Bowling balls, for those who live outside New England, are large spheres, about the size of a soccer ball. They are made of compressed plastic or resin and have three holes (two finger and one thumb) to make gripping a ball this size easier. These spheres are used in ten-pin bowling and are measured in pounds. Their weight ranges, typically, between six and sixteen pounds.
In New England, there is a different bowling ball. This ball, because of its size – about the diameter of a softball, but more dense – doesn’t need the holes. Candlepin bowling balls, as folks in New England call them, are much lighter than ten-pin balls. The heaviest regulation candlepin ball weighs only two and one half pounds. These fit into the palm of the hand, gripped by four fingers and the thumb. This was the type of ball Elinor Mae Forristall used in her Tuesday night bowling league. Her league met at Sacco’s Bowl-Haven on Day Street, behind the Somerville Theater in Davis Square. This was the ball that would signal the untimely death of the mother of ten children.
Elinor, or “Ellie Mae” as most called her, enjoyed her Tuesday nights bowling. She wasn’t the best bowler, but that was not relevant when she was sipping her Gablinger’s – what some consider the first diet beer – and having fun with her husband, Leo, and their friends. Tuesday night bowling was a nice reprieve from her kids – although she never said that. Ellie Mae and her team used the balls provided by Sacco’s – house balls they called them. Ball selection was random. Someone threw a ball down the lane and the automatic ball return sent it back down the long, narrow trough to a U-shaped ball collector that was about knee high. The bowler would scoop out a ball for their next roll. On this Tuesday night, though, this ball, weighing no more than one or two pounds, chose Ellie Mae. It was not – as it would turn out – a random selection.
Ellie Mae reached down, bending her knees slightly, into U holding the collection of balls, grabbing whichever ball seemed closest. Arranging her four fingers and thumb in just the right manner to exert the necessary grip, Ellie picked up the one- or two-pound ball – the appointed ball. Shuffling back to the edge of the bowling lane, near where her friends were sipping their diet beer and chuckling about something, Ellie took a quick sip then set up for her throw. She probably joined her team in the fun briefly before surveying the pins, neatly arranged in a staggered triangle, at the end of her lane. She had pretty good form, for someone who looked at the Tuesday night bowling league as an opportunity to sip some diet beer and hang out with her husband and friends. She started her stride, right foot first because she was right-handed, and headed toward the foul line, swinging her right arm like a pendulum. At the third or possibly fourth step, the ball, doing its job – warning of the impending doom – fell from Ellie’s suddenly weakened grip. A professional bowler might have been embarrassed, but for Ellie and her team, it was cause for chuckling, some finger pointing and probably some referencing to the ill effect of diet beer on Ellie’s bowling finesse. The ball falling from her weakened grip, instead, proved to be the initial sign of the cancer that would consume her lungs and her time, and eliminate her ability to see her family – ten kids ranging from four to twenty-one years old – grow to adulthood.
Ellie tried several more times, but each time the ball – falling from Ellie’s hand – gave its warning. Ellie guessed the diet beer had some affect, but still she realized this was strange. Trying to not take it very seriously, she thought, I have been kind of tired lately. Ellie and Leo decided to go home early so she could get some rest. Arriving home they told the kids – told me – about the ball, not realizing they were saying their mother was dying. That was the last Tuesday night sipping Gablinger’s with the bowling league.
“Lung cancer,” the doctor said – as doctors try to in these situations – in the most calm, quiet voice he could. When Ellie Mae and Leo heard those words their disbelief paralyzed them; Leo’s pinky finger touched Ellie’s hand. At Sacco’s, a bowling ball rolled down the trough to the U-shaped ball collector for another bowler, but it didn’t offer that bowler the same warning. Ellie’s panic came out in one or two tears; Ellie and Leo looked at each other unable to talk. Trying to capture Ellie’s thoughts was like trying to catch a fire hose, flailing all around with the full pressure of its water stream. When told they have cancer, many people may deny it will get the best of them, but Ellie knew she had been feeling progressively worse. She didn’t deny cancer’s power which forced her thoughts into one area – ten kids. She suddenly became scared, not because of the cancer, but because she was trying to picture her kids faces and was having trouble seeing them.
The drive home was silent – there were too many thoughts. Leo’s left hand guided the steering wheel while his right covered Ellie’s left hand like a soft blanket comforting an infant.
Time cheated Ellie – accelerating as the cancer commanded control of her lungs. There were times that we, that I, had glimpses of hope, with Ellie coming home from the hospital to stay. She would sleep in the twin, hospital-like bed Leo set up in the living room. They were brief stays though. In just several months, less than a year, she would be on her hospital bed sharing the last moment with Leo, the husband that would raise ten kids by himself. Ellie, trying again to picture her ten kids, whispered her thoughts about her kids to Leo. “The big kids; Debbie, Tommy, Stevie and Rick … will they be OK?” she asked. “Eddie, Michael, Eileen, Billy – they are so young.” “Watch out for Leo, Jr.,” she said, “he’ll need some tender care.” “David,” she said. He’s only four, she thought. Leo stood there, strong, holding Ellie’s hand. A single tear rolled from Ellie’s eye and the bowling ball completed its mission.
This was a literary journalism essay I wrote for my Nonfiction Fundamentals class at Southern NH University.