Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Good Radio for Baseball

When my Mémay retired in 1964, after fifty-one years as a seamstress for one of the finest manufacturers of men’s dress shirts in America, she was given a radio - a small, silver General Electric transistor encased in black leather. Two dials on the right side, one for volume and one for tuning, and on the left an antenna that, fully extended, rose above the small, bow-shaped handle that arched above the top. My grandmother has been dead for over twenty-five years. The radio still works.

The radio works in my kitchen, from a shelf above a bookcase stocked with cookbooks. It works in the morning, broadcasting news, and later in the afternoon to tell us what we missed since morning. It works, but each time we turn it on, explosive static bursts from its one, small speaker. We have learned not to turn up the volume all at once, but to do it slowly, letting the angry crackle escape gradually from the radio’s small frame. It has something to get off its chest, and we let it.

The radio that works in my kitchen, and sometimes outside, broke my grandmother’s heart nineteen times: first in 1964, when she received it, and then every October for eighteen years thereafter.

The radio that works in my kitchen, though not without angry protest, was my grandmother’s pension. Cluett, Peabody & Company, until they left town for the lower wages they could pay workers down South and then overseas, sat on French Hill where Mémay lived her entire life. It was, in its day, a state-of-the-art facility: a white box with ample windows housing row upon row, floor upon floor of sewing machines. In our plastic city, Cluett’s offered the most attractive employment around. Sewing machines were quieter than the injection molding machines used in plastics manufacturing, and cotton was clean. It didn’t smell like burnt rubber and grease, which was what one could expect from any of the plastic shops in town. It didn’t stain fingertips blue, as the molds had done my father’s.

A white box with ample windows and a neatly manicured lawn. Today, it’s empty, surrounded by a chain link fence, but I have a postcard that shows the factory in all of its glory. It was during this time that a good-looking, young Massachusetts senator campaigned for president, shaking the hands of the ladies who ran the sewing machines, and the hands of the ladies who inspected the garments, and the hands of the ladies who packaged the finished product. I imagine a photograph that doesn’t exist: my grandmother with a smile wide enough to match her stout frame, standing in line with other French Canadian matriarchs, waiting for the opportunity to touch history. I imagine the handsome, young senator extending his hand to the woman who always voted Democrat because, as she told me, people like us had no business doing otherwise. I can see them shaking hands, the senator and the grandmother, his smooth grip and her willingness to believe in it.

That was when the world must have held promise for my grandmother. Her husband, who had suffered a slow, painful death as a result of being gassed in the First World War, had been dead for six years. She had spent most of her adult life caring for him and her three sons. Now she was learning to drive the Plymouth; and she had her job at Cluett’s, where she had worked since she was fourteen; and she had her sons and their children, over which she presided like a queen from her tiny apartment on French Hill. She was coming into her own.

Then the young senator became president, and the president was assassinated, and my grandmother turned sixty-five and decided it was time to retire. Expecting a sizable pension from one of the finest manufacturers of men’s dress shirts in America for her fifty-one years of service, my grandmother was given the radio. When she inquired at the front office, she was told that while she had certainly given her best years to the company, her best years had been broken up. The retirement board counted only consecutive years of service, they explained, and the most time she had ever worked uninterrupted by the caring for her husband, a decorated war veteran, or the raising of her three sons, also veterans, was twelve years.

Did she walk home from work that day, her last day? Past the butcher’s and green grocers, past St. Cecilia’s where she prayed every Sunday, clutching the radio until her fingertips turned white? Or did she hold the silver and black transistor in a limp hand, hoping it would fall along the way and not break her heart again and again, as she may have known it would, knowing then what she hadn’t known before about hope and about disappointment.

It was a good radio for that, for breaking her heart. It was a good radio for baseball.

My grandmother wasn’t always a Red Sox fan. I would like to think that I am fourth generation Red Sox Nation and that my daughter is fifth, but to be true to the facts, we are only such by default. Mémay and her father were both loyal Boston Braves fans and only fell in love with the Red Sox after the Braves left town – for Milwaukee and the flashy new stadium that had lured them away. That was 1953. Soon, her father and husband would both be gone, and my grandmother would learn to drive and shake a senator’s hand and become a Red Sox fan. She didn’t know yet that her life would become a study in disappointment – not because of the radio – she would never mention it or her pension again. Some pain, some betrayal, is not possible to revisit; better to let the wound heal and pretend that the scar isn’t there. No, her intimate knowledge of disappointment began the first season after the Braves left Boston and continued to develop steadily over the next three decades.

Every night from April to October, my grandmother turned on her radio and tuned in the Red Sox station. Settling herself in her big Waterfall double bed that her people had given her as a wedding present and on which she now slept only on one side, she listened to the game. Even after she got a television set, she preferred the cool summer darkness of her bedroom and the quiet of the announcer’s voice, or the heated rising of his voice followed by the ballpark’s explosive cheers. Her own imagination. The plays and replays acted out in her mind. Between clean, cotton sheets, alone, but not without hope.

In the summer, when she visited our house, which was several times a week, we would listen to the games together. I remember our carport, with the picnic table and gas grill. I remember my father at that grill with a can of beer in his hand and a contented smile on his face, and I remember Mémay on a lawn chair at the head of the red-stained picnic table because she was too round and too old to slide herself onto one of the table’s attached benches. Geraniums and petunias hung in baskets from the side of the carport. A deck of cards waited for after supper. With a highball in one hand and a cigarette in the other, one ear on the conversation and one on the game, Mémay would officiate, raising her hand to signal silence at the merest suggestion in the announcer’s voice that a fly ball might sail out of the park or a steal might be successful.

