The Ballad of Ball-O

On Saturday night, my daughter called me and my wife upstairs to see a great game she had invented. As I trekked up the steps, I hoped, deep down, that it would be worth the trip. I’ve been burned before.

Olivia has been inventing games since she could walk. Many involve hopping from floor tile to floor tile and awarding points based on, well, I have no idea. That’s the depth of it. “Levels”, as she called it then, was basically watching her bounce around the kitchen on one leg and offering confused applause. Milton Bradly have nothing to worry about.

Saturday, though, things were different. I knew they would be because her latest creation involved “Ball-O”, her rubber pink handball. Whenever Ball-O is involved, the stakes get raised and this was no exception. We were both handed tiny plastic cups and were tasked with trying to catch Ball-O on a bounce. It was all very involved. There were fouls, points, and official rules about where the players should stand. It was surprisingly detailed and well thought-out. This one should at least give Milton reason to worry. Bradly too, if he’s smart.

balloWith so many people complaining about the 21st century digital kids plugging themselves into distractions, it makes me happy to know that Olivia has a basic rubber ball as one of her favorite creative toys. She uses it for traditional games and then twists them to invent her own. There’s the fostering of creativity, exercise, and all sorts of things that we’ve watched Candy Crush slowly eat away from our lives.

The best part of Ball-O is the story of how we got him. While it would have been simple to walk into a card store and pay a dollar for it, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where that would happen. After all, there are lotto tickets, slimes, and little figurines in blind bags that need our patronage on a constant basis. That one dollar would be better used if we saved it for one of those shinier toys instead. So we never bought one. In fact, I never even considered buying one.

It was on the way to school one day a few years ago when we adopted Ball-O. Or, rather, he adopted us. As we were walking up the block to her opening bell, a little old man came from his house. We had never met him, and he didn’t know us. In fact, I’m not even sure if he spoke English because all we heard, from across the street, was:

Psst. Psst.

We both looked up as he released this bouncing pink ball from his hand. It skipped along the pavement before finally settling in front of us. Olivia let out an excited gasp and grabbed it like a piece of gold.

I looked over and he was smiling huge. Hunched over, grinning ear to ear, this man looked thrilled over how he had brightened our day. Beaming, I put my hand on Olivia’s shoulder, and told her to thank the ball roller for his gift. In a sing-songy voice, she did just that.

Tha-nk you!

The little old man waved and, as we continued our walk, stood there watching us leave. We were so excited over this new toy that we talked about it the rest of the way to school and again, many times, since then.

It was such a nice moment that renewed my faith in the world. After all, he didn’t have to give us this ball. That was his choice. Although I made sure she understood that strangers can only give you presents if you have your parents around, the wholesome nature of the message couldn’t be buried. This was a positive story with a positive outcome and my little girl had seen a side of the world that accentuates the good. I was very grateful for what this man had given us.

Ball-O, a name she immediately picked out, found his way into so many family activities. Long gone are the days of hopping from tile to tile. This pink ball has altered her creative output on unique activities. It’s become a bouncing member of our home.

Still, though, I love the tale of how we got him. Maybe it’s because I can still see the little old man rolling it over and smiling when we picked it up. I tell that story to people. I’m not sure if it has the same impact, but I feel like it’s nice.

Well, I felt like it was nice. That was until a year or so later when my wife saw it from a whole different, and more probable, point of view. She blew it up like discount fireworks. All it took was one question.

Did he want you to throw it back to him?

What? Throw it back? No. How could he? We took it. He wanted us to keep it, right? He said to…well, wait. He never said anything. People do that, right? They just throw you balls and you… well, throw them back. That’s what people do. That’s how ball works. You throw. They throw back. Rarely, if ever, do they pick the ball up, wave, and then bring it home with them. That’s what we did. Oh man.

And that’s when I realized that we had stolen this little old man’s ball.

Yeah. Suddenly, the whole thing had a different feel. That was the real story. I assumed that he watched us and thought, “What great people.” Now I realized he was saying, “What the heck?!”

I don’t know if that little old man reads the Internet. I’d imagine he does so more now that we took away his outdoor toy. So, if he does, I want him to know that his gesture really helped my kid expand her imagination and include activities that involve more than swiping her finger on a piece of glass. It may be awkward in hindsight, but that moment and the ball that came with it was wonderful.

There aren’t too many great life lessons that involve stealing toys from a little old man, but there you go. Next time a stranger unexpectedly tosses us a dated toy, we’ll be sure to toss it back. This time, though, we kept it. To be honest, I’m glad we did.