My Grandma's Decline (excerpt)

"I've always lived in Nash'nul League cities."

I knew it was bad when she couldn’t remember the St. Louis Cardinals.

My grandma, Pearl Esther Ramos, née Lambert, lifelong baseball fan, longtime Chicagoan, converted from worship of the Cubbies only by long residence in a sleepy postwar tract of sunny San Diego—my grandma, who had spoken so beautifully of going to see the Dodgers at Ebbets Field and so confusingly of the Detroit “Taggers” (that’s Indiana dialect for you), my grandma, who told me of “sweet-swingin’ Johnny Grubb” and Rick Monday’s rescue of the American flag, who bought me packs of Topps baseball cards in the days when stale gum the color of a baby’s vomit lay nestled in the wax (and tasted like wax), who took me to Padres games and funded my absurd pursuit of the dream of collecting replica batting helmets for all twenty-six teams, even the American League teams we didn’t really care about, like the Seattle Mariners (“I’ve always lived in Nash’nul League cities,” she would say)—my grandma looked at me blankly and smiled apologetically when I mentioned the St. Louis Cardinals.

For the uninitiated, this was unthinkable. This was like the Hatfields forgetting the McCoys, like Catholics forgetting the Protestants, like Achilles forgetting Hector, the Beatles forgetting the Stones, Holyfield’s ear forgetting Tyson. Cubs versus Cardinals was one of baseball three greatest rivalries, and, if not its most storied, certainly its oldest. Just as I involuntarily tense when I hear the names “Chivas,” “Trojans,” or “Scott Harmon” (a boyhood rival), my grandma should have snapped to attention at the word “Cardinals,” ready for action—but it was clear she didn’t remember.

She also couldn’t remember how to play Scrabble or Monopoly, both of which were pivotal diversions of my childhood. In fact, my grandma’s chief role in my childhood was that of patient teacher, a wise teacher who taught me important stuff through playing games.

It was my Grandma who sat patiently in a folding chair opened up on the concrete floor of the sunroom as I rode my green tricycle in circles around a ping-pong table whose green surface was obscured by items my grampa had collected; it was Gramma who read the name of a state from a green-covered almanac each time I completed a lap.

“New York,” she might read.

“Albany,” I would answer, and Gramma would say yes, and I would ride around again and test my memory banks against Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania…

I loved that game, and I still remember all the state capitals.

It was Gramma who, according to Mom, threw a ball to me over and over, and over and over, and—maybe Mom is exaggerating—over and over until I could catch it. It was my gramma who endured being called “Roscoe” when I had decided that San Diego should really be the fictional Hazzard County of the cult TV hit “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and that she should be its sheriff. Again, according to my mom, this re-map left the house and ventured into public, say, at Sears, or at the Ralph’s grocery in University Towne Center.

My mother might say, “Hey, mom, do you need waffles?”

But before Gramma could answer, I would exclaim, with the indignant fury of the just, “Her name’s Roscoe.”

My mother would sigh and say, “Roscoe, do you need waffles…?”

It was Gramma, too, who played baseball with me in the backyard that was to become the cathedral of sport of my youth, my imagination’s answer to Wrigley Field and the Coliseum.

I don’t know if Gramma knew how wise she was in encouraging me to play. Those early narratives, as silly as they were, were in a sense my first public texts. Even when we played baseball, for example, I was creating stories—it was never me against Gramma, no, it was the Padres against the Dodgers, the Reds against the Giants, or even the Orioles taking on the Yankees in NBC’s Game of the Week. (In those pre-ESPN, pre-satellite days, the Game of the Week was often the only nationally-televised baseball game, the only chance for kids in a “Nash-nul League city” to see the American League teams. Baseball was more regional then.) Gramma was helping me write stories with a Whiffle ball and a plastic bat.

It’s appropriate, also, that Grampa’s gardening spaces serves as boundaries for my little stadium. His tomato screens, halfway between the sunroom and the south backyard fence, set off foul territory to left field. A drainage ditch that ran diagonally from the northeast corner of the sunroom to the back gate served as a perfect right-field foul line, and a ball that landed in the small rectangular wooden rose planter that used the east backyard fence as its tall fourth wall was a home run. (Balls that went over the fence altogether were homers as well, but I tried to avoid hitting those, as I would then depend on the humor of Mr. Folkerth to get the balls back. A home run in the rose planter was much easier on the league’s budget for equipment.) The grown-up garden helped give order and shape to my childhood games.

Even when I got older, and switched out my Whiffle ball for a controller on our Nintendo Entertainment System, Gramma would watch, and I would insert her into the narratives. On Baseball Stars, she was the team’s owner, and as general manager, I got her approval before making trades. Her wealth, by the way, was due to her fictional ownership of Pearle Vision Centers. This detail was her innovation—she knew when to step back and let me create, but she also stepped in and took part in the creation as well.

Backstory

I began this still-in-progress memoir last summer while attending the Cal State Los Angeles Writing Project Summer Institute. A presenter had us do some pre-writing for a memoir, and the activity unloosed all sorts of ideas for writing about my grandparents--mainly, the realization that my grandma taught me through play, and that my grandpa taught me through work. The piece I've submitted leads into the story of how my grandma declined mentally before she passed away.

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