“Mens sana in corpore sano…”

“A healthy mind in a healthy body…”   The saying is derived from Latin poet Juvenal’s ‘Satire X’.

“It is to be prayed that the mind be sound in a sound body.

Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death, which places the length of life last among nature’s blessings

which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings, does not know anger, lusts for nothing and believes the hardships and savage labours of Hercules better

than

the satisfactions, feasts and feather bed of an Eastern king.

I will reveal what you are able to give yourself;

For certain, the one footpath of a tranquil life lies through virtue.”

The concept of “a healthy mind in a healthy body” was a leitmotiv that ran like a strong thread through much of my parents’ philosophy of child rearing. It influenced  very strongly my own beliefs regarding parenting.

This morning’s newspaper had a big headline – $22M PLAN AIMS TO MAKE ONE MILLION HEALTHIER IN B.C. and the subheading states – Victoria, health groups want to ‘create a new social norm’.  “Right now in British Columbia, only about half the population is considered at a healthy body weight, 20 per cent are smokers, 40 per cent are physically inactive and most – 60 per cent – don’t eat the recommended daily serving of fruit and vegetables.” Darah Hansen, Vancouver Sun.

My parents are both deceased, but I wondered today, how they each may have reacted to this news. They were strong believers in the fact that healthy ways of living were to be learned in the bosom of the family, and that these were best established by modelling desirable behaviors.  Sport was something they each enjoyed; our family’s sport was tennis and we spent many years on the courts. It was not government initiative that had us all spend many pleasurable hours hitting and chasing the fuzzy white balls.

At the nearby high school, there are two brand new ashphalt courts.  I drive by these often and very rarely see people playing there. So there these courts sit, largely unused. No groups of teenagers hang about there, socializing as they wait to take turns for their chance to play.

Tennis is the sport that never failed to make me feel good. It didn’t require expensive equipment and clothing, nor the payment for the privilege of playing, nor the need to travel long distances in order to take part in. It is an easily accessible sport which is as much fun to watch as it is to play. And it is an activity which can be done to a fairly advanced age.

This is my tennis story:

I don’t remember far enough into the past as to what age I was when Anyu and Apu first took Ildiko and me to the tennis courts in Gyor, our home town. As far as my memory ranges, it seems that we spent most Sundays afternoons, until daylight faded, en famille at the courts from May until October.

Our tennis outings began with a brisk half hour walk through town, Anyu and Apu setting the pace up ahead, and Ildiko and I trying to keep up with them while at the same time bouncing tennis balls. She and I didn’t have tennis raquets of our own, and the balls we were allowed to play with were a couple of worn hairless brick-coloured ones.

When we arrived, slightly out of breath, at the cinder fields which were surrounded by metal mesh fencing enclosed by a perimeter of tall shivering poplars,  I always thought of the place as an huge outdoor room, open to the blue sky with a red floor and flickering dark and light green walls.

Once we entered the cinder ground, Apu would place his racquet by an available court and begin to freshen up the white chalk lines which divided the playing area. Anyu always busied herself with setting the net to the correct height, while Ildiko and I fooled around well behind the base-line, dribbling our ratty balls, competeing with each other to see who could make the highest number of consequent dribbles. Once the court was ready for occupation Anyu took up her spot facing away from the sun, and opposite her Apu faced into the sun.  Ildiko squatted outside the side-line near the net.  It was her job to retrieve balls caught up there.  My place as ball-girl was behind the base-line, near the fencing, and here I scrambled around to pick up balls missed by Anyu and to return them to her when she needed them.

We never got a chance to take the racquets and play until well after Anyu and Apu were ready for a breather – and they were tough and played for extended periods. Then, as they sat on side benches, Ildiko and I took up their racquets and attempted to play against each other. We held the racquets incorrectly, grasping them near the head because they were too heavy for us if we held them properly. We chased around on the loose cinder surface and tried not to slip and fall down.  To slip and fall down meant skinned legs with bits of red cinders embedded in the scrapes, entirely unpleasant.

When Anyu and Apu decided to resume playing, we returned to our appointed spots, and carried on our roles. As we began to understand the rules of the game and proper scoring, Ildiko helped call accuracy of serves, and I delighted in yelling when balls overshot the baseline. Sometimes Anyu couldn’t see the accuracy of a shot, as she was engrossed and concentrated on returning the balls to Apu, so when I called the shot inside the line and she had missed it she would shoot me an irritated glance. If Ildiko called fault on a serve, she risked annoying Apu. Sometimes, they got fed up with our presence on the court and dismissed us to go and play with our balls anywhere but near them.  Of course this meant that we had to stay well clear of other adults playing on nearby courts.

At times like this we practiced bouncing the balls under our lifted legs and held competitions as to who could dribble their ball the longest time. When we got bored of this we went back and sat on the sidelines watching various pairs or foursomes playing. We didn’t know where the word “Lov” came from, and only knew that it was a word we recognized as a scoring word.  We learned that “Falt” meant the ball fell outside correct bounds. This was a secret tennis language to me; these words were only used on the tennis courts.  Very odd!

We were always so eager to play for just a few minutes allowed us with the racquets on the court.  This was a privilege granted us for good behavior while there.  I constantly badgered Anyu about when I might be old enough to have my own tennis racquet. She indicated that when Ildiko was ten, she would have her own one, and since I was nearly two years younger I would have a little longer to wait for my own. This wait seemed awfully far away in the future, but it was definitely something to look forward to.  I could hardly wait! Ildiko was eagerly anticipating turning ten.

