Vahe Gregorian

Still Mama’s boy: Star sports columnist Vahe celebrates mother during her illness

Star sports columnist Vahe Gregorian’s mother’s love is apparent in this photo that was shot for a Mother’s Day 1961 magazine cover in Beirut, Lebanon, the family’s home at the time. Yes, that’s Baby Vahe.
Star sports columnist Vahe Gregorian’s mother’s love is apparent in this photo that was shot for a Mother’s Day 1961 magazine cover in Beirut, Lebanon, the family’s home at the time. Yes, that’s Baby Vahe. Courtesy of Vahe Gregorian

This Kansas basketball-adidas situation sure is a muddled mess, and the Royals are reeling, and I thought a bunch about ways to write about either of those situations the last few days.

But my mother, Clare, is very sick two rooms away, seldom getting out of bed these days and barely eating or taking fluids and, worst of all, no longer doing The New York Times crossword puzzle.

So I just don’t want to think about anything else right now as I look at the piano where she used to play ragtime with such joy and try to come to terms with never seeing her do that again.

She’s rallied before, yes, and maybe she has more time left than we dare think after these last couple years of struggles. Plus, she always tells us it’s the Gregorian calendar, so we own time itself.

Also, like my dear friend Sam Mellinger likes to quote me quoting her: “Don’t borrow trouble.” It’s a fine way to stay hopeful.

Even so, I feel compelled to write about her now, and I apologize for the self-indulgence, but what’s the good in having a column if you can’t celebrate your Mama sometime?

Especially since I’m sure I wouldn’t be doing this work that I’ve loved the last 30 years without her influence and place in whatever it is that makes up my conscience and compass.

First, as what we call a news peg, she always fed my love of sports: She signed me up for Pop Warner football in Texas and bought me the “Punt, Pass and Kick Library” books and subscribed to Sports Illustrated and even sought out the experience of a Mizzou-Kansas basketball game, an event whose intensity left her overwhelmed.

She also primed our love of words, by constantly reading herself and using cool terms I’ve never heard anyone else say (check out “velleity” sometime). She read our comic books exaggeratedly out loud to tease us and constantly corrected our grammar.

In the early 1990s for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I went to Lincoln, Nebraska, to write a profile on then-Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and made reference to the “31-foot Chinook salmon on his wall.”

Trouble is, it was a 31-inch salmon, something I didn’t realize I’d miswritten until a few weeks later.

Somehow, the article had made it into my mother’s hands in New York, and she sent it back to me with the ridiculous mistake circled in red and wrote … “Some Fish!”

That was a telling blend of her ever-proper way and often hilarious sense of humor, part of what makes her so distinct.

She is the embodiment of elegance and eloquence who wrote the most artful letters you ever saw in the most gorgeous handwriting … and also occasionally dipped into dirty jokes, like the one she used to tell about Elvis the Pelvis and his fictitious twin brother, Enis.

She could be tough on me and my two younger brothers, and that’s extra on my mind because I recently had occasion to be reunited with my best friend from Austin for the first time in 45 years.

Bryan was my Pop Warner teammate, and we were close enough for him to come visit me in sixth grade after we moved to Pennsylvania.

But I hadn’t seen him since then, and I always figured it was at least partly because when I got in trouble and got spanked on that trip, he made the mistake of laughing and incurring her wrath.

“You think it’s funny?” … wham.

(As it happens, Bryan says he tells that story all the time, noting that he had it coming.)

More than anything else, though, my mother (and, naturally, my father, Vartan) always have provided what I consider the greatest gift any parent can give a child: the treasure of knowing you are loved and believing everything will turn out OK.

Maybe my most prized possession is a magazine cover from Mother’s Day 1961 in Beirut, Lebanon, where I was born as my father prepared to travel to Afghanistan to work on his dissertation after they’d met at Stanford and she turned down a job at the CIA to follow his dream.

As the story goes, another young American woman was supposed to pose with her baby for the cover but was unable to make it.

My mom and I stood in, and please excuse my gushing, but she looks so beautiful in the picture. And I like to think that she (almost always) has looked at my brothers and me in the same doting way she did at that moment.

That wasn’t always immediately welcome, of course.

When I was playing in an eighth-grade football game in my hometown of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, I had a head-to-head collision with an opposing running back. I believe I saw stars, and my shoulder was on fire as I sprawled on the field.

But the ordeal was just beginning.

Because by the time coaches or teammates or maybe even a coach-athletic trainer turned me over and I opened my eyes, standing over me along with them was … my mom.

It’s impossible to quantify the emasculating embarrassment of the moment.

She no doubt heard me whine about her on-field appearance all the way to the hospital and back, and probably for a few more days, and I guess it stuck with her:

When I broke my ankle in three places during a game my freshman year in college, she restrained herself and simply sent my youngest brother down to the bench to see how I was.

It’s funny how events look different over time. Forty-plus years later, my outrage makes me laugh at myself as I think about that part of the broader scheme of things:

How lucky can you be, really, to have such a force in your life, someone so smart and funny and loving and unique?

Maybe better days are ahead for her, right?

Still, I find myself thinking a lot about what she said when her mother died: “I lost my audience.”

Now, even as I try not to borrow trouble, I’m closer to understanding what she meant.

But I’ll never let go of thinking of her that way.

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