Something must have spooked me as a kid.
Either that or I really did stink at sports, more than the other girls in gym class or day camp.
It would be 50 years before I would do anything remotely athletic, comparable to, say, the sports camps I so eagerly arranged for my two children.
In that time, I taught myself a lot of bad tennis. Stuff like extending an index finger to get a better grip on the racket, doing a little dancy-dance in anticipation of the ball, and starting each serve with a baseball pitcher's windup that my husband and son found hysterical.
So many bad habits, I thought as I slunk onto the court at the Jewish Community Center for my first lesson, feet pinched in a new pair of tennis shoes that I'd bought too hastily.
And I was angry.
Where was the justice in allowing a child to feel self-conscious about sports? Was that child not cheated as a result, consigned to hiding in the shadows so as not to be chosen last for teams? Would that child not grow up to be yet another statistic in our nation's obesity crisis?
Angry and sad, on pinched feet, I reached my destination.
I realized middle age has its benefits. While a child fears humiliation, I had paid good money (actually my husband paid, as a Mother's Day gift), and I expected this to be, as they say in that new gym, a judgment-free zone.
The instructors and players welcomed me, and one of them recognized me from the newspaper. There was a woman wearing a tennis dress. The rest were in regular workout clothes.
We started the first drill — a round-robin, forehand-then-backhand kind of thing. It reminded me of so many kids' practices that I had observed from the parents' area.
But now it was my turn.
It mattered if I hit the ball from underneath or sideways, splat into the net.
I was told to plant my feet. Again. And again. To point my shoulder where I wanted the ball to go. To follow through on the long balls, but stop swinging when I played the net.
The instructors complimented me a tad too much, but they also corrected my mistakes.
I drank water when it was time, felt comfortable despite the heat, like a kid, in fact. But better than I had ever felt in sports during my own childhood.
I volleyed the ball a lot of times, missed it a lot of times, and tried to keep my language clean.
I felt embarrassed, and then embarrassed about being embarrassed. I flashed back to when a group of us women rented a beach house to celebrate turning 40. All of us were mothers, and the first night we all found it impossible to make a decision.
"Whatever you want," we would say until we felt like slapping ourselves for being such dolts.
That I felt so odd, so self-indulgent, so silly, getting sports instruction for my very own self, made me angrier still.
I took up tennis because, a year earlier at a vacation resort, I had watched a group of women older than me, in their 60s or 70s perhaps, playing doubles. With their leathery skin and white hair, they gave me hope.
Again, it took me a full year.
Forget about the calorie burn, I had two plates of ziti for dinner.
The next morning, I learned that my closest childhood friend, one of the beach house group, had congestive heart failure.
I took a mental inventory of her accomplishments, the executive positions she held and the family she supported. Compulsively, I Googled everything I could about her illness.
I kept thinking about tennis. How I regretted waiting so long.
And how I wish I'd taken the time to get better shoes.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or [email protected]