I grabbed the softball and turned it around in my glove until my first two fingers were set where I wanted them along the seams. I focused on the placement of the catcher’s mitt, ignoring where the batter would be. My task was to put the ball in the catcher’s mitt. That’s all I looked at. I stretched back and released the ball.
Gram had to move the mitt to get the ball.
“You’re releasing too early,” she yelled. Gram stood up and walked over to me. Placing the ball back in the mitt, she explained that, by releasing too early, not only did the ball not have the right spin, it would rise to a sweet spot for the batter.
She was teaching me a pitch I don’t think had a name in the early 1980s. It was a mix between a curveball and a sinker. Most batters thought I was trying to toss a slider, but the spin always confused them.
We were in the slow-pitch era of softball. Fast pitch wouldn’t come around for another two to three years. I had an advantage because I was a lefty and I had this pitch with a weird release and spin that made it difficult for batters to track.
“You’re probably letting the ball touch your palm,” she said. I was supposed to be relying on my fingers to guide the ball. Release point was also important. Gram took my hand and slowly guided it with the twist at the end, stopping where I should release the ball.
“Try it again,” she said.
As the years went on, Gram stopped squatting like a catcher, but she still gave me a target when I practiced. She never missed a single softball game or practice in the seven years I played. She kept score, gave me tips, yelled at umpires, and enjoyed herself. She even got tossed one time and kept telling the umpire he could borrow her glasses from her car.
Lorraine Collins Schoeneberger was born in Johnson, New York on Nov. 1, 1922. I remember visiting her at the Avon factory in my hometown of Middletown, New York where she worked on the assembly line. Later, when the factory closed she had to travel to the factory in Suffern, we used to meet her at the Erie train station every day after work. To me, however, she was more than just a factory worker shoving lipstick into vials and creams into canisters. She was my grandma.
Throughout my life, Gram always seemed to be there teaching me important skills I would later need in life. She was a firm hand in discipline without raising a hand to me. She always wanted to know why you did something rather than first resorting to punishment.
After my father left, my mother took a job, which required her to work 3:30 p.m., to midnight, so I stayed with Gram a lot. I didn’t really mind. I liked hanging out with Gram. We had similar personalities. We liked to read and learn. We both preferred to sit back and observe, taking in information rather than being the life of the party.
We were both left-handed, so she helped me with my cursive writing when I was little and understood the frustrations I had with things growing up. She was full of a lifetime of experiences and workarounds of living in a right-handed world.
I’m not sure she ever liked the fact that I played the drums, but if I didn’t practice every day, she wouldn’t sign my form saying I did. She always called it a “ruckus,” but supported my decision to do my own thing. If being a percussionist was what I wanted to do, she backed my decision.
She taught me how to cook basic meals at age six. Whenever I came home from college, she made my favorite meal – pork chops, corn, and mashed potatoes. I haven’t eaten pork chops since 2011. I probably never will again.
Gram taught me the importance of responsibility and self-reliance. When she sent me into the back yard to pick wild blackberries, she would always remind me of how much I needed to pick for her jam before I could start eating them.
We sat outside in the summer breaking off the ends of freshly-picked green beans for dinner. We tended the garden together. We sat together in the Fall and cracked open black walnuts. We talked about important and unimportant things.
She loved tiger lilies. She tended her flowers and taught me their names. She loved birds and knew their scientific names as well as their habitats. They loved her because she always fed them. Her gentleness and kindness could be seen in all the wild and tame animals she cared for – except groundhogs. Screw them.
She made sure I took my naps on Tuesday nights so I could stay up late and watch Remington Steele. In exchange, I watched the Golden Girls with her. We watched the finale of M*A*S*H together. We watched the news and read the newspaper.
When my family went to see the movie, Cujo, I didn’t want to go. I loved movies, but there was no appeal to it for me. So, while my family was watching a movie about a rabid dog, Gram and I went to see Trading Places. We had a blast. Many years later, we both wanted to see A Walk in the Clouds, so we went together, again.
In high school, when I missed half of my freshman year due to rape, she made sure I got a Math and French tutor to catch up in school. Once when she was checking my homework in the kitchen, she hollered at me in the living room, “Irene. I don’t think you conjugated this verb right. You got the wrong ending.” Gram didn’t speak French, but she could follow along enough to know when I screwed up my conjugations.
When I was sick and lonely during that time, she read to me. She made me homemade chicken noodle soup, with the wide egg noodles I liked. She comforted me and didn’t always need to use words to do it.
