Last Shots

This is a personal essay I wrote for a magazine a few years ago. When my grandmother died yesterday, I came back and revised it some. In memoriam: Caroline Yundt Bethea

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Last Shots: When and where will yours occur? Considering a family’s final shots.

My uncle retired from tennis when he was twelve, having just become the best boy his age in Georgia. At the time it was just a childhood moment. But it would turn out to be his high water mark. “Wine, women and song. That’s why I stopped playing,” he told me years later, when I had the courage to ask. He glossed over the particulars, which others would fill in. “Leave it at that,” he said. But I can’t.

He quit baseball, too, at 17, for older girls, harder drugs, and the presumed excitement of Vietnam. It was said that he could have gone pro with a racquet and a bat, or headed to Hollywood with his looks. But destiny, if you want to call it that, had others designs. He became a Marine, stacked bodies on the frontlines, and got hooked on heroin before he was old enough to vote. Childhood ended abruptly. Tennis, a game, no longer made sense to him. Maybe it never had.

When he came back home to Atlanta, a hardened man at twenty, he tried to quit the heaviest drugs. Eventually, he did. But he never picked up a racquet again, or a bat either—except to chase a thief out a window. He put his hands to work in construction, where they grew huge and callused, frightening to shake. He worked with what remained; it was too late to re-construct what might have been.

His brother—my father—also went to that war, but he was older, and in Military Intelligence. As a freshman in high school, he’d been a “fantastic” number six singles player on his state champion team, “but a lousy six as a senior.” He’d pretty much stopped playing by then, at 16, when he got the keys to a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria with a T-bird engine, which his sister wrecked two years later while he was at Yale, where he preferred the angles and odds of billiards to those of tennis. By the time he entered law school, after the war, there was no time for games anyway.

My grandmother was the source of their skill. Equal parts tomboy and debutante—she took pills to suppress perspiration at summer parties in pre-AC Atlanta—she won more southeastern doubles titles than she can recall. She didn’t start until she was 30, “because it wasn’t a natural thing for a woman to do back then.” But once she did, the trophies and plaques accumulated in her closet. She’s since given them to her grandchildren, along with wooden racquets and thick woolen tennis sweaters. Some are now in my closet, next to my first racquet, a Prince CTS Synergy, and a few small trophies of my own. Our awards are intermingled, collecting dust together.

Nicknames weren’t part of the women’s game in the 1950s. They just called my grandmother Caroline. To an aspiring “Pistol” Pete, this was disappointing. She deserved a fierce nom de guerre. I saw her across the net just once, but that was enough. She wasn’t afraid of putting her headstrong sons and grandsons to shame, beating us until we were bigger than her, embarrassed by our efforts. She loved to win.

Grandmother’s last shot came when she was 66, playing with some old friends in Ponte Vedra, Florida. My grandfather and namesake—who told his sons he could beat them using a squash racquet and his off hand, though he never made good on that claim—had been dead for 13 years. My father was vice president of the largest producer of scratch-off lottery tickets in the world. The prodigy uncle was pouring concrete in Los Angeles. A third son, of which little is spoken, was in the grave. It was a different world than she’d grown up in: girls were encouraged to play sports, and Billie Jean King, seizing her own opportunity, had beaten Bobby Riggs.

“I was running back for a lob,” Grandmother told me a few years ago, ”and I flipped over, smashed my hip. It was broken. They kept playing, if you can believe it, while I sat on a hot, wooden bench. I sat quietly. Finally, some men from a house party took me to the hospital.” She skipped a detail in the retelling: she made her final shot.

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She died yesterday, at ninety, in an old folk’s home seven miles from the courts of her youth. Her tomboy body had shrunk considerably; her hands couldn’t have held a racquet. But her brash humor remained. When I saw her, on Christmas, I re-read a birthday letter she’d written me thirteen year earlier. It began: “Your grandfather always said If you give a gift, give it with no strings attached. That is splendid advice which I will NOT follow.” On she went with six attached strings (“Take a girl to a movie at the Tara . . . Do NOT buy that extravagantly overpriced popcorn.”). She hadn’t been an easy mother, I was told. But as my grandmother, she’d been near perfect. I owe my sense of humor to her, and my love of letters, and what remains of my tennis game.

I’ve let my skills rust some since high school, where I was number one on a middling team. I’ve never been much more than average: my backhand is consistent—I’m the only one in the family who’s ever used two hands—but my forehand is erratic, and my second serve is slow. I’ll never be much more than a decent rec player. I only resemble Agassi from the forehead up.

But I’ll play on with the knowledge that I’m doing more than just playing. I’m speaking a language—one that doesn’t require words. This aspect of tennis was always useful in my father’s family, where we tend to not talk about difficult things. Instead, we watch tennis on T.V., and talk about tennis, and, using our memories, see each other play again. We share the court in my mind, if nowhere else. And there, every time I hit the ball, I follow through.