It’s a sunny mid-August day and I am surrounded by seniors in pastels and visors and socks with sandals. This is the final lawn bowling tournament of the year for the Second Mile club, a social service organization for seniors that has locations throughout Toronto. Lawn bowling maintains a pretty low-profile in Toronto. While other antiquated pastimes have been obnoxiously reanimated by hipsters (croquet, knitting), lawn bowling remains largely the domain of seniors.
The game entails throwing weighted, biased balls (“bowls”) towards a smaller ball (“jack”). The bowls closest to the jack are awarded a point (“shot”). And on it goes, from end to end, until a winner is declared. The game traces its roots back to 5000 BC in Egypt,where they would play ‘skittles’ with stones. It evolved in different ways across the world – Bocce in Italy, Boules in France and Bowls in England. It grew in popularity and was occasionally banned – the kings and parliament were worried that it was stealing thunder from archery, which was a far more essential skill in warfare. The bowling ‘alleys’ of the 1400’s were connected with taverns “frequented by the dissolute and gamesters” and were also periodically banned. The dissolute seem like my people, and I am a big fan of washer toss (which involves drunkenly tossing steel washers into a sawn-off plumbing tube in a box) so I was excited.
I enter the clubhouse at Cosbourn park lawn bowling club. Several ladies are already here, chatting and collecting money for a 50-50 draw and $2 game fee. Matt Langdon, the program director asks if anyone wants tea. “I could do with Irish breakfast tea,” says Alice, a feisty Irish lady in a periwinkle blue polo shirt. “There’s no whiskey here hon,” jokes Langdon. “I need rum!” she shoots back. Mary, a talkative senior to my right, got her start lawn bowling at a place called St. Matthews about 7 years ago. “We all got our bowls from there. People died off and we got all their leftovers!” The ladies reminisce some more, remembering back when milk was delivered by horses. Horses! Carrying milk in little glass bottles! I decide that olden times were much cooler, even with all that polio and manual labor.
The clubhouse is littered with pointy colored penants proclaiming relentless victories over the years. There is a coach’s corner with stretching tips and a bowl polishing machine. I am given strict instructions to not jam my hand into the machine (I’m slowly learning to resist temptations). It makes an alarming SHUNKSHUNK! sound and seems to be ripping the bowl apart at the seams, but polishes them into gleaming orbs of promise.
We step into the blinding sunlight onto the short grass that is short and efficient like office carpeting. I resist a strong urge to lie face-first on it and nap. I like that Toronto still has single-use green spaces for recreation – they haven’t yet been replaced by stupid condos. I am the skip (team captain) so I’m to position the jack down the centre of the lane. On the opposite end they lay down a mat that you stand on while you throw.
Allan, a considerably younger player who is here with his elderly mother, vaguely describes the process of throwing the bowl. The bowl is weighted heavier on one side and the weight affects the curve of the throw. He claims to not know much; he too is a novice. “You’re on my team,” he says to Alice. “I am?” she says, “that’s too bad.” He drops the jack, saying he is going to make the lane shorter (easier) for the ladies. “It’s a short one,” says Alice. “I made it shorter for you!” he shouts. “You didn’t have to. You really didn’t have to.” She’s one of the best players on the green.
I throw a few, they listlessly thud to the ground, one careens off into the ditch. Damn my wrists! They fuse my hands into useless talons, unable to release their death grip at appropriate times (a major factor that fuels my hatred of ultimate frisbee). The ladies are encouraging despite my confusing lack of fine motor skills. “You’re doing great! Good throw!” and so forth. They’re gracious to a fault.
When all the bowls are thrown, we amble to the other end to assess the situation. A measuring string is used to confirm which bowl is closest to the jack. The bowl closest earns a point, but the opposing team can block more points if they have the next closest bowl. “Think of it as a bloodletting,” explains Langdon. “The points are the blood, we stop the blood by getting a closer bowl.” “Getting gory now, are we?” laughs one of the ladies. My team has lost pathetically: 9-0. “I’m used to being last,” laughs Kathleen, my good-natured teammate. “I’m the youngest of four. Well there used to be, but my brother died suddenly. It threw us for a loop, but that’s life.”
We fare a little better in the next match. Tied 5-5 in the last end. Albert, an elderly chap in long-sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat smashes our bowl away from the jack in a sudden death showdown. Kathleen is contemplative; “well we lost, but Albert is happy so I am happy.”
“I am out here for the exercise and the camaraderie,” says Frances, a tiny lady in snappy glasses. Indeed, I could think of a worse way to spend a sunny afternoon. It’s refreshing to be in the company of seniors who aren’t complaining about work or nervously checking their smartphones every 5 seconds. I’m ready for retirement.
The Second Mile club is a social service organization that runs year-round programming for seniors, disabled adults and their caregivers. For more information, visit here.
Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson.