...ROUNDING THIRD AND HEADING FOR HOME
Emblazoned on the side of Great American Ball Park, this astoundingly appropriate sign would welcome Mom, Dad, Evan and me as we'd breeze through downtown Cincinnati on I-71 at the finale of the family road trip. Exhausted from 18 hours together in the car, the sense of excitement was palpable as we zoomed beneath the skyline, a mere 15 minutes from Grandma and Grandpa's house. There couldn't have been a better greeting to a place that I consider something of a second home.
I've always had a unique relationship with Ohio's Queen City. Mom was born here and met Dad in 1973 while working at the VA Hospital. They married in 1977, and after living north of the border in Ottawa for a spell, settled in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, where I was born and raised.
From the '80s until our last family jaunt in 2008, we would make the lengthy drive from New Hampshire twice a year: rain, shine, or blizzard. I've been to Cincinnati approximately 60 times, and when you add up all the visits, spent well over a year of my life here.*
*While I've never spent more than two weeks here at a time, I very nearly became a resident in 2001, as I was accepted to Xavier University but ultimately decided to stay closer to home at much smaller St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH.
As Evan and I touched down for a very brief 2022 visit (Mom and Dad had flown in two days earlier), copious waves of nostalgia crashed over the beaches of my mind. Time is a great enigma. There never seems to be enough of it, and it goes oh so quickly. Having just turned 40 two weeks earlier, perhaps I took for granted that I was still visiting my grandparents at all. This trip would be as much about cherishing the ordinary moments as doing copious sightseeing. With any luck, there'd be time to reminisce as well as embrace how the city - and my family - has changed.
The delectable scent of crackling bacon beckons as I pad downstairs in my PJs. My taste buds awaken as "GDFT" - Grandma's Delicious French Toast - is stacked enticingly on the dining room table. The Cincinnati Enquirer is waiting for me, sports section neatly set aside. I sit in my usual spot and sip a fresh glass of OJ, ready to read about Boomer's latest TD pass or Larkin's game-winning hit; two smiling faces say good morning. It's gonna be an awesome day.
Visiting Grandma, Grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins was something I'd always look forward to as a kid. More than just "gee, that'll be swell", I truly appreciated the mix of family time and sightseeing.
On any given day we'd all pile into Aunt Lisa's van, ready to explore the zoo, get our thrills at Kings Island, or perhaps catch an Omnimax film at Union Terminal. Evenings consisted of homemade chili or walking up the hill to LaRosa's for "Spaghetti-a-Plenty", followed by watching movies (Grandpa has a collection of over 5,000) or playing games and laughing till our sides hurt. The most memorable moments were the ordinary ones, made exceptional by the people that surrounded me.
Something about the excitement of these visits was as real as could be, striking a deep chord of contentment within. Anticipating them was, without exaggeration, one of the pillars of my childhood. The week in Cincinnati would go by like lightning, but the sadness of leaving each time was countered with the hopeful realization that we'd be back in a few short months.
In recent years, things had changed. My life sped up. Grandma and Grandpa slowed down. Finding the right time for visits became increasingly challenging. After coming twice a year for the first quarter-century of my life, visits have been more like every two years since. So much is different since those amazingly fun sojourns of my youth: my little cousins, whom I remember holding as babies, are now 30 and 27. I have a family of my own, my beloved daughter now older than I was when I began making incredible memories in this phenomenal city. The Bengals are Super Bowl contenders(!). When did all this happen?
Cincinnati is truly a dynamic place these days, with a world-class riverfront park, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, new MLS soccer team, and on and on. Not all the changes are positive, as the city continues to grapple with tensions and violence in certain neighborhoods. On the whole, though, there's a lot to be excited about these days- and I haven't even mentioned Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase...
Grandma and Grandpa are still here to welcome us, despite turning 95 and 93 next month. Evan and I still sleep in the beds we used as children. The sights, sounds, and smells of the Western Hills neighborhood bring me back. I still consider this place a second home.
As expected, the whirlwind August 2022 visit is a profoundly nostalgic mix of old and new. The surreal passing of time shows its effects, and yet glimpses of sweet memories remain. We visit the zoo for the umpteenth time. Despite some of the largest crowds I've ever seen here, it remains a family favorite. We wax sentimental about how much this attraction has evolved in the last 25-30 years; it seems like 75% of it would be unrecognizable if someone arrived in a time machine from the 1990s.
That same evening, Dad and I sit with my cousins and Aunt Lisa in the end zone of Paycor (Paul Brown) Stadium, absorbing the raucous atmosphere of 60,000 fans cheering on their Super Bowl team despite it being preseason. A thought comes to me, distant at first but approaching like a midwestern thunderstorm.
My first NFL game was at Riverfront Stadium (RIP), just a stone's throw away. The year was 1990. I had been 8 at the time, and Dad had just turned 40. To think that I was now the balding, middle-aged 40-year old was almost too much to handle. What a blessing to be sitting here again, able to have and appreciate this realization.
The next day, we do something that, remarkably, none of us has ever done: an Ohio Riverboat tour. We glide up the chestnut-hued river, oohing and ahhing at views narrated by "Banjo Bob", our captain and purveyor of time-honored river tunes. It's an absolutely gorgeous August day - hot in the sun but with low humidity.
I roam around three levels of decks in golf shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, seeking the best angles to photograph. Despite how well I thought I knew this fair city, somehow there's still a different set of views I hadn't gotten around to appreciating.
It's become more difficult to communicate with Grandma and Grandpa. They still understand most of what we say, but between having to turn our voice volume WAY up and having to simplify many topics, I lament the less robust nature of these conversations. After small talk has run its course, I wrack my brain to think of topics to discuss, often coming up empty.
I feel especially crestfallen as I sit next to Grandpa in silence. So many times in the past we would discuss sports or movies. I'm in the presence of nearly a century of life experience. Decades of treasured stories and priceless memories exist behind a seemingly impervious door. I may even have the key, but I fumble to find it. Connecting requires significant effort, and I'm flailing.
Sharply aware of this as our time in Cincinnati winds down, I offer to help him with yard work on our final evening. As I weed the garden, I'm conscious of him watching me from the front steps. For decades he has taken meticulous care of his landscaping, and is now unable. That must be incredibly frustrating, I forlornly think. When I finish a particular section, I can sense his appreciation as he smiles. With a feeble voice, he murmurs his warm approval: "Perfect".
I know right then that something has changed. True connection needn't be an elaborate, well-planned series of probing questions. In this case, it was one shared moment, commonplace yet heartfelt. I will never forget it.
My thoughts come full circle. How appropriate, I think, that the simple concept of home was what connected the dots. This has been his home for 50 years, and I've helped, in some minuscule way, keep it looking nice. At the end of a day or a lifetime, what could possibly be more important than a willingness to give of ourselves?
Mom, Dad, Evan and I drive back to the airport the following morning after a round of hugs, handshakes, and misty-eyed goodbyes. As usual, the visit was all too short, but wonderfully enjoyable nonetheless.
We breeze across the tired Brent Spence Bridge into Kentucky, the pensive sky opening to let its light shine downtown. This underrated city has given me so very much, and will always be one of my favorite places. It's so much more than skyscrapers and sports teams though; the true magic of being here is the accumulation of moments that have transpired within. All we can do is attempt to recognize these. Savor each as if it's the last. Doing so, I hope, will help us arrive safely as we round third and head for home.