When my grandmother passed away, we were going through her things like everyone is expected to do. I’ve lost a lot of family members and this is by far the hardest part. It’s like with everything you get rid of, you’re throwing away a piece of their memory; and with everything you keep, you’re making it impossible for yourself to smile.
I’ve found though, that cherishing one small object is the best way I deal with loss. Holding onto something that was precious to my loved one and protecting it. My dad’s mother was very private compared to my grandmother on my mom’s side and I didn’t know much about her past experiences except the ones that were told around dessert on Christmas.
Going through her things I kept waiting for that small moment when I realized what I wanted to keep that would always make me think of her.
Before I continue the story, you should know I’m a hopeless romantic. My favorite movie will forever be The Notebook. I cry at romantic comedies and I’m an advocate of love letters, even though text messaging exists.
My dad opened the drawer of her jewelry box, once the larger things had been divided and packed away. Placed inside the single drawer in the center, made for only a small ring or locket, was a tiny bronze basketball. One thing I knew most about my grandmother was that she loved Philadelphia sports. She enjoyed watching every game and even wore pins on her small sweaters that draped over her shoulders to show her allegiance. When I saw the basketball, I figured it was an old charm off of a bracelet she once had.
Continuing to go through the boxes that were laid out in front of me on the floor, trying to get a better glimpse into my grandmother’s life, I heard my Dad take a sigh as if he just realized something.
On the sides of the basketball, engraved in tiny letters, were the initials T.R. and the year 1945-46. Confused with the fact that no one in our family, no cousins or grandchildren or brothers had those intials, and my grandfather’s name was John, I couldn’t understand who T.R. was or why his bronze basketball that came off of a gold chain years ago, had so much importance that it had it’s own drawer in her cluttered jewelry box.
My dad explained to me it was Tommy. My grandmother’s first love. Throughout the day my dad had found Tommy’s football pictures with small notes on the back, in such faint pencil you almost couldn’t make out what they said.
Apparently, my grandmother didn’t try to hide his existence either. She would always tell her kids about him and share with my dad that tommy liked basketball as much as him.
I didn’t know anything about Tommy, though. The only thing I knew is that he must’ve been important for my grandmother to hold onto his memory for over sixty years.
My grandmother definitely didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. I used to make up scenarios in my head as to why she seemed so private. Being an empathetic kid, I would equate it to the way she was treated as a child, or the people she lost in her life. I never got to really know my grandfather. I wasn’t even two years old when he passed away, but I remember he made me laugh and had the most infectious smile.
I think I inquired about their relationship when I was little. It’s one of those things that you’re sure you asked about, but were too young to retain any information. I know they met on a blind date. My grandmother was taking a train back to her Philadelphia neighborhood and explaining to her friend how she broke up with her boyfriend and didn’t have a date for the prom. An older woman, about her mother’s age reached over and wrote her phone number on the hat box my grandmother had on her lap. She told my grandmom that her son just got back from war and my grandmother should call him to be her date.
Knowing the woman my Grandmother became, I’m surprised the woman she was, was willing to “make the first move.” She was always old-fashioned in her mindset toward things. I would think she would have wanted to be courted.
But she called my gradfather, they talked for a long time and my grandfather pulled out all the stops from day one. After they set up a time for their date he told her he got injured in the war. He said when she saw him he would have a slight limp and a bad stutter. My grandmother became apprehensive about their meeting – thinking she was getting in way over her head, but on the night of their first date her handsome, non-injured, war hero came walking (without a limp) down the street.
I genuinely think my grandparents were very happy and in love for a long time, though I have nothing but old photos to back that up. But just like many other men of his generation, the time in war became replaced by time at the bar and a lot of trouble in the living-room-home-front began to brew. I sympathize with my grandmom because I know she was trying to raise six kids during this time and while my grandfather wasn’t abusive, he sometimes had the reputation of just not being there. At the same time, he was the also the sweet man that used to bounce me on his knee, so it was hard for me to think about my grandmom giving up on him, or wishing things worked out different than they did.
Either way, holding that basketball in my hand and thinking about what it meant to her was the closest I ever felt to my grandmom and it allowed me to connect with her in a way I never had when she was alive.
