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On Second Thought

A good sport, my mother

By Kevin Paul Dupont
May 8, 2011

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My mother wasn’t much for candy or flowers or big trips or even holidays. She grew up poor in the English countryside, her father a letter carrier, and she was only 15 years old when the German Luftwaffe began its horrific day-and-night attempt in 1940 to obliterate London, then later that year carried its bombs northward and dropped them where she lived, near Manchester and Liverpool.

For her, a great Mother’s Day was rain-free and fit for gardening, with the temperature just right, the bees and other bugs “still not too nasty.’’

All the better on Mother’s Day if the sky were blue, but the best sky, in her opinion, was a silent sky.

My mother didn’t have a love of sports, other than her love of my love for it. When the ragamuffin Red Sox captured most of New England’s heart in 1967, finally winning the pennant after 21 years, Frances E. Smith from Manchester, United Kingdom, wasn’t really along for the ride. But because of me, and the love of the sport that I shared with my father, she found her tangential connection to the Cardiac Kids.

“What’s my Reggie doing today?’’ she would say, as I sat under the canopy of the old maple tree in our backyard, listening to the game on a small Admiral transistor radio. “Is he having good innings?’’

All of that was funny to me, which she knew, and that only encouraged her to keep it up throughout that splendid summer. First of all, Red Sox center fielder Reggie Smith was black, and in 1967 America, especially suburban Boston, there was something odd about a white woman from northern England referring to the black center fielder of the Red Sox as my Reggie.

“Oh, I don’t care about any of that,’’ she’d say. “He can be whatever he wants to be. He’s a Smith, my namesake, so he’s my Reggie and I’m rooting for him. And he’s a handsome lad, my Reggie. When’s his next innings?’’

Yes, innings. A cricket term. To be 14 years old, and to know everything humanly possible there was to know about the Red Sox and have your mom asking, “When is Reggie Smith’s next innings?’’? Not cool. Totally embarrassing. When my best pal Tim Kinneen would visit, I’d do my best to steer the conversation away from baseball, and especially steer my mother away from my Reggie and his next innings.

(An aside here, between innings, if you will: Tim was visiting the very day earlier in the ’60s that my mother purchased a set of unbreakable dinner plates. Plastics were the rage. No one dared dream of plates that couldn’t break. What would the Space Race scientists along Route 128 come up with next? Tim stood next to me in the kitchen as I took one of the bright yellow plates, held it over my head and hurled it to the floor — where it broke into at least a half-dozen pieces. To this day, my pal delights in telling that story, and each time falls just short of falling to the floor in laughter as he did that horrifying afternoon.)

Ladies of my mother’s era weren’t out there playing sports the way they are today. That began to change in the late ’60s and really took flight with the implementation of Title IX in the ’70s. For a while now, it has been cool to be a female athlete and maybe even cooler to be a mom athlete.

As she got older, and continued to ride her bike and mow her lawn into her 70s, my mom thought the whole emerging-female-athlete thing was great. She also reminded me, time and again, how dumb I sounded at age 6 or 7 when I told her one day that she “threw like a girl’’ when we played catch in the backyard. The little bit of hell I caught that afternoon still makes me weigh my words, though sometimes maybe not enough.

Today is Mother’s Day, and a lot of moms this morning would rather get a 10-speed bike than a dozen roses. If you are under 30, that’s probably not news. In theory, moms were always free to think that way. But for the most part, they didn’t think that way before the ’60s, for reasons that are complex, ridiculous, some even sad and damning.

It’s a column for another day, but we talk all the time, rather absent-mindedly and often ill-advisedly, about pro sports providing role models for our sons and daughters. If pro sports really wanted to take a step forward, all of them would routinely employ women among their ranks of referees, linesmen, umpires, judges, all the essential officiating roles that are out there on the field and in the arena.

Now, I am willing to concede that a woman employed as an NHL linesman may not be practical, because part of her charge would be to break up fights, sometimes between huge brawlers. That’s just not a woman’s job, although I suppose there would be a few up to the task. Truth is, busting up fights is probably not a man’s job, either, but that too is a column (maybe) for another day.

I grew up to be a sportswriter for many reasons, including such things as the common bond my father and I forged around going to games (mostly the Red Sox) and watching sports on TV, and my mother’s love for language, the written word, especially poetry. Her formal education was brief by today’s standards, truncated in large part because of World War II, but she was a lifetime learner, a reader, ever curious, and kept her mind sharp in her old age by doing crossword puzzles and reciting poetry, such as Kipling’s “If,’’ which she memorized in grammar school.

When I first began making a living writing game stories, the structure and approach came from imagined conversations at home, attempting to share enough detail that would keep an expert like my father interested, while at the same time making it compelling enough — be it through basic structure or humor, irony, whatever — to engage a woman who at any time might pipe up and ask, “Is my Reggie having good innings?’’

Frances E. Smith Dupont made it to 83. She and her fellow Brits would say that she had very good innings. Not a lot of candy, flowers, big trips. But very good innings, with an appreciation for a silent sky, poetry, subtlety, and always making her point.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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