I drove to Maryland to see my mom this weekend. She’s living by herself in an independent living community (I thought of saying complex, but I wasn’t sure she would like that term). My cousin lives very close by, and for the first year that my mom was there, they saw a lot of each other. However, now that people and employers are acting like the pandemic has ended, my cousin is traveling a lot for work. For the first time, it seemed like my mom was feeling lonely.
I woke up in Maryland on Saturday to a steady rain, checked the weather app, and it showed nothing but sprinkles, showers, and downpours throughout the day. This dashed any hopes of a walk. Although she’s 92, my mom still moves pretty well. We convinced her to use a walker for safety reasons, considering that she’s had two major hip surgeries. She reluctantly agreed. She’s had to make other sacrifices over the past few years. She gave up tennis around age 87, partly because she didn’t trust herself not to be too competitive.
Now her only recreational sport is the table variety of tennis. She’s having a bit of trouble finding partners in her community. On the weekly calendar published for residents, there’s a slot on Thursdays at 1:00 p.m. that says, “Ping Pong with Mary,” but so far Mary (my mom) is the only one to show up. She has one gentleman friend who rallies with her on Tuesdays. My family wonders if perhaps some of the gentlemen are intimidated. Mom does, after all, have her own paddle. She insists, though, that she is not looking for competition. “We won’t be keeping score,” she stresses. “We’ll just be trying to keep the ball moving.” She has had to reassure us of this promise, too. We’ve all witnessed her competitive side. “No, no, not anymore,” she tells us. “I don’t even move backward from the table. I can’t afford any more falls.”
I’ve been playing ping pong with my mom since I was eight, when we inherited my grandmother’s table. Transporting a ping pong table from New York to Maryland on top of a rental car in a blizzard is another story. I’ll skip to the games in our basement.
We played a lot in our dark and unfinished basement. At first I believed we were evenly matched, since all of our games seemed close, and we both managed to win about half the time. The contests continued for years. From my summers at camp, where rainy days sometimes meant ping pong marathons, I became a much better player. It was interesting, though, that as I got better, the outcomes of games with my mom didn’t really change. Apparently my mom was getting better, too. It was only when I was considerably older, when the rallies got more dramatic, the serves faster, and the lunging saves more common, that it dawned on me that Mom had been taking it easy in those early days.
So, on Saturday, we ventured to the game room, with its bright lights, pool table, carpeting, and a much nicer table than our old basement relic. Mom parked her walker at the bench and scooped up her personalized paddle. I grabbed one of the house paddles and wondered how this would go. We rallied. We did not keep score. There were no spins, no aggressive serves, and no drop shots…at least no intentional ones. We mostly hit the ball down the middle, though I was trying to give her backhands and forehands. I didn’t hit any deep shots, and she didn’t make any reckless saves. I’m guessing it was a lot like our first games.
I wanted to capture some of the moment to share with my family, but wasn’t that easy to aim a phone while playing ping pong. Here’s a short clip from our time at the table.