My grandmother and skee ball The truth of…

My grandmother (Catherine) holding my mother (Sheila)

My grandmother and skee-ball

The truth of the matter is I have a strong emotional entanglement with skee-ball. My grandmother on my mother’s side, Catherine J. Donovan (also known as Cass or Catty) was born, raised, and lived most of her life in the city of Philadelphia, where skee-ball was invented and patented in 1909. Later in life, my grandmother along with my grandfather and six children, moved to the south Jersey suburb where I would later grow up just two miles away from her home. Here in the suburbs, with a beautiful house and yard, my grandmother and grandfather were to spend their days living the good life, easing into old age with their ever-growing family nearby.

However, my first memory of my grandmother is that of a loud crash. When we were just little kids, my younger brother Tim went to hug our grandmother as she entered our home and my grandmother had somehow lost her footing and flipped completely over top of my brother landing squarely on her back in the middle of the hall that led from our front door to our kitchen. When my grandfather and I rushed over to the scene he was quick to check on her, pick her up, dust her off, and hurriedly explain that “sometimes Granny loses her footing.” What I did not know then that I know now is that Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the nervous system that destroys the cells controlling muscle function, had begun to take hold of my grandmother’s body.

From that moment forward, my memories of my grandmother mostly consist of my grandfather’s great efforts to care for her and treat her with great dignity as her body slowly betrayed her. I remember trips to the park with Tim and my grandparents where Tim and I would play and my grandfather would walk my grandmother on the sidewalk that surrounded the sliding board and swings, supporting her all the while, trying to help her maintain function. My grandfather’s efforts over the long years that followed were valiant beyond measure, though ultimately futile as he could not stop the rush of ailments that befell my grandmother.

Over time my grandmother’s children (my mother, aunts, and uncles) began to preemptively eulogize her in their own efforts to support her and keep her close. There was and continues to be a rich history of stories shared about a bold and beautiful woman who was adored by many for so many good things. As a kid watching and listening, I searched for my own connection to the woman we were all losing.

For reasons I can only attribute to my age and understanding at the time the loss began, I found my connection in simple things. At the movies I began to ask for and continue to eat Snow Caps, a miniaturized version of my grandmother’s favorite confection, Nonpareils. I crack jokes with my brothers and others and always have a hearty laugh; one of the trademarks of my grandmother’s good humor I am told. And at the shore or anywhere I am able, I insist on playing skee-ball. It was, I am told, my grandmother’s favorite game.

It seems my grandmother just loved skee-ball. There was something about its simplicity and head-to-head competitive nature that appealed to her, and she’d often be found playing game after game on the family’s vacations along the Jersey shore where skee-ball has always thrived. Like adopting her favorite confection as my own, I sought to connect with my grandmother through skee-ball, as if the lane and nine balls was a portal for me to travel through and touch her before Parkinson’s would make playing skee-ball a distant memory.

In high school, going through the growing pains of my teen years and standing on the edge of the ever expanding chasm between my grandmother’s physical and mental presence in my family, I would play skee-ball at Jilly’s arcade on the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ. For some time Jilly’s had a bank of beautiful lanes that they charged only a dime to play. If you scored 280 points you’d earn a free game. Here for ten cents, I’d spend hours rolling through my mind, searching and making sense of my world.

When the initial discussion two years ago that lead to the exhibition And the Winner is… began, talk revolved around the idea of a campus-wide competition centered on a single game. It was at that time that I staked a claim for skee-ball. While I did not knowingly intend it as such, I’ve recently realized in talking to my mother that this was my tribute.

My grandmother, Catherine J. Donovan (née Shields) passed away on July 23, 2010 at St. John Neumann Nursing Home in Philadelphia. For my entire lifetime she had been whittled away before my very eyes. I cannot recall my grandmother’s jokes or trademark laugh. In fact, I cannot hear her voice at all. I don’t have a single memory of her eating her favorite confection or playing her favorite game. However, what I do have is the game she loved. And since my very first roll I’ve never stopped searching or playing skee-ball. Nor do I intend to.

Matthew Seamus Callinan
Grandson and skee-ball player