The bucket was sitting near a corner of the garage, behind ladders, crates, bicycles and a lawn mower, the kinds of things one finds near the corners of garages.
It was the same white color I remembered, with the same black lid, and when I picked it up and opened the lid I found the same cargo inside — a couple dozen softballs.
Some were white, some yellow, all scuffed. I hadn't used the bucket for some 20 years, but it instantly snapped me back to our local ballfields and hours spent with one of my daughters. She was a pitcher for her junior high and high school teams, and she needed to practice regularly to stay sharp. I was her catcher. We started with one ball, and me squatting or kneeling at home plate. And we evolved, when my knees gave out, to a whole bunch of balls and the bucket, which doubled as a dad-catcher's seat.
The fields usually were deserted when we got there, the sunlight fading, the winds chilling. But the time was precious. Just the two of us, putting in the work to try to get better, together.
Eventually, softball ended and the bucket was moved from the basement to the garage. And as the years passed, it crept over toward the corner, forgotten. Until we decided it was time to clean out the garage, and there it was. I looked at it for a while, cupped one of the balls in my hand, rummaged through the lot of them, not sure what I was expecting to find but looking for something.
It was time to let them go, I knew that. Their usefulness was being wasted in the garage.
So we put the bucket out at the end of the driveway along with some other balls and playthings we had found. We do that with things that have run their course with us but which we think others might want and enjoy. And we were right.
A couple of boys on bicycles came by to ask about some basketballs in one of the crates and took a couple, and we continued the cleanup. And when we weren't looking, someone took the bucket. I kind of half-smiled, half-winced. I would like to have known who it was, but a part of me is glad I don't know. It's easier to invent a story about him or her.
Was it a pitcher, or a pitcher's dad or mom? A coach who could always use another bucket of balls? Some kids who just want to hit them around? And I wonder whether they wonder about the bucket of balls they got, about who used them and when and why. I would like to have told them about my daughter and me.
It's just stuff, people say. And they're right, as far as it goes. But every piece of stuff has a story, so you're never just getting rid of stuff. Or acquiring stuff, for that matter. I'm going to think about that the next time I hit a yard sale.
People are like stuff, too. There's always something to learn about the guy crowding you in the airplane seat, the woman wearing earbuds as she walks her dog past your house every evening, the sullen couple before you in the movie theater line.
No one asked me about my bucket of balls. And I didn't ask so many others about their stuff, or themselves.
Everything and everyone has a story. We're richer when we take the time and care to learn it.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.