March Madness and my Mom’s Magnanimous Matrimonial Model

basketballMarch Madness is an annual holiday at my house.  My son sent out a family text reminder yesterday to everyone to set up their brackets.  My husband has trained all 7 of his children to care about basketball (or die).  It has been a source of fun and frustration in my home for years.

When my oldest son was 13, my husband quietly hung a poster-sized photo in his room.  The photo was one his own father had taken of him making a shot at a state championship basketball game a few decades earlier.  He waited.  After several days with no response from my son, my husband asked, “Did I see a picture hanging in your room of an amazing athlete shooting a basket?”  My son, unimpressed and teenagery, replied, “I don’t know about that, but there’s a picture of some weirdo wearing basketball shorts that are too short.”

The culture permeates every aspect of family life.  In a recent family charades game, my husband picked out a slip of paper and started gesturing wildly, jumping with a hip-contorting sideways motion, arms over his head.  Everyone in the room looked confused, except my youngest son, who yelled out, “Larry Bird!”  “What the heck?  How did you get Larry Bird from that?” I asked.  My husband looked surprised that I wouldn’t know.  “That’s his shot…he’s famous for it,” he explained, sparing me the word, “OBVIOUSLY!”  “Oh….Yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes at my future daughter-in-law, “How did I miss that?”

Until my husband tore a ligament in his foot about a decade ago, and was completely grounded for over a year, basketball was his main escape.  He was either playing, coaching or watching.  I think he had more fun coaching his son’s championship team than winning anything himself, even though I have accused him of trying to relive his glory days’ state championship game through his children.  It’s one of the few things he gets intense about.

My son of the championship team walked in the door from a game his father coached, tattling, “Mom, dad  got kicked out of the game.”  “Really?” I was shocked.  My calm husband is not someone who typically gets riled up…unless it involves basketball…and he’s “had it up to here with the horrible calls.”    He’s completely okay and understanding with anything his kids do…unless any of them have “an ugly shot,” which is unforgivable.  He will say I’m exaggerating.  I say, ask his children.   Once, when the kids wanted to go see a movie with a Disney actor playing the part of a basketball player, my husband refused, because, “There’s nothing more painful than having to sit and watch an actor who doesn’t know how to play basketball pretend to be a basketball player.”

I should have known.  I had a foreshadowing the first time I told him I loved him, 6 months after we met.  From a few weeks after we met until March Madness 1987, he was at least weekly declaring his love and intent to marry me, but I had no interest in getting serious.  Finally, after a lot of internal struggle, because I liked him but didn’t want a long-term relationship, but couldn’t stand the thought of losing him either, I sat down next to him on the couch in his apartment and haltingly said, “I’ve been thinking a lot…and we have a lot in common….and we want the same things for our future and family…and I guess what I’m trying to say is….I think I love you.”  He sat staring straight ahead at the television set, which was broadcasting a very important basketball game.  I said, “Hello?  Did you hear what I just said?”  He glanced at me and gestured toward the TV, “Did you see that dunk?!!” He asked.

“OK, see you later,” I said, standing up to leave.  He grabbed my arm, laughing.  “Wait.  It’s just taking a minute to sink in.  You’ve been rejecting me for months.  I’m not sure I believe you.”  Over the years, “Did you see that dunk?” has become a tagline for one of us to recite if we feel ignored.

I know from marriage therapy experience that I’m not the only wife who is a basketball widow, at least during March.  My mother is gone now, but she set a great example for me that I have not taken to heart.  When my husband says, “Why can’t you be more like your mother?” he is referring to my mother’s ability to talk sports with him every time we visited.  She always knew what was happening in the sports world, and it was rather impressive, especially considering her age.  My husband used to sit and talk sports with her like she was one of his buddies.

Except I’m not her.

My mother told me that if she wanted to have a conversation with my father, she needed to be able to sports speak.  She read everything she could and paid attention.  My father had season tickets to the Dodgers, and it dominated a large part of my childhood.  I remember being at the 1977 World Series, heart-broken when Mr. October led the Yankees to victory in our home stadium.  Despite the exposure and my mother’s consistent chatter about various players in the news, I never quite adopted her authentic enthusiasm and motivation to be sports literate.

However, I think my mom’s attitude was a great example for marriage.  Instead of whining that my father cared more about sports than her, she tried to speak his language.  My father loved my mother.  He was devastated when she died.  He did so many things for her to make her life better, and I’m certain that her willingness to take part in his interests motivated him to meet her more than half way.

In a culture of individualism, I don’t think my mother’s philosophy is very popular.  I can imagine a rebuttal, accusing my mother of “losing herself,” for someone else, or the more egregious “forfeiting her identity completely.”  However, my mother didn’t lose anything.  She gained a trustworthy companion whose joy was her own and vice-versa.  She secured an enduring connection with her romantic life-partner.

Maybe this will be the year that I follow my mother’s example and really learn basketball speak.  I made a deal with my husband that I will…but only if he brings back the short basketball shorts…along with the Larry Bird move…and a slam dunk.

It’s a small price to pay to see that winning combination…and the look on my son’s face.

Photo credit: Copyright: antoniodiaz / 123RF Stock Photo

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