In honor of Women's History Month, espnW is running a weekly personal essay on influential female athletes.
I'm in a Chrysler minivan converted into a spacious yellow cab. Massachusetts looks brown, exposed, raw. It is a dreary and gray day. I feel like a mangled piece of driftwood. Empty and manic. I have not slept since Monday. I'm going through the motions. Idle chatter with the driver from Lebanon. We talk kibbeh and he tells me about his daughter. She hates the cold and can't wait for spring.
Seven days have passed since Grams died. I'm also remembering another time and place. I'm with Grams in 1997. I'm 12. It is April and Tiger Woods is about to win the Masters. We're hitting golf balls, warming up before an early tee time so we can get back and watch sportscaster Jim Nantz call the final round. We're talking about Tiger nonstop. My Grams is smitten with the young man from Stanford. I'm jealous.
"We are witnessing domination like I haven't seen since Babe," Grams says.
"Babe Ruth?" I ask, as my eyes are focusing on the yellow ball perched on a white tee.
My grandmother throws me one of her looks. I'm all attention.
"Your favorite player is Ben Hogan and you don't know about Babe?"
As we played golf that morning, my Grams introduced me to Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, who once said, "I don't see any point in playing the game if you don't win."
When she was a girl, Babe played every sport. Grams told me about her AAU championships after high school, both in basketball and track. At the 1932 Summer Olympics, Babe won two golds and a silver medal, setting a world record in the 80-meter hurdles. Later in life, Babe explained: "I never was too good at straight-forward running. I didn't seem to want to stay on the ground. I'd rather jump some obstacle."
Babe and Grams were feminists in their actions, in their anger at the status quo, in their fight and in their perseverance. They both had dominant mothers who ran the home but rejected the chauvinistic society around them, and they each had kind fathers who loved them and supported their athletic endeavors.
Growing up, I had three single parents: my mother, my father and my Grams. Grams was my best friend, my golf partner and my compass. Her daughter, my mother, a hardworking writer, and my dad, out cruising the country to sell ingot to provide for us, never explained the paradigm of sexes. In my presence, all I knew was that my father never once acted superior to any woman.
I was taught that all human beings should be treated as family and I believed that everyone had the same opportunities because that was my experience. My parents and Grams displayed this level of respect for all people. Grams was a tall elegant Greek goddess of a Jewish woman. I used to imagine her behind the podium lecturing members of Congress to keep their elbows off the tables while they ate.
My Grams was a stickler for rules, but after the round she let me drive the golf cart to her condo, where we watched Tiger historically dismantle Augusta National as she continued my education.
Both my Grams and Babe had strong grips and when they swung a golf club they made a tremendous turn with their hips and shoulders. On Babe's downswing she transformed herself into a power generator of abnormal capacity, a la Sam Snead or Dustin Johnson, unleashing her lower body first and letting her arms follow behind to pure drives 260, sometimes 300 yards. Grams had five aces. It could have been 50. She hit her fairway woods wherever she aimed them and constantly burned the edge from 130 yards away. As a golfer it was humbling; as her grandson, it was pure elation.
My Grams was 10 years old when Babe Didrikson Zaharias won the U.S. Women's Amateur in 1946, 11 when Babe became the first American to win the British Women's Amateur, and 12 when she won her first U.S. Women's Open. Grams was a teenager when Babe came back, just 18 months after a cancer operation, to win the 1954 Open by 12 shots.
Babe talked publicly about her illness. "I lived through the cancer, and I've been living with it since. I believe the cancer problem should be out in the open. The more the public knows about it the better." After Babe won in 1954, she said that "it will show a lot of people that they need not be afraid of an operation and can go on to live a normal life."
My Grams was 20 when Babe died in 1956 at age 45. Grams played golf for 13 of her 15-year fight with cancer and died just shy of her 80th birthday. Babe wasn't so lucky, but missed golfing only in her last year. My Grams and Babe played each shot, each hole, each round living with cancer not as if it was a handicap, but as if it was a competitor, prodding them to play better, to live better, to lose better and to win.
Babe set that standard.
Grams and Babe were not satisfied unless they striped their tee ball down the center of the fairway. Their eyes would evoke a competitive fury, but their composure and presence never seemed rattled. They both possessed a practiced precision, a dignified elegance, and a powerful grace.
I will always be grateful to Babe Didrikson Zaharias for showing my Grams, Merna Lyon D'Agostino, that she could not only survive cancer, but also thrive. Grams, thank you for reminding me to keep my head down and showing me how to be strong in the sand.
Max Saffer is a Columbia Journalism School graduate and an avid golfer. He is working on his first novel. Follow him @maxavize