Whenever I came home for a visit, during college and after, she would give me such a bear hug that I wondered how a little lady could be so strong. Then, she would shove a $100 bill in my pocket and tell me to spend it on stupid stuff. She knew I would buy groceries with it, but I always made sure to get some fries from McDonald’s with the money so I was just a little irresponsible.
I believe my love of travel came from her. She told me about her adventures in her younger years and I told her about mine. When she told me she had three places left to visit – Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, and Hawaii – but didn’t think she would ever get there, I made sure she did.
At age 77, she went hiking with me at Yellowstone. A couple of days earlier, she visited Mt. Rushmore and hiked around Devil’s Tower. A few years later, I paid for her and Mom to go to Hawaii.
I will always remember the day we hiked to the painted mud pots at Yellowstone. My in-laws, who were twenty years younger than Gram, said they were too old to go hiking. Gram lifted her cane and pushed my father-in-law out of the way.
“Well, I’m not too old,” she said. Paul and I made sure she was hiking between us on the uneven trail. She looked out for Paul more than we had a chance to look out for her.
Gram was slow to anger, would forgive a genuine apology, and practiced the mottos, “Never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” and, “if you don’t have anything good to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.” The only time in life I ever saw her break this policy was when she spoke about the Kennedys, who she considered carpetbaggers.
I didn’t even know this until Hillary Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate as a resident from New York. I had a conversation with Gram about carpetbaggers and how many people considered Hillary Clinton to be one. Gram rarely spoke about politics or religion. She believed those two issues should be personal, but if I ever brought them up, she was willing to talk about them, but only to me. Her reply of, “I voted for the best person for the job,” was all you would ever get from her during election time. She firmly believed your vote was yours and resisted outside influence.
When I began questioning religion at age 12, she told me I didn’t have to go to church anymore. She never went to church, but took my sister and me out of a request from my mother. I believe, at best, she was agnostic. I honestly never thought to ask, because I already knew she would dodge the answer so as to not influence my own thoughts.
Whenever I didn’t live close to her, I called Gram weekly. I spoke with her on a Wednesday. We were discussing all the things we would do the following summer when I would have saved enough money to make a visit home from Nebraska. I got the call on Saturday, June 11, 2011, at 11:11 a.m., 1:11 p.m., in New York, that Gram had passed away. I don’t believe in numerology, but those things tend to stick out in times of great sadness.
Most of family had gathered around her hospital bed. The doctor told my family, she only had a few hours left. I got a call from my Aunt Julie around 8 a.m. There was no way for me to reach New York in time. My cousin, Amber, was in Boston and my cousin, Jacob, was at home in Cicero, New York. It was impossible for any of us to be there in time to say goodbye.
Gram was unconscious, but muttering. My mother leaned in to her and told her, “It’s okay, Mom. You can go.” She passed away a few moments later.
Paul and I packed up our 2000 Hyundai Accent and made the 28-hour car drive across the country. Somewhere on I-80 in Indiana, he made the remark he was surprised I was holding it together as well as I was. “I have to,” was all I said. I needed to.
I stayed at Gram’s house. Mom told us we could sleep in Gram’s bed. I couldn’t do it. Paul slept on the couch and I slept in Gram’s reclining chair. I could smell the Avon hand cream, which made her hands so soft over the years.
The next day, it hit me just how special my relationship with Gram had been. Uncle Dick wouldn’t go in Gram’s room. “I’m not allowed to go in there,” he said. “That’s Ma’s room.” We only had a brief conversation, but I realized I had been given many special privileges with Gram that her children didn’t have and I don’t think my cousins ever did either.
I played in Gram’s room often. I can still hear her saying, “God damn it, Irene,” which would come from her lips when she got into bed and realized I had left one of my Matchbox cars there.
I gave the eulogy at her funeral. Her wake was the only time I have openly wept in public. She looked like she was sleeping and I wanted to reach out to her and hug her one last time. I ran outside the funeral home. My family left me alone, except my nephew, David, who came to make sure I was okay. He doesn’t cry either. We stood there and silently wept together.
Gram left a huge hole in my soul and my life has never been quite the same since she left. I could have written a story a day during Women’s History Month about the ways she has inspired me and affected my life for the better. This post is the longest I’ve written this month about inspiring women and it still doesn’t do her remarkable life justice.
Gram never did tell me how she knew all the things she did. I never learned the name of that pitch, or how she knew so much about baseball, but she made me a better pitcher and taught me perseverance through the game I loved to play.
She was my mentor and my friend. She understood me and could reach me in a way no one else ever has. Gram will always be a part of me and, yet, I miss her every single day.