“Everyday Use (for your Grandma’s Bowling Balls)”
by David Ambrose (June 2, 2009)
inspired by the short story “Everyday Use (for your Grandma)” by Alice Walker
My maternal grandmother never knew her real name until she got married, but that never stopped her from knowing exactly who she was. She was to be named “Ann,” but upon her birth, her father’s thick Irish brogue sounded instead like “Hannah” to the hospital nurse preparing the birth certificate. Grandma Ann did not discover her true identity until the first time she examined her birth certificate, on the eve of her marriage to the Sicilian Pasquale Sancinito, and by then she was too damn stubborn to start calling herself “Hannah” after 20 years of being called “Ann.”
I think Grandma Ann lived as long as she did because she was too damn stubborn to die. It certainly wasn’t because of her healthy lifestyle: while most of my elementary school classmates wrote compositions about grandmothers’ homes that smelled of freshly-baked apple pie, I quietly reminisced about a grandmother’s home that smelled of freshly-lit cigarettes. (More than a decade after her death, a freshly lit cigarette always reminds me of Grandma Ann.) When my little sister and I gave Grandma Ann 75 king-sized Hershey’s bars to celebrate her 75th birthday, we had no doubt she would probably consume most of them in one sitting. Mom always said Grandma Ann would outlive all of us – and our repeated pleas for her to stop smoking and to improve her diet – just to be able to say, “Screw you all. I told you so.”
To say “all that I have left of my grandmother is her set of candlepin bowling balls” would be untrue. I have the memory of her sneaking me five-dollar bills (big money for a six-year-old in 1987) every time she hugged me goodbye. I have the memory of her teaching me how to scratch a scratch ticket, much to the chagrin of some of my more financially prudent relatives. I have the memory of spending time alone with her in her “cool room” – the only room in her Boston home that had an air conditioner – during her final summer.
But the only tangible thing that I have left of my grandmother is a set of four candlepin bowling balls, neatly preserved in a drab beige canvas carrying case. For all the disregard Grandma Ann displayed in maintaining her bodily health, she certainly made up for it in her maintenance of her prized possessions. Most grandmothers keep the plastic on the sofa; my grandmother kept the plastic on everything. (This included, but was not limited to, keeping the remote control for her television in the plastic bag in which it was originally packaged.) Grandma Ann’s bowling balls, therefore, look just as I imagine they did on the day she bought them. If the hippie aesthetic of the balls themselves – which sort of resemble the earth as viewed from outer space – is any proper indication, I imagine this date of purchase probably occurred some time during the Nixon administration.
By all family accounts, however, these balls had been used countless times since Grandma Ann had purchased them: according to my mom and uncles, Grandma Ann took regular jaunts to the bowling alley nearby her two-story home in the Fields Corner section of the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. I like to imagine Grandma Ann walking through her rough neighborhood, bowling balls in hand, ready to challenge any passerby to a string of frames at Lucky Strike Lanes down on Adams Street. She certainly wasn’t the type to allow increased crime on the Dorchester streets to keep her cooped up inside her house during her later years, or to soften her aggressive personality when speaking with others, even when she did not know them.
Make no mistake about it, Grandma Ann would tell you if she were here today, that she lived in that Dorchester house for all those years and only got robbed once is not a testament to how tough my grandfather was, or my uncles for that matter. I’m sure it is because potential criminals were intimidated by Grandma Ann. I like to imagine the one guy who did rob Grandma’s house showing hit loot to his friends: “You robbed 34 Greenwich Street? Are you crazy? That lady will kill you!”
At the time of my grandmother’s death, I was bowling quite regularly. Some of my friends had driver’s licenses, but no one really had their own cars, so most weekends we just walked down to the Malden Square Bowladrome, where you could play three frames and rent shoes for ten bucks flat. If you were lucky and your dad gave you a twenty, that means were left with an extra ten for pizza, soda, and fries at Chicago Pizza around the corner. Some of my buddies knew about the bowling balls that I had inherited, and encouraged me to bring them down to the Bowladrome on more than one occasion. Mom encouraged it too, which surprised me, because I always got the sense that she felt family heirlooms were meant to be preserved, that they were not for “everyday use.”
I still haven’t used the bowling balls. I worry that I will be defaming my grandmother’s memory if something happens to them. I worry that I will somehow mar my only tangible representation of the woman that my grandmother was. I wonder how I can reconcile using the bowling balls and preserving the bowling balls: is preserving my grandmother’s possessions a way of preserving her?
I’m not a very religious person, but sometimes I like to think about Grandma Ann today, looking down on a world that resembles one of her candlepin bowling balls. Maybe she is somewhere talking to other grandmas about how proud they are of their grandchildren. “My, how they have honored their family heritage,” these grandmothers might remark. I know Grandma Ann would be proud of me, but it wouldn’t be her style to say it that way. No, I imagine she’s up on a cloud somewhere, chain-smoking God’s cigarettes, looking down on me and smiling.
“David,” she’d say. “Use the damn bowling balls.”