In a perfect world, I would not be allowed to take my kids shopping for baseball gear. In a perfect world, their dad would do it. Dustin is much better suited for the task, because, first, he is less likely to be sucked into clever marketing ploys, such as "baseball checklists" hanging from the store's shelves that include sunglasses among necessary gear.
Second, Dustin is frugal.
And last: Dustin knows what he is doing.
So when I took the boys to do some pre-Little League shopping last week, their dad's absence was especially palpable. My lack of knowledge, coupled with my growing uncertainty about how to relate to my preteen son, can only be compared to a father taking his daughter to buy her first bra.
"We're going to need some, um, protection," I said to the part-time employee who didn't look a day over 16.
"Like shin guards?" he said.
"Um... well..." I stammered. And then: "Wait, do they wear shin guard for baseball?"
Now the boy knew what I was talking about.
"Oh! You're going to want to go down that aisle," he said, pointing to my left.
It was as if he'd thrown me to the wolves. Everything required for baseball -- including the protection -- comes in different sizes. Luckily, Ford, having shopped for these things before with his dad, rose to the occasion and took on many of Dustin's characteristics.
"You need a lighter bat, Owen," he said. "You have to look at the bat drop."
"The what?" I asked.
Ford humored me briefly. Then he waved his hand at the air, as if to say, "You wouldn't understand anyway," or, "Shouldn't you be chasing Lindell?" While Ford helped Owen find the perfect bat, I went up and down the aisles looking for helmets. Each time I found one that looked right, I brought it to the boys.
"Mom, that's a hockey mask!" Owen said.
They both told me to just stop. They thought they had everything under control. And really, they did. Except that our basket was filling up fast, and I didn't know if I was being duped. Do they really need batting gloves? Is a bat bag totally necessary?
Next we went to the far corner of the store to buy new shoes. This was the part Lindell, who won't be playing baseball, had been waiting for; he wanted to run laps on the track that makes a loop around the shoe display. He went round and round, stopping only occasionally to ask for his "time." I called out fake times over my shoulder ("2 minutes, Lindell. Great job!") and argued with Ford and Owen about shoes. I wondered, Is this the way these trips usually went for Dustin? Was Lindell always this out of control? Ford and Owen so hard to please? Or was I just exceptionally bad at shopping for sports gear with them?
Lindell came back to the bench where we were sitting. He was panting dramatically and wiping his brow. "So, I think I'll play soccer," he said between fake breaths. "And I'm going to need some cleats." I found it very difficult to say "no" given that a shopping cart full of baseball gear meant only for Lindell's brothers was waiting nearby. The employee brought out the smallest, most adorable soccer cleats I'd ever seen. As I laced them on Lindell's feet, all I could think about was Dustin, about what he was missing, and about what the boys were missing, too. (For instance, Dustin wouldn't have called Lindell's cleats "adorable.")
But I had to get out of the store before I spent the boys' college savings, so the sentimental feelings were short lived. I instructed the boys to put their old shoes (the ones with the holes in the soles and toes) in the new shoeboxes. "We'll have the store throw those out," I said. "You can wear the new ones home."
Owen looked nervously at Ford. "Uh, Dad never let's us do that," Owen said. "He's got a pretty solid rule about us bringing the old shoes home."
"Even when they are totally destroyed?"
Owen and Ford exchanged glances again. "This would not happen with Dad," Ford said.
Owen chimed in: "Yeah, Dad would say, 'What if you need to take the trash out in the rain? Or what if you need to walk through a marsh? Won't you need old shoes with holes in them then?'"
Owen had done a magnificent imitation of Dustin. But there was no way I was taking home three pairs of shoes with soles that could "talk."
"Yeah, well, new rules," I said. "Dad probably wouldn't have gotten you batting gloves either."
Then, on the way home, it all became clear to me. Now I understood why we have a pile of old, ratty shoes in a heap in the basement. Now I understood why my boys will not throw away torn socks or pants with holes in the knee. Some day my boys will not be able to throw away old towels that could be "used as rags."
And I realized, perhaps I should have been on these shopping trips all along.