Bongo Nana

When most of my brothers and I were in high school, we played a lot of ping pong in the basement of our suburban New Jersey home. The games were spirited: You could tell by the many gashes that were made by the edges of paddles slammed angrily into the soft ceiling tiles that hung low over the green table. On the floor across the room sat a bongo board that I had recently made in wood shop. We used it to get in condition for ski season. The roller sat on the floor, and the board leaned precariously against it.

My maternal grandmother, Mary Nolan, was a Scots-Irish immigrant we called “Nana.” She was visiting and came down the basement stairs to see what was going on. We were preoccupied with the game, so we weren’t paying much attention to her. She always exuded enthusiasm, and we heard hear say “what’s this?” with her unmistakable Scottish accent. As we turned to see what caught her eye, it was too late. She had made a bee line for the bongo board, and as we all shouted “no, Nana, no!” the scene unfolded as if in slow motion.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the purpose and operation of a bongo board, she stepped on the upper end of the board, and it rocketed out from under her and slammed into the wall with a loud report. Nana seemed suspended in mid-air, upside down and backward, before she sprawled ungainly on the floor with a shriek, then lay motionless. We held our breath, but we were soon relieved to see her stir and hear her customary mild oath: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” There was no doubt that her arm was good and broken. After we called for an ambulance, she grimaced in pain while directing us to hide the bongo board, and then she made sure we got our story straight: She simply slipped and fell — nothing more. And that’s what we told the EMTs. Nana was soon patched up and her arm healed just fine.

Some forty years later, I still have that bongo board. Every time I see it, or even climb aboard for a nostalgic ride, I smile to myself, remembering our Nana who loved life and us, and lived every moment with gusto.