The Coming of Spring
Last week, I wandered back to the woods and hills of my childhood to share the familiar trails and memory-laden vistas with my best friend. Daffodils peered tentatively from the riverbanks, buttoned up tight, like us in our jackets, hopeful but unconvinced by the mild air. We New Englanders are wary celebrants, skittish whiplash survivors perpetually catapulted from giddy spring back to cruel winter.
As we dodged mud puddles in the parking lot of the trail head, the sunlight shimmered on the town tennis courts, stopping me in my tracks. A lone recreation department worker whistled as he installed new nets for the season. Scenes from my childhood came flooding back.
In my earliest memories, the raising of the tennis nets meant the arrival of spring. This was the day my mother and her best friends, — all of whom had been cooped up through endless baby- boom winters in houses bursting with four, five, and six children, took to the courts. When word burned through the Tennis Lady phone lines that the nets were up, all of us pre-schoolers were herded into seatbelt-less station wagons driven by mothers hurtling towards freedom. In the parking lot, they chirped and chattered like the returning chickadees as they loosened the screws of wooden tennis presses wound up tight for the winter. We doubles team descendants were corralled to a nearby sandbox. The giddy gaggle shed us as fast as their coats and raced to play.
Each year, a toddler new to the annual ritual would let out a futile whimper in protest of the sudden maternal exodus. The rest of us knew it was no good. Not whining, not wind, nor the lingering snow in the shadows of the back courts could block the allure of blue sky and the chance to whack the winter out of an unsuspecting tennis ball.
We bonded during those sandbox years until, one by one, we aged out to elementary school, replaced by a stream of younger siblings. When, finally, the youngest after-thought graduated to kindergarten, the tennis schedule became easier for our moms to plan. The weekly game endured and its resulting friendships became the background of our lives. These matches were more than just games. They were companionship, support, and joy in the face of life’s challenges. The resilience our mothers found in each other’s company was evident on the court. They gathered at the net to discuss gardens, recipes, kid crises, college decisions, wedding plans, and, eventually, grandchildren. And, oh, how they laughed! As Dad announced in his fortieth wedding anniversary toast to my mother in front of all of them, “The decades of friendship with these tennis ladies is what life is all about.”
In later years, raising my own kids nearby, I was sometimes asked to play as a substitute in the venerable group. By this point, the tennis warm-up was a mere interruption of the gathering at the net to share the week’s news and general hilarity. I remember, once, a group of intense, blonde, hard bodies on the next court whispering and shooting disdainful looks at the frivolity. They couldn’t know the noble spirit and persistence required by one of our group just to be there and how much her soul depended on it.
These were my mother’s best friends who sustained not only each other, but me, through the loss of their partner. At Mom’s service, they arranged the flower baskets and planned the food. They smiled and encouraged from the pews as they always had from the other side of the net.
The weekly games are no more but the joy they inspire renews me. I share my story with my friend and lean, like the loosening daffodils, full face to the sun.