She loved and missed and had a life before the life I knew of hers. She had hopes and dreams that may not have come true the way she wanted because things were different back then. Parents approved of things and kids had no say, even if their heart was aching over what they couldn’t have. Marriage was expected by a certain age, kids too, and I think you were almost forced to fall into a life you didn’t quite see for yourself.
What if Tommy was a “greaser”? (I’m using only terms I know from classic movies during the time I imagine my grandmom dating.) What if her father said she’d never be able to see him again… she would have had to listen. And maybe she broke Tommy’s heart. Maybe she said she didn’t love him or want to be with him because it was easier than saying she caved to the wishes of her parents. Maybe it would have hurt him less if she just pretended not to care, rather than to say he wasn’t good enough.
This is the movie I imagined she lived.
I can see them talking on her front steps. Tommy feeling like he was kicked in the gut and my grandmom holding it together until she was able to shut the door behind her and fall to the ground and cry. I imagine a younger version of my grandmom crying so hard over something that should have been in her control and I just want to hold her. Then I realize why she may have created a defense mechanism for herself to not feel emotion, or at least handle it with an extreme amount of disconnect, like the woman I knew.
My grandmother always spoke the truth, even if it hurt, telling you when you were having an off day, or when she was so proud to see where you’d made it. Either way, you knew you’d get an honest answer. But after revealing these glimpses into her past I wondered if she’d been able to lie her whole life. Convince herself she made the right decision, the smart choice, when really she loved someone so much that a bronze basketball was enough to hold onto those precious moments.
It may seem like I’m jumping to an enormous assumption because of a few pictures and a good luck charm, but there were stories too. My dad’s oldest brother, John says he heard about Tommy more than a few times. So much, that he knew the last name the “R” stood for. My dad’s only sister, knew he was tall and silly details like that, but she also knew my grandmother, “genuinely, you would actually say, loved him very much.” If those are the things she told her children about her first love, I can only imagine what ran through her own mind.
The key piece of information my aunt gave me though was that, “they broke up over nothing really. Grandmom always used to say it was something so silly that ended it all. Something she’d always regretted.”
Thinking about myself at the age I am and how I would feel letting something so small come between me and the man I love, hurts. Thinking about having to live with that for years and always where he was or who he became, that’s even more than I can bare. Then I go back to my grandmom.
Looking back, it made me sad that I didn’t know about Tommy while she was still alive. With the internet, I thought it would have been fairly easy to connect Tommy with my grandmother again. Armed with the information I got from my family, I went searching with my mom one night. I don’t know what I thought I would do. Contact the 80-something-year-old and tell him my grandmother never got over him? Probably not. But I just thought that seeing how intertwined their lives actually were could be a sort of homage to my grandmom and the life she lived.
Long story short, we found Tommy. He’s no longer alive and passed away the sam year as my grandmom. Buried in the same cemetery too (the stats for that would be like 1 in 200 chances – I think). His granddaughter has 12 mutual friends with my on Facebook, some of whom I went to college with three states away. His daughter works at a store my family frequents, we probably even brought my grandmother there at some point while his daughter was working. His wife’s niece went to school with my best friend from college’s mom. Six degrees of separation are nothing compared to the web of connections Tommy and my grandmom had.
It’s hard to picture our older relatives when they were our age but it gives you perspective on the situation too. Tommy was, in fact, a star basketball player and the tallest in the class. He was not a greaser like I may have thought. He was actually clean cut with slicked back hair and a perfect smile. The epitome of what who you’d want your daughter to be with. All theories were out the window.
I think for my grandmom, it was best to not think of Tommy as a scene, but an entire movie, that was better off ending than making a sequel to. She was happy with the young version of him she kept in her mind and I don’t think she wanted to know where he ended up.
It was brought to my attention by a few people close to me that maybe I was so focused on this story because I was out of school and missed having assignments. That may sound crazy to you, but I’ve always loved writing papers so it’s not too far out. Honestly though, I think I was so interested because it made me feel like I was talking to my grandmom again. Learning more about her life than she ever told me.