My favorite house of all that I’ve lived in was the house in Red Bank. We moved there when I was just 5 years old, and sadly moved away when I was starting high school. The house on Broad Street had three stories and a basement. The top half of the house was red and the bottom half was white, and a porch wrapped around the front. To a little girl, it felt like a mansion.
I had my own room at the top of the long staircase that felt like it was designed for a princess. The colors were blue and white, with wallpaper that was decorated with flowers and latticework designs. All of the furniture was white, with gold flowers and leaves decorating them. The handles were made to look like brass. I had a full double bed all to myself, and lots of floor space to dance to my David Cassidy records and play with my Barbie Dolls. There was a non-functioning fireplace in one wall, where I stacked my collection of books.
The basement of the house was cold, dark and somewhat dingy. My mother tried to whitewash the walls to keep them from crumbling, but most of it fell off. No matter how much she swept or cleaned, it was just a dank, dusty place. To my friends and I it was a place of mystery. We dared each other to sneak down there in the dark and walk around, usually running quickly back up the wooden stairs to the comfort of the kitchen as we screamed like only little girls could. Venturing further into its depths, we discovered, in the distant corner, a painted image of a skull and crossbones. Beneath the image was a long, thick nail embedded in the wall, upon which hung– yep– a skeleton key. We would dare each other to walk all the way into the darkness, to actually touch the skull image, which we did, before running back up the stairs shrieking like we were being chased.
Sometime later, however, when I was in early middle school, my parents purchased a ping-pong table and installed it in the basement. More efforts to clean the environment failed. But now we had a reason to go to the basement.
My father, it turned out, was an excellent ping-pong player. Each of the boys and myself took our turns playing him. None of us could beat him. He had a wicked serve that was nearly impossible to return. Dad was very competitive, in whatever he was doing, so letting me win never crossed his mind. I kept asking for rematches, and as I played him over the years, I got better. I began to be able to return more of his volleys, and learned to sometimes return his wicked serve. Every night after the evening news, I begged him to play.
He still wore his shirt and tie from his day at the church office, but he was a different man in competition. No mercy. He loved to win. I ran from side to side of the table, diving, reaching, jumping, screaming sometimes and sweating profusely. Dad wasn’t the type to cuddle or have me sit on his knee. He didn’t tousle my hair or kid with me. He was very serious, always the preacher or counselor. Always The Tie. But for those moments, we got to play. We had a small transistor radio in the basement that we kept on a current pop station as we played the best of 2 out of 3, which of course, Dad always won.
When we moved to Woodbury, the ping pong table was in the garage. And we played. I got better over the years, but couldn’t beat him. We didn’t talk, except to announce the score as we went. If we laughed, it was nervous tension, part of the play. Dad and I weren’t close, he wasn’t always sure how to relate to a girl. He felt more confident in his role as pastor and counselor than he did as father. But in those moments, we got to play. He didn’t give me pointers or tips, I learned simply by trying to return his hits.
Finally, when I was a wife and a mother living in Nebraska, it happened. We had our own ping pong table in the basement and I challenged Dad to the best of 2 out of 3. And I beat him. Finally. He was retired by then, in his mid-sixties, but no less energetic at the ping pong table. It was a close couple of games, but I finally beat him.
As we went back upstairs he was a bit sheepish, muttering something about how he’s not as energetic as he once was, as I high-fived Larry and scooped up my baby daughter in celebration. Mom laughed nervously. I wasn’t feeling mean or smug. I simply felt like finally I could beat Dad at something. Or at least be as good as him at something. He wasn’t the kind to give praise, so I spent a lot of years trying to impress him. To get his attention. It was a small triumph.
He got older. We didn’t play again after that. We lived 1500 miles apart and as we moved around, we didn’t have a place for a table anyway.
When I was at clergy retreats, where I never truly felt comfortable anyway, I found that I could at least feel less awkward when there was a ping pong table at the facility. I beat all the guys, much to their surprise. I sweat a lot, put all my energy into the games. I never felt comfortable with all the politicking that went on wherever clergy were gathered, but give me a ping pong table, and I could stand out a bit.
I didn’t play for 15 years after that, as we never had a house that had room for a table. Two years ago, I was eligible to participate in the Nebraska Senior Games, being over 50. I’ve never been much of an athlete, but wanted to participate somehow, just to get out of my comfort zone. So I signed up for the ping pong match in my age category.
I didn’t have anywhere to practice, so I went to the match without having played in 15 years. It turns out being much like riding a bicycle. You never forget. I won a medal. It wasn’t the Olympics or anything newsworthy, but it felt good nonetheless. It was one thing that Dad and I had. I can still remember the sweat stains appearing under his arms, his forehead breaking out in a sweat as he leaned forward with an expression of determination. And the end, laying my paddle down, out of breath and sweaty myself, as I’d met every volley from one side of the table to the other. And then the day I finally beat him.
Dad didn’t give a lot of compliments, and when I became a pastor, he liked to remind me that he was the better pastor. But when I was a hospice chaplain and sat with many of the dying and the suffering, one day in an off-guard moment, Dad said, “You know, you’ve done things that I could never do.” It was what he could give.
But it was even better than beating him at ping-pong.