I’m not a sports junky. In fact, I’m worse. I’m a fair-weather sports fan filed under the subcategory “College Sports/Only Schools I Went To.” And that means just football and basketball. So, I follow two schools, both my alma maters: Michigan State, where I got my undergraduate degree and UCLA where I got my MFA. Oh, and as a fallback, I will sometimes follow the University of Maryland just because I live in Maryland (I may follow it more in the coming years because it’s just about to enter the Big Ten, home to my MSU Spartans.)
That’s as sports-minded as I get.
Ever since I entered State I had hoped they’d go to the Rose Bowl. They had the year before I came in as a freshman and the thought of coming home to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation only to top it off with a trip to Pasadena was my most fervent college wish. Alas, they didn’t. Nor did UCLA go during my three years there.
Now, that’s not to say I had never gone to a Rose Bowl game. In fact, I did. January 1, 1970 I attended the 56th Rose Bowl match between the Michigan Wolverines (NOT to be confused with the Michigan State Spartans please) and USC. But there was a heavy cloud hanging over me that day.
I had flown home from school a couple weeks before, picked up at the airport by my father who suddenly suggested we go for a walk on the beach. There he told my sister and I that my mother was dying, she had six months to live, and that we were not allowed to tell her. It was a heavy burden for me to carry. And the thought of going back to school after the holidays, thinking I’d never see my mother again, was that cloud that seemed to follow me. I have written about this before so I won’t belabor you with details. My father was trying to do the best he could and thought that a trip to the Rose Bowl with friends of the family would help.
To this day that Christmas vacation has been hanging around me in one form or another. And I have devoted a large portion of my life working to put it in its rightful place: a sad memory and one that no longer held me under that cloud.
So, when MSU beat Ohio State for the Big 10 Championship this year (by the way, I turned the game off when it looked like Ohio State was surging —yes, I am that fair-weathered sports junky— only to be totally surprised the next morning to learn that the Spartans had won), I walked into the kitchen and boldly announced that I wanted to go to the 100th Rose Bowl. My oldest daughter, a gymnast, cheerleader, and dating a football player, immediately chimed in: “Me too!” So it was set. My daughter and I were going to go to the Rose Bowl. My wife and younger daughter were not even remotely sports-minded. Yeah, you know those spur-of-the-moment declarations. No thinking required.
The trip was on, then off numerous times during the next two weeks. The school ran out of tickets, those who had them wanted $1500 a piece, United Airlines had frequent flyer tickets available; then they didn’t. There were numerous parts to this puzzle that had to come together. But they never seemed to come together at the same time. I watched the game ticket prices fall on Stubhub (the aftermarket website that has become to “go to” for ticket deals to games and concerts). But not far enough. Finally, twelve days after my initial pronouncement, suddenly game tickets were going for a “reasonably” unreasonable amount. And just as suddenly, United frequent flyer seats during the busiest week of the year suddenly appeared. It was meant to be. I locked everything in. And we were set.
I was excited about the game. But suddenly, I remembered my last trip to the Rose Bowl 44 years before. This trip immediately took an extraordinary turn when it occurred to me that I could right a memory with a new one. Not exorcise it, but simply include a ying to that horrible yang.
When we arrived at LAX, we got the rental car and drove immediately to the beach. It wasn’t necessary to find that rock my sister and I sat on so many years ago, but I wanted to look out at the Pacific with my daughter. This present would stand in front of that past. I now had my own family and my own children. I’ve always tried to be there for them but this time my daughter was there for me. It became the new normal for me.
I couldn’t help reflect on this dichotomy throughout our trip. My daughter and I never discussed it; it just was there, sort of like that cloud many decades ago, only this time it was just a reminder. And, during the game I thought about sitting in that stadium years ago. I knew exactly where I had sat and I remembered how overcast it was that day. But this time it was sunny and warm and I seemed to be amongst lots of friends (even the Stanford fans sitting in front of us). And, it didn’t even matter if we won (although, I can tell you that if I’d been watching the game on TV I would have turned it off after the first quarter when Stanford led 10-0 —yes I’m still fair-weathered).
The facts were clear: I had survived that horrible time and made my way to something better. As children, we must rely on our parents to protect and comfort us. We have no ability to rationalize the real world: a world that often is as cruel as it is triumphant. We simply don’t understand. We only feel.
Our trip to the Rose Bowl was more than just a trip to a great game. It was spending some quality time with my daughter. It was realizing just how far I’d come. It was a homecoming I’d made for myself, not back to L.A. —it was a homecoming back to me.