First the obvious in this photograph of my grandmother (center, holding the ball) surrounded by her teammates: she played basketball, which I didn’t know until this photograph came to light while going through my father’s things after he died, and which is something of a shared family activity. Between us, my father (her son) and I played some 80 years of pickup basketball; he was playing until he was 70 at which point he had a terrible accident on the court, shattering his nose, bleeding into his brain, causing seizures that would make the last ten years of his life something of a torment. I’m still playing, despite knee surgeries, countless turned ankles, torn tendons and four broken bones, the last of which required a plate and seven pins.
The ball reads Sneezers 13 meaning 1913, meaning my grandmother was 18, a senior in high school, meaning she was playing basketball in La Porte, Indiana 22 years after James Naismith invented the game. I have no idea what Sneezers is about, though it has an air of deprecation, maybe even a touch of that whimsical derision you imagine accompanied women’s basketball before the first World War.
What else? All five girls are attractive in their way, my grandmother the only one who might be called sultry, her expression holds a flirty aggression, a kind of steely focus and resolve, as if she’s daring the photographer. Her shirt seems unbuttoned and spread out by design, she dominates the photo both literally (she’s in the middle, she has the ball) and by affect. Does it matter that I can’t remember even one thing about her that meshes with the lovely, even provocative creature at the center of this photograph?
Is that even true? I know her and her sister drove the Alaskan highway in a Studebaker in 1960, all the way from Indiana. She was 65. The 1,300 miles of dirt road tore their car to pieces and they had to ferry it back to Seattle. I’d always known the story, but it wasn’t until this photo that it made sense, that I could see in that 18 year old girl the resolve it might take to drive a road that is 55 years later still an ordeal. And if I’d always assumed she had out of loneliness, even desperation, stumbled into a second marriage with a charming Greek man who turned out to be grumbling pain in the ass but by all accounts was at the time they got together (meeting in the diner where she was a waitress at the age of 70) a geriatric who had a real touch with the ladies, this photo tells me she was used to attention, used to attracting the alpha in the room.
I can make other connections. Sylvia, the oldest of her three daughters had a reputation for being wild in high school. When my mother moved back to Indiana after my father died and into an assisted living facility, she promptly met a 90-year-old woman who remembered Sylvia and said exactly that, “Wow, was she a wild thing.” Sylvia died in 1960 in northern California at the age of 42 after a night of heavy drinking; I’ve always been fascinated by the story because there was no one else in the immediate family like her, not someone who might be labeled headstrong and unchecked. But in this photo, I can see some of that in my grandmother, a focused willfulness capable of running over or burning down anything in her path.
And writing this, I realize something else. In 1936, after her youngest daughter died of whooping cough at the age of 10 (it forever scarred my then 8 year old father), the family loaded everything in the car and drove to California, a serious trip in pre-Interstate America. And in 1960, after Sylvia died, she had the same basic urge; get in the car and go, this time to Alaska. This matches my own impulse in response to extreme stress, the thought of hours behind the wheel a salve.
The past has the power to change the present; I’ve always known that, though I think as a younger man (with significantly less of a past), I didn’t think about it much because everything important seemed still ahead. Less so now, which is why I find it reassuring that an old photograph still has the power to generate insight almost 100 years later.