It was July, my father’s birthday. The Massachusetts kind of July — hot and sticky, blazing sun, fry-an-egg on the driveway month. I remember one summer, my mom let us throw an egg from the second-story bedroom window. It sizzled on the black tar.
I remember we didn’t go to the lake that day — too many people. The next year, we got an above ground pool.
I forget how old my dad was turning that year — old enough, anyway, to have three kids under the age of eight. I am the oldest, my sister coming up two years behind. James, the baby, tagged along with the princess games and elaborate Barbie kitchens. Our back playroom was a living, breathing Toys R Us; G.I. Joes and Legos mixed with Ken’s convertible and American Girl doll wardrobes.
Mom was surprising Dad with a big birthday present, pre-ordered and now unpacked, black metal pieces scattered on the garage floor among thick cardboard and masking tape. It was going to be glorious, elegant…another way for the family to spend time together. Over six feet tall and the new centerpiece of our driveway on the hill.
A basketball hoop. Every dad’s dream come to life in the form of a tall metal pole with a net and possibility. The thing was, before the hoop became glorious it needed to become a hoop at all. It looks simple, but a freestanding basketball hoop is no joke to assemble — as my mother and the rest of us learned. After getting it into the garage and undone, my brother, sister, and I tried to be helpful the only way kids can be — by stepping on parts, trying too hard, and being too cute to incite anger.
We all knew the basketball hoop was supposed to be special. It was for dad, who made the money and made us happy. He deserved something when he came home from work. Something that would make him happy. It was a really good idea.
In the hot and sticky New England humidity, we labored. Or, rather, my mother labored while simultaneously supervising three over-excited and enthusiastic children. We each wanted to pull our weight. Mom, sweaty, exhausted, and unfailingly patient, let us be part of the gift. That’s what mothers do.
I learned a lot from her that day, as we put something special together for my dad. The man who mowed the lawn after 10 hour work days and always remembered to bring something back from business trips. Today, he would get a basketball hoop, made with love by the kids.
It was made with love — and steel, and screws, and sand in the big plastic container at the bottom of the pole.
It was also made backwards. As we erected the net, silence fell. The hoop, perfect and white and new, was hanging crisply on the opposite side of the pole. It was one of those that has the weight at the ground, now starting to topple uneven because things were unbalanced.
“F***,” my mother said. “F***, f***, f***.”
I learned a new word. My dad got a new basketball hoop (eventually, we did get it right). And my poor mom cried because of a backwards net and a misplaced screw.
That’s what sticky days in July can do to you. Sticky days and kids and basketball hoops that won’t sit right. Put it all together, and sometimes you get the f-bomb.
But there were many more sticky days with the basketball hoop — days during which I learned how to play H-O-R-S-E and where my sweet spot was. I can still make a basket without touching the rim, see it swish from any place around the world. My dad taught me that.
My mom taught me that it is okay to swear if the day goes backwards.