Love Letter

When I think of the Doherty family, I picture a clear blue sky, shining between the rusty weave of a playground backstop, and jammed in between the twisted links, a tennis ball.

This image is drawn from an early Doherty encounter when, as my own tiny son scratched with a stick in the always-mesmerizing, endlessly fascinating orange clay dust of the old Fairview Park softball field, some of the bigger kids were playing with a tennis ball and a chunky plastic bat. One of them dealing the ball an especially tremendous whack, the pop-up foul shot high into the air, lodging in the chain link backstop. The o’s of many child mouths drooped into frowns.

“We need a Doherty,” called our friend Jeanne from the sidelines, where she stood with her toddler Gabe perched on her cocked hip. “A Doherty could get that.”

And, sure enough, there went a Doherty—it must have been Mark, or possibly Matthias—scrambling like a spider monkey up the backstop, and popping the ball out. Then, turning a victorious grin to his adoring fans, he braced his gym shoes against the chain link as if intending to fly from that height onto the infield. But a warning call of, “Now…” from Jane brought him down the more advisable, slower route.

After this, the name of Doherty became part of our family lexicon. It started with obvious cognates: a tattered blue grocery bag fluttering from the high branches of a blossoming pear tree, a lost balloon bouncing against the ceiling of St. Paul’s gym. We would see something out of reach or unattainable, and remark, “Well, this is a job for a Doherty,” recalling the graceful ease of the little boy who knew instinctively that if you just throw your whole self at a problem without fear, you have a better chance of success than if you stay safe in the dust.

Over the years, “We need a Doherty” began to take on more nuanced meaning. Say that John and I had spent the morning cleaning the gutters, bemoaning our increasing age and decreasing nimbleness as we tentatively ascended and descended the shaky ladder. Then, the conversation might go:

“Know what we need?”

“Doherty?”

“Yep.”

*sigh*

And then we’d try our best to channel our inner Doherty long enough to get that last really difficult gutter over the back porch.

Eventually, our confidence in the Doherty brand prompted us to appeal directly to the family on a couple of occasions when we seriously doubted our own strength and stamina. Our favorite of these happened last summer, when Greg and Matthias, armed with sledge hammers, made about half an hour’s work of an old house foundation that had for twenty years posed a much-hated hazard even as it lurked under our kitchen.

Doesn’t Matthias (left) look handsome in white?

My own tendency when considering the tennis ball in the backstop is to focus first on the ball—the obstacle, the dilemma, the loss. Gradually, as frustration builds, I will direct my resentment to the chain link, and the way it cruelly snares the ball in its flight. But the right thing to do, I know—the Doherty thing—is to look past those things, at all those diamonds of azure sky. Then breathe deep, and take a running leap.

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