It’s Friday night, and my mother is peering at the calendar. “Is tonight basketball night?” When I confirm that yes, tonight she and my husband are going to the Oakland Arena to see the Warriors, she rubs her hands together. “Oh boy!”
They are such an unlikely pair, this 50-something Irish-American doctor and his four-foot eleven, Brooklyn-born Japanese mother-in-law. She truly looks forward to basketball night, and thanks to season tickets, they go a lot. Once or twice a week she puts on her parka after dinner and waves goodbye to the dog; they get in the car and head down to the sports arena where he’ll drink his beer, she’ll eat her peanuts and the girls and I will stay home and watch What Not To Wear.
My mother has been a solitary, ardent sports fan my whole life. She loves the Yankees with a fever, especially Derek Jeter. “He’s my man!” she’ll tell anyone who mentions his name. She tells us Olden Days stories about Ladies’ Night at Yankee Stadium, when she could get in for a nickel. She’d ride the subway to the Bronx by herself, order a hotdog and a bag of peanuts, and have a grand old time.
When I was growing up, she’d watch games alone, sitting in her big red chair and muttering at the television. “Ya dropped it, buttafingas!” It was always a little bit embarrassing for me, having a mother who followed the NFL and NBA but couldn’t care less about cleaning the house or baking cookies. One of my boyfriends joked that he was going to buy her a subscription to Sports Illustrated for her birthday. He didn’t, but she would’ve loved it.
She was always better than me at playing sports, too. Our church rented the YMCA basketball court around the corner for monthly games after church services; the guys in the high school youth group always wanted my not-quite-five-foot tall mother on their team. She always got picked ahead of me, even though I was five-four. But I was the classic “buttafingas,” the klutz who cowered and hid behind my hands when the ball came my way. In fact, it was on the basketball court at the McBurney Y that I earned the nickname that clung to me for years: Chicken-Ito.
She tried to teach me. She signed me up for hopeless private tennis lessons; dragged me along to the racquetball court while she smashed the ball against the wall and again I hid behind my hands. I fell down on the ski slopes and no matter what kind of ball it was, small or large, tennis or ping-pong, baseball or soccer, I always let it sail past me. At eighty-four, she’s still better than me at ball sports, and goes bowling every Friday. Her average is 180.
My husband, on the other hand, was never one of those sports-watching guys, which was one reason I liked him so much. No, he was the kind of man who read the New Yorker and loved Rilke and Neruda. In fact, he had never watched televised sports at all, until the one year when our whole family got hooked on the Oakland A’s. Our older daughter’s choir had been invited to sing the National Anthem before one of the games and we all went to cheer her on. It turned out to be a suspenseful game, and we got kind of into it. The next night, we watched the game on TV. And liked it. After my father died seven years ago and my mother began spending more time with us, it was baseball almost every night, a soothing, predictable routine, unless the A’s played the Yankees, our team against hers, when we were rabidly competitive.
Then she moved in, and that first winter, she began shyly asking if she could watch basketball on television in the evenings. My husband stuck around “to keep her company,” and soon that became their evening thing. When I gave them tickets for a live basketball game, they were ecstatic, and before I knew it he was down at the box office, slapping down his credit card for season tickets.
I am fortunate that they get along so well, that they are such good buddies. If the girls and I are busy, they’re happy to go out to dinner on their own, to a hamburger joint or to pick sushi off a revolving boat. They enjoy each others’ company and are much easier with each other than I am with my mother.
I can only hope that one or both of my daughters will find partners who like me and are as good to me as my husband is with my mother. In my dreams, I fantasize about a bookish son-in-law who drives me to readings and literary festivals, reads the same books and savors the New Yorker. Maybe he’ll challenge me to the occasional game of Scrabble, and we’ll huddle together over the lettered squares. Now that would definitely be something to stand up and cheer about.