Feeling the burn

OK, women. Raise your hand if you always got picked last in school sports. I’ll be raising mine just as soon as I finish this last bite of pastry.

I’m not saying I was a complete failure in sports. I mean, I did very well in seventh-grade gym class, during the square-dancing segment. I do-si-do’d with the best of them, blocking out past traumas of balls flying at my face (I meant to pitch it away from myself) and being redirected toward the correct end of the field in hockey by a gym teacher’s insistent whistle. Apparently each team has its own goal. But with that brief intro to dancing, those good chemicals kicked in. Happy – flushed – for the first time I associated exercise with what is now termed “feel the burn.” Whether it was from the exercise itself, as I allemanded left-to-the-corner, or from the boys I connected with, I’ll never know. Inner arm to inner arm, pheromones flew around in a swirl of swing-your-partner for two weeks until the class separated per gender and I found myself, once again, lost on a field, catching an occasional mosquito but never the softball.

But that didn’t stop me from striving toward improvement. I eventually developed a small but impressive skill set: I can sprint across a Starbucks lobby faster than a gazelle. Other than that, I marvel at those women who really “have it” when it comes to sports. My mother-in-law, a lifelong athlete, is one of them.

She’s in Maine visiting, accompanied by Ted’s siblings, Sue and Rob. To clarify, my mother-in-law’s name is Margaret, but her nickname is Muggsie. If that name doesn’t say “Champ,” what does?

It’s almost suppertime. Take-out pizza’s heating up. I’m making a salad. I ask her about her high school days playing sports.

“Well, I played the usual stuff,” Muggsie says.

“Softball?” I ask.

“No. Baseball. We didn’t have softball,” she says.

“Were there tryouts?” I ask.

Now, Rob and Sue chime in: “There were only six kids in her graduating class!” and “only 30 students in the whole school.”

Ted sits back, quietly looking around. Oh. He smells the pizza.

“No tryouts,” Muggsie says, above the chatter. “Heck, I owned the place.”

“What other sports did you play?” I ask, trying to figure out how there could possibly have been enough team players to compete. I mean, one kid stays home sick and …

Muggsie manages one word – “basketball” – but it’s too late. Like frenzied fans in bleachers, everyone is interrupting, laughing, shrieking, and Sue begins counting out how many of the school’s 30 students were Muggsie’s own siblings and cousins.

Sue: “There was Aunt Ann …”

Me: “Muggsie, did you have uniforms?”

She sighs. “Seems to me towards the end we had shirts that distinguished us from the other team.”

Ted: “As opposed to no shirts, which would also have distinguished you from the other team.”

Sue: “… and Aunt Virginia …”

Now ignoring us, Muggsie, at almost 100 years old, starts doing leg raises. I look down at my flabby thighs.

Ted: “Mom, basketball practice was held in a room above the library, right?”

Muggsie: “Right. We didn’t have a gym.”

I picture this, trying not to giggle. Everyone’s talking at once.

Me: “It must’ve been hard on the kids studying. All those bouncing-”

Muggsie: “Shhhh!”

Me: “Exactly. That librarian must’ve been exhausted.”

Sue: “… and Uncle John …”

Poor Muggsie. We are trying to control ourselves. We really are. But the chaos continues rapid-fire. No one can believe her class was so small.

“Mom, where did you rank academically with your peers? Top Ten?”

“What’d you do for refreshments at the senior prom? Share a sandwich?”

I set down the salad and plates, Rob hands out silverware and pours lemonade, Sue fetches the piping hot pizza from the oven and I ask: “Muggsie? Just wondering. When you girls competed in basketball, did you take turns running to the sidelines to give a quick cheer for the team?”

Friends, here where my mother-in-law sits across the table from me, having traveled 300 miles to visit us, here where we gather for chat and good food, this is where I finally have a glimpse, a tiny remembrance of so long ago, when I “felt the burn.” And now I experience a failed athlete’s dream-of-a-lifetime come true. Right here in my own dining room, ol’ Mighty-Arm Muggs springs from her chair, her arm sweeping through the air in my direction.

And me? The kid that nobody wanted on their team? I reach up and lean in, just in time to catch that slice of unbelievably hot gourmet veggie-no-mushroom pizza in my hand. Just inches before it lands on my face.

Slam dunk and batter out.

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