is gone. Baseball evokes too many memories.
One day, for just a brief moment, Peter and his mother share a memory about when they went to the Little League World Series. This leads Peter to make a decision. He will play baseball again. And he gets the surprise of his life when Ba volunteers to coach.
This story is both heart wrenching and joyous. No, his mother is not cured of her depression by the end of the book. But Peter’s father explains that as in baseball, sometimes you just have to be patient. When your team has a bad year, there’s always next year. Be patient and they will win again.
“As long as I have waited for Mom, I must wait some more, even when it’s the last thing I want to do.”
This story resonated with me for two reasons. The first is my memories of baseball. The ’57 Milwaukee Braves, who won the World Series that year, are a bittersweet memory for me. I was only eight years old the summer of 1957 and Dad was a big fan of the Braves. Earl Gillespie’s radio broadcasts were background music in those days. That was the year I learned what a pennant race was. All the names of the players, Hank Aaron, Johnny Logan, Warren Spahn, or Spahnny as Dad and everyone else called him, were like guests in our farmhouse. I see that summer now through a soft focused lens. I was the luckiest little girl in the world, who had my own horse, wild strawberries to pick and long, summer days with nothing to do but wander the farm fields and daydream. Could it have been that perfect?
This brings me to the second reason this story resonates with me. Only one short year later, my father would be dead of a heart attack. We would no longer live on the farm. The horses would be sold. The radio, eerily quiet. After my father died, my mother also went through a depression, although not as severe as Peter’s mother. But I recognized that same emotional disconnect, even if Mom didn’t sit on the couch all day watching TV.
Baseball, and my parents, are emotionally interwoven in my heart. Mom eventually became a Brewers fan and listened to Bob Uecker’s broadcasts until she passed away. As a teenager, I forgot about baseball. Many years later, when I had kids of my own we went to see the movie, Field of Dreams: a story about a man who reconnects with his dead father through baseball. I was a puddle of tears by the end. I started listening to those radio broadcasts again. Baseball has saved me on my darkest days, but not only me. A few years ago I read Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki. It tells the story of Japanese men and boys who started teams while living in the World War Two internment camps. As one internee at Manzanar, Takeo Suo, recalled, “Putting on a baseball uniform was like wearing the American flag.” Even Walt Whitman thought baseball could bind up our wounds after the Civil War. “…anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race.”
Oh, and about that World Series win of 1957? Some years ago, I went to a Mallards game at which Johnny Logan was signing autographs. When it was my turn, I told him I remembered the 1957 World Series and that my dad was a big baseball fan. Then I told him Dad died the following year. Johnny Logan looked at me said, “I’m so sorry,” and handed me his World Series ring. “Here, take a look at it.” It’s a moment I’ll never forget.