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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Tennis Saved Me

Was I eight? I was. Early summer. I had to get out of the house. Away from home. As much as possible. Time gifts us with forgetfulness of mundane memories thus I can't tell you exactly what it was the unnerved and upset me so, but the ongoing craziness in my family prompted me to look outside for options. There was, of course, Mrs. Shadle, down the street, my true savior. She paid me a dollar a week --- a fortune --- but best of all she gave me the most precious gift of her time and attention every single day except Sunday, as I came like clockwork to sit next to the piano bench with her son Charles to help him with his piano practice. I don't think he needed me but she knew, intuitively, that I needed her and this 'job,' the time away from home, and most of all, her friendship and kind attention. She listened to me, she valued my opinions, she told me stories about her world --- growing up in Oklahoma. It was heaven. It was nothing at all like home. But I couldn't stay at the Shadle's all day, even though I often stood in her doorway for forty-five minutes, wrapping up the converstion. Did I stall, or do I remember rightly that sometimes she was the one to prolong our time together? It seemed she truly valued me. And I believe she did. It was heaven. Beyond her twinkling eyes that matched her pale blue carpet and immaculate home, her infectious laugh, her charming accent and her saying at least once every day, "you cain't win for losing," I had to find other sources of escape. There was the pit trampoline in the neighbors' back yard, where I was welcome anytime to practice back drops and front flips, and there was the tetherball in our backyard where I could batter out my frustrations. But, as time went on, I needed to wander farther and farther afield. The city offered free tennis lessons every morning. I read about them in the newspaper and persuaded my mother to let me try. Within the week I was hooked. I had my lesson at nine. Then stayed around like a gym rat to hit on empty courts. I hit against the backboard, I hit with other students, I hit with the teachers. I started coming early, by eight, then stayed all morning, walked home for a quick lunch, played all afternoon, went home for supper, and was back at night to hit until we couldn't see the ball. I'd hit with you today if you were willing to hit it right to me -- I'm a lazy slug -- and you would discover I still have a wicked forehand. And so it went for the next seven summers. All day every day and a return trip in the evenings, to hit with whomever showed up. I walked back and forth the mile and a quarter two or three times a day, that is, until boys began to drive me back and forth. My first dates grew out of tennis play. I saved up and bought my first Davis racquet, the one I still have, restrung a dozen times over the years, and still use from time to time. I remember the first day a kid, the number one singles in the 14 and under division, showed up with a metal racquet. A marvel. Few of us ever got them; we were purists. I remember the change from white to florescent yellow balls; we were suspicious of them, too. I became devoted to Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall and Yvonne Goolagong and Billie Jean King. I developed a tennis tan, socks and all. Hitting the tennis ball was a kind of zen for me, the repetition, the thwack of the ball cleanly hit, back and forth, back and forth. I frankly preferred hitting against the wall, more predictable returns. I could hit it a hundred times, two hundred, in a row, and hard, too, I might add. It was catharsis, it was meditation, it was pure heaven. I was invited to join the tennis team and have the trophy to prove it -- alas, only one, but a source of satisfaction I've yet to put away. Later, in high school, our team invented a punishment for losing a league match: eating frozen brussel sprouts. Don't ever serve me brussel sprouts. I don't eat them. It was my world, a sane, orderly, and fun world. We became a team, we bonded, we supported each other, laughed and cheered each other on. Such a startling, and welcome change from my life at home. I developed self-esteem, confidence, self-reliance, and a clear sense of having power to make my world better or worse. Something within my control. It was my world, away from my family. How different things are today. Did I miss one of Kaia's soccer games over the years? Maybe, one. One of her basketball games? Maybe, one. Did I miss one of Annika's concerts, plays, musicals? Maybe, no, I don't think so. My mother came to exactly one of my tennis matches, in high school, the regionals, when we had to be driven by a parent and she was the only one available. My dad never saw me play. That wasn't so extreme as it sounds, few parents paid attention. But, still. The good news: tennis was my world, my haven, my home. And, through all those crazy years, my salvation. So ask me why I arrange my life, as much as possible, around watching the Grand Slams today. God, I love it.

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