Sliding Home

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By Wendy Hodge

It’s a February afternoon in Alabama. For those of you familiar with this part of the world, you know that you can count on one thing – that the weather is the one thing you can’t count on!
Just yesterday, I had the air on in the car when I left work. This morning, a light jacket was perfect for my morning drive. By mid-afternoon, the rain clouds had returned and it was slightly muggy. But just three hours later, here I sit with the metal bleachers frozen to my back side and my breath making fog in the air. The temperature has plummeted to the low 40s. We’re cheering on my best friend’s daughter who plays second base for her high school softball team.
Believe me – love is the only thing that would make me smile and yell “Go Dawgs!” while my internal organs freeze solid.
There’s a good turnout today. We southerners love our high school teams. We apparently love our concession stand snack foods just as much because there’s a line wrapped around the concrete building where they’re serving hot dogs, nachos, and an assortment of drinks and candy. I’m not sure if it’s the smell of the food that’s drawn people to huddle up and wait or if it’s the warmth radiating out from the giant heaters inside the concession stand. Either way, my best friend and I are joining the queue.
And then I spot it… a sign that reads “Boiled Peanuts!”
Let me just take a moment right here to tell you about my relationship with boiled peanuts. It’s a love/hate thing, and it’s a long-standing one. I absolutely love the taste… that salty, warm peanut flavor and the soft crunch of a peanut that’s been boiled almost to death…. Just the smell of them brings back memories of summer afternoons with my grandmother, sitting on the front porch sharing a giant metal bowl of peanuts she had boiled herself that day.
I believed, as a child, that the bowl was like Mary Poppins’s magic bag. It seemed bottomless and was always full. Her German shepherd Sugar would sit at our feet and pray we’d drop a bite.
Eating a boiled peanut is, for me, like tasting the best parts of my childhood all over again.
But, lawdy, they sure are messy! There is no lady-like way to eat a boiled peanut. You just have to dive in with all 10 fingers and accept the fact that, when you’re done, you’ll need a shower.
Boiled peanuts, for those of you who are not familiar, are served in a about a gallon of briny liquid that coats your hands when you reach in to grab a bite. When you squeeze the shell to remove it, that same liquid squirts out in every direction. And then, when you raise your hand to your mouth, it runs down to your elbow, leaving you covered in salt and peanut juice. It’s heaven! But it’s a mess.
I have to have some.
And so, after we’ve waited our turn and placed our order and paid for our dinner, we settle back onto the same freezing seats. Cradling my hot chocolate in one hand, I dive into the peanuts. And there it is…. my childhood. Right on the tip of my tongue. Literally.
Looking around, there are familiar faces. People who were kids when I was a kid are now parents themselves. We wave a hello to each other and ask, “How’s your mama?” A teacher stops us to tell us how much she loves my best friend’s daughter and how “she’s a star.” And I remember that feeling of pride when someone else sees your child for the special person they are.
Other memories flood back. I’ve sat in these bleachers many times before. My nephews and my son played years of ball games here, starting with T-ball and working their way up to play with the “big guys.” More than once, I spent an inning at one field and then raced to another field and finally to a third, trying to split my time evenly among the three boys. I cheered when they hit the ball or when they stole a base. And I encouraged them when they struck out or never made it up to bat at all. How many times have I heard the whack of a bat connecting with a ball and wished so hard with everything in me for one of my boys to catch that ball? Or how often have I leaned forward in my seat and watched one of the three of them standing at home plate waiting for the perfect pitch? Too many times to count. But, oh how quickly all those games and innings and months and years flew by.
It is the bottom of the fourth inning, and my best friend’s daughter is on third base. The pitcher throws a curve ball, and the bat is swung. There’s the familiar crack, and everyone turns to watch as the ball skids low towards first base. My best friend and I lean forward and watch as his daughter, who is fast as quicksilver, leaves third base behind and heads for home. “She’s going to slide home,” my best friend says. And she does. The pitch is thrown toward home, and the red mud flies. And she is safe!
She stands and looks toward the crowd. Her dad is on his feet cheering, and I’m right there with him. And it’s as if all those evenings spent under the lights on these fields and the Saturdays racing between games and the concessions and the trophies and the after-game parties have never actually ended. They just continue on, like the endless supply of my grandmother’s boiled peanuts. There will always be a game to play and someone to cheer on and someone to cheer with.
When the game is done, and we are heading to the parking lot, my best friend’s daughter has that afterglow that comes from an adrenalin rush on an open field. “Y’all, I slid home!” she says.
“I haven’t done that in a long time. I wasn’t sure I could still do it!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.

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