Bocce-ball memories

by Brian Clarey

When I was a kid, at every family gathering, at some point the men would grab their drinks and cigars and peel off from the crowd, divide themselves into teams and enact an ancient Italian ritual: the throwing of the bocce.

Bocce a form of bowling, played on grass or dirt or specialized lanes made for the purpose, which you are as likely to find in a public square in Italy as you are in a park in the New York metropolitan area, though not so much down South. A horseshoe pit will do fine for the game’s purpose, as will a deserted clay tennis court. I’ve even heard tell of playing the game on the beach, in the bard-packed sand by the shoreline.

The game can be played in singles or teams — a player throws the small, white pallino down the field, and each team or player takes turns rolling the big and heavy bocce balls at it — closest ball wins. The game, played on four continents and with a history that dates back centuries, combines the skills of bowling with the lay-ofthe-land element of golf and the collegiality of horseshoes, the kind of activity you can enjoy while having a conversation or eating a roasted pepper and mozzarella sandwich or drinking some of your cousin’s homemade wine.

I’m not particularly good at it. I don’t even play it very often. But when my wife pulled out the bocce set on Easter Sunday I felt a sentimental pull in my heart.

To understand, you probably have to go back — way back to the Italian enclaves in New Jersey in the first half of the American Century, where my people on my mother’s side came together in the heady flush of newly realized prosperity, when the hard work of a generation resulted in measurable successes for the next.

The Italians in my family had not been in this country long — Pellegrino Pagano came straight off the boat, as they say, and not all of his children had the benefit of naturalized citizenship — though his youngest, the twins, were born in Morristown.

One of them is my grandfather Lew, who now resides in a managed care facility an hour or so south from his hometown, zipping through the cable channels looking for sports.

My grandmother is in the facility as well, the former Josephine DeSantis of Denville, whose brother Ralph was a fixture at family events my whole life, until he passed last year.

These tribes came together in the seamless way that families with similar backgrounds do, with shared traditions that dated back to the old country even as they Americanized the Italian culture.

The bocce set I have in my possession once belonged to my Uncle Ralph: eight heavy, wooden balls, each big as an early cantaloupe, in colors of winestain burgundy and ancient army green; the smaller, white pallino battered by years of banks and clicks. The set is surely older than I — about the same age, I believe, as my parents, and any clues as to its origin or manufacture are lost to wear and tear.

It’s the same set they threw at the backyard parties and family reunions we family held in Ralphie’s backyard, his mother-in-law Louise working so hard in the kitchen that when I was kid I thought she worked for him. His wife, my Aunt Flora, did her best to keep us from tracking on her white carpet.

Flora has left this world as well, passed just two weeks ago. This passing of the generations is as routine as a sunset, and just as awe-inspiring. Tracing these lives that have come together, like bocce balls careening around the pallino until a score is set and then the marker gets tossed further down the lawn.

These are the things I thought of when my wife pulled the bocce set from our closet on Easter Sunday, and I remembered that when I was a kid, bocce was strictly for grown men. I always wanted to play, and they never let me.

It was time to fix that. So after the kids rose early to plunder the bunny’s candy leavings and force down a halfway decent breakfast, after the leg of lamb had come out of the oven and the salmon finished off, after the guests had arrived and the children foraged for hidden plastic eggs filled with loose change and jellybeans, we pulled the heavy, wooden bocce balls from the dated airline shoulder bag in which they had been resting for a decade or more.

The men grabbed beers and peeled off from the sated crowd to the slim lawn on the north side of my house. We chose sides and then bounced the pallino down the clipped fairway. And then we took turns with the bocce, trying to roll them as close as we could.