Because most of the crucial, postseason games were played well after the gas grill had been put away and the geraniums and petunias had died of frost, I don’t remember Mémay’s face during those moments when hope was inevitably, year after year, lost; but I remember my father’s. Seven years before my grandmother died, and ten before my father passed away, we had our chance to be redeemed. It was the year of that famous foul ball willed fair by a fearless catcher’s determined arms and a cigar–smoking pitcher and Captain Carl. It was 1975, and we needed hope.

I was in eighth grade and had been allowed to stay up late to watch the games with my father – he on his easy chair, me on the floor, lying on my belly, elbows under my chin. These are the only memories I have of my father and me without the rest of the family – just the two of us, not talking much, occasionally cheering at three-run homers and three-two pitches, at the unexpected, the brilliantly executed. I remember my father’s intensity, as if more than tomorrow depended upon tonight.

Whether it was exhaustion or excitement or knowing that I was with my father and we were doing something together, just the two of us, for me that Series has been reduced to two images. First, when that foul ball sailed fair and my father sat on the end of his easy chair, hands clutching the cushioned arms and looking at me as if he didn’t believe what he was seeing – against all hope the impossible had become possible.

He had that same expression on his face the next night when it was all over, that same look of disbelief. First, he said nothing. I shut off the TV. Then his expression changed – no tears in his eyes, but such empty sorrow, such familiar disappointment in his face. “It’s late, school tomorrow,” was all he said. I watched as he lifted himself out of his chair, a little more slowly than the previous night, and walked a little bit more stiffly down the hall to my parents’ room. The next morning he would be up and out the door by seven, work until five-thirty making molds in a dye-stained shop – a man who wanted nothing more than to be outside – then come home only to do it all again the next day. “Night, Dad.” I crept into my room, sadder than I had ever remembered being before.

The next time I saw my grandmother, she shook her head and smiled. “Next year,” she said and tousled my hair.

I never asked Mémay why she preferred to listen to the games, or what it was like to hear that foul ball sailing fair. Did she watch footage on the news the next day? Did she ever see that catcher waving his arms? I never asked her if she remembered 1918 or 1914. Or if she and her father had ever been to Fenway Park or Braves Field, if they had listened to the games together and if that was all they ever did together. I don’t even remember how I ended up with Mémay’s radio. When she died and we went through her belongings, my mother must have lifted the silver and black transistor and waited for an answer from my aunts and uncles. When no one moved to claim the inheritance, she must have handed it to me, or I must have asked her for it. It was only years later that my mother told me where the radio came from: with the nickels and dimes given during lunch breaks and whenever my grandmother wasn’t looking, the ladies on her floor collected enough money to buy her a radio, the only pension she would ever get. And how she loved that radio, my mother has told me, how proud she was of it. The love and pride tempered, I imagine, with no small measure of bitterness.

Every season, I think about my grandmother and every postseason I think about my father. I try to imagine which players they would like – the consistent, humble ones, and which they would not – the flashy, the overpaid. A few years back, the bullpen featured a French Canadian, whom I am sure would have been Mémay’s favorite. And the All-Star shortstop who Ted Williams declared was the best player ever to wear a Red Sox uniform. And the Yankees. The perennial Yankees.

Last night, I brought the radio outside and tuned into the game. Memorial Day was two weeks away, and my daughter and I were filling flower boxes for my father’s and grandmother’s graves.

“What’s a grave?” my daughter asked.

I helped her spoon some potting soil into one of the boxes.

“It’s a place where we go to remember people who are no longer with us.”


“Why are they no longer with us?” I asked.

“Why we remember them?”

I lifted a bright red Gerber daisy, thick with buds. “We remember them because they are part of who we are.” I thought about last October, watching the playoffs and the Worlds Series, watching the Red Sox win the Series for the first time in eighty-six years. I thought about my grandmother who lived to be eighty-six, which is a long life, but not long enough. And I thought about my father who lived to be sixty-four, which isn’t a long life. He should have been there.

“Your Daddy died?”

“Yup, and my Mémay.”

The announcer’s voice rose to indicate that an exciting play was underway. My daughter’s eyes lit up and she smiled and pointed to her great-grandmother’s radio. She’s learning to read the signs. She knows when it’s time to listen.
It was a fly ball caught three feet in front of the warning track. It was a stitched, leather ball squeezed tightly inside a well-oiled glove, extinguishing hope or resurrecting faith; I didn’t know which because I had lost track of who was at bat and who was on the field. But did it matter? I was in the backyard with my daughter and my grandmother’s radio and the two flower boxes we were filling with yellow and red daisies. The Sox were still in Boston, and the Braves were now in Atlanta, where Cluett and Peabody had also moved, at least their headquarters, abandoning, as did most manufacturers, the Northeast. The finest dress shirts in America? These are now made in Burma and Thailand and India by people whose pensions will probably be no bigger than my grandmother’s.

I turned up the volume and thought about my inheritance, this radio and the women who collected the loose change so that my grandmother would walk away with something, and my grandmother who walked away but never left, and my father who followed – this radio that I will pass on to my daughter. She can use it, if it still works, to follow the Red Sox or the Braves or any team she likes. I turned up the volume and we listened to the game and there was neither hope nor disappointment; just the sound of baseball on a late spring evening coming from a small, silver General Electric transistor encased in black leather.

... this story originally appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly: A Baseball Review, a print magazine dedicated to all things baseball