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What I learned rolling with the holy bowlers

Dominic McKenzie/The Globe and Mail

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The singing swells as everyone joins in the Happy Birthday song. I cautiously sing too, quietly, so no one can pick out my voice.

I am standing in the mustard yellow, bare-walled party room of the Etobicoke Bowlerama, surrounded by people I have only recently met and who are on average three decades older than me.

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I take a closer look at the giant slab of cake on the table. It reminds me of the Safeway birthday cakes I had as a kid, the kind with fluffy white icing adorned with loopy handwriting in green gel and pink roses so sugary you could feel it in your cheekbones when you bit into one.

Now, as then, there are no gluten-, dairy-, nut- or sugar-free options. It's take it or leave it, just like when I was 10.

It is at this moment that I realize how much I miss those cakes and also, finally, the name of this group I joined last fall – the Our Lady of Peace Catholic bowling league.

As the only 34-year-old feminist agnostic in the room, it is beginning to dawn on me what this league is coming to mean in my life.

It had been 15 years since I was in a bowling league. I used to be a nationally ranked five-pin youth bowling champion when I lived in Fort Frances, a small mill town in northwestern Ontario.

In my last tournament, I missed the opportunity to appear on TSN's broadcast of The Pins Game by two lousy points. I handled the loss poorly, with a clenched jaw and a tight smile. I still get jaw aches that remind me of how it felt.

Shortly afterward, I moved to Toronto to start university and a new life. I put bowling behind me, but the desire to be a champion never went away. I eventually decided to attempt a comeback to see if I still had what it took. Could I regain my glory?

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I needed a bowling alley that was transit-accessible, had a night league, and where no one knew me, so I could focus on my game. Though I live in downtown Toronto, the Etobicoke Bowlerama was the only one that fit the bill.

In August, they told me to just "show up on the first Wednesday" in September, so I did. I was surprised to find myself surrounded by retirees and a priest.

After the first two Wednesdays, I came home deflated. My game had slipped considerably. I was average. But as the weeks have gone on, I actually don't mind. My worst fear about no longer being great has been faced with no signs of the old jaw pain. Instead, I have begun to enjoy the similarities in the league to my hometown.

In Fort Frances, I would tune in to the local TV station to play Lions Club bingo on Thursday nights with my Baba. Sometimes, play would be unbearably paused so the host could verify live on air whether Shirley from Third Street had two lines to win a turkey from the Dough 'n Deli.

At bowling now, I wait somewhat more patiently mid-frame so that the league president can announce matters like the turkey roll tournament and the winners of the 50/50 draw.

My old high-school mascot was the muskie. At bowling, my team had to come up with a fish-themed name for the year, so I suggested the muskie because I was there to win and the muskie is a predator atop its food chain. Stuart pointed out that the fish also eat garbage. We agreed that though they are an ugly fish, we did want to win. So we became the Muskies.

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My Uncle Kenny lives in Fort Frances, and though we talk on the phone I miss our visits. He has always treated me as an equal, and teased me with good-natured ribbing. My new bowling friend Val, 80, reminds me of him in his mannerisms and sharp humour. I missed the Wednesday of Halloween, and when I arrived the next week, Val said: "Where were ya last week, sweetie? Trick-or-treatin' with all your little friends?"

The Fort Frances local radio station had a noon-hour message period in which people "up the lakes" without phones could send on-air messages such as: "For Bill at Woodchuck Island on Rainy Lake, meet me at the landing at 4 instead of 2. That's from Walter." It was like prehistoric Twitter.

At bowling now, Eva is the league telephone caller to share any news that can't wait between Wednesdays.

I worked at a convenience store in high school, which gave me a front seat to local news and gossip. Sitting in the hard plastic seats in the alley now, I hear all the news from the members' church and community, and about the latest pancake breakfast.

Weekly, my bowling ego takes a clobbering, and yet I hop on the subway to go each Wednesday with the same relish I felt when I got on my banana-seat bike to go bowling as a kid.

I am figuring out that the battle with myself over the past 15 years wasn't really about regaining my bowling glory. It was 15 years of growing up to regain the joy of being a kid – and the sense of community I missed after leaving Fort Frances.

In the back room of the Bowlerama, the Happy Birthday song comes to an end, and the two birthday ladies of the month blow out their candles. We all clap and smile. I line up with my plate, and the 10-year-old in me hopes for a corner piece.

Leigh Naturkach lives in Toronto.

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