It was not until I was fourteen and Ildiko was sixteen that Anyu and Apu were able to afford to buy used tennis racquets, in Canada. For a few years they shared theirs with us and took turns playing against each of us in turn. We did drills in forehands, backhands, lobs, volleys and serves; they were patient and devoted teachers. The buying of a new can of tennis ballls was a big deal; we played with balls until they became freyed messes and bounced in a soggy manner. Whenever Apu could afford it, he bought a new can of Spaldings.  I loved opening it by inserting the little pull-off key into the tab around the crimped rim and peel back a strip of the metal to open the lid; the first hiss of the breaking vacuum seal never failed to thrill; the  pickle smell of brand new tennis balls was a welcome familiar and the untouched fresh nap of white fuzz bounded by the smooth rubber seams promised some good sets to come.

When Ildiko was in grade 11, Apu bought her a wooden Dunlop racquet with gut strings and a tensioning clamp. She was a very good player and was the girls singles player on our high school tennnis team.  Anyu handed me down her own good wood racquet when she bought her new one.  I liked Anyu’s racquet as the grip was comfortable, I was used to it and the balance and weight of it seemed perfect for me.  I played girls doubles and mixed doubles on the school team. Ildiko and I played against each other several times a week for practice, and walked a fair distance to the courts nearest our house, each time.  We both loved the sport. I never  really liked playing on asphalt, but there were only asphalt courts in Canada, however one didn’t as easily slip on them as on the Hungarian cinder courts.

Since those early years, I have played on grass and clay courts as well.  Each type of court surface has its peculiarities, advantages, drawbacks and difficulties.  But it is the crumbly, red cinder court of my Hungarian home town which was the first playing field where my love and pleasure of tennis was planted. I may never again play tennis on a cinder court  but every sight of that particular red – stone, gravel or clay of a matte surface quality – prods memories of family tennis outings more than fifty years ago.

11 Responses to ““Mens sana in corpore sano…””

  1. mariacristina Says:

    “Tennis is the sport that never failed to make me feel good.” Your site is my go-to site for stories that make me feel good. The narrative and the details have a ways of making me feel centered, that all’s right with the world.

    Even though your parents couldn’t buy new racquets in the beginning, it didn’t matter: you all played and found your enjoyment where you could. That’s a good lesson for all of us.
    C.

  2. Enrique Says:

    Sports has a lingering effect: it continues to bring joy to us many years after. Did you compete a lot at school and did you win a lot of awards as a tennis player? I’m certain you did.
    I like your writing very much and love the Yukon too.
    Enrique

  3. Nita Says:

    The previous generation understood what was to be healthy – you learnt the importance of sports from your parents. I understood it too but unfortunately did not get into games much, was always a bit of a nerd! Or rather a bit of a rebel, resenting being pushed to play games by my father!
    But of late I have started gyming and exercising, and all those things that my father taught me are coming to the fore!

  4. suburbanlife Says:

    Christine – thanks for your kind comment. as you have experienced most likely as well, not being given something at the instant one wants, prolonged anticipation, adds to pleasure and enjoyment when the desired goal or object is reached. This is a lesson all of us living in an age of instant gratification might find useful to think on. G

  5. suburbanlife Says:

    Enrique – love of just being able to move is something which provides life-long pleasures. I did compete in school, but don’t really have a competitive spirit or need to excell and shine, so no, I was not an athletic star, but nonetheless was valued for my love of the sport and my desire to play to the best of my ability. I was a sort of understudy as singles payer to my older sister, who was really a fine tennis player, on our high school team – sort of the “always the bridemaid and never the bride” position, which suited me just as well. G

  6. suburbanlife Says:

    Nita – your having been a nerd at a younger age has served you very well; you have an inexhaustible curiosity about many facets of life and an academic’s approach to ferreting out relevant information; also a very creative manner of presenting the same so that it piques interest in others. So you had chosen to exercise a capability unique to you. But doesn’t it feel great to keep moving and using your body now, and maybe having a bit more leisure time to devote to that pleasure?
    Yes, our parents really had the major role in establishing attitudes in us all, in all areas of our pursuits. 🙂 G

  7. ybonesy Says:

    I just realized, I wrote a comment on this yesterday but it didn’t come through. I wanted to say that what struck me was how much your parents seemed to enjoy one another and being with their girls. How they characterized a certain love of outdoor sports — skiing, ice-skating in frozen ponds, hiking — that I tend to attribute to Europeans of their generation. And how playing tennis as a family was for a short time (when I was a kid, for example) somewhat en vogue but seems to have peetered out.

  8. Nita Says:

    Thanks, you have such a wondeful way of making the other person feel good and warm. Thats one of the things I love about you!

  9. Joe Felso Says:

    You capture the two things sport engenders in people—playfulness and determination. The just-goofing-around makes you appreciate the feel of exertion and the fun that can come of bouncing two nearly bald tennis balls, that can come, in other words, from nothing. At the same time, much of what I know about the value of walking far and working hard, and those labours of Hercules—the value of struggle generally——come from sport.

  10. the individual voice Says:

    A healthy mind in a healthy body. I like that.

  11. lookingforbeauty Says:

    As always, I admire your ability to capture the sights, sounds and smells of another time in such detail. This is a great post and I really loved your introductory passage.
    K

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