With our tennis rackets strewn across the back seat, clinking like wine glasses with every bump in the road, we turn into the iconic public tennis center for our match. The Atlanta skyline peers over the horizon like a craning spectator in the cheap seats. A rush of childhood memories washes over me, accompanied by a faint smell of Rubico, the green, gritty surface of the thirteen clay courts. Built in the 1950’s on the outskirts of town, Bitsy Grant now occupies prime real estate in the heart of the city.

Despite renovations over the years, little has changed. The flat-roofed, glass-enclosed, two-story tennis center housing the locker rooms and sign-in desk reminds me of a building from the Jetson’s – modern in its day but merely endearing in the present. The chipped, forest green, metal stairway railing is whitewashed now, and a flat screen has replaced the RCA black and white television once precariously mounted three inches from the ceiling. The grainy, life-size portrait of Bitsy Grant, gripping a wooden racket and sliding with legs wide to reach a low ball, still hangs on the red brick wall along the stairs. Nicknamed for his 5’4” stature, Bitsy and his portrait actually remain larger than life in more ways than one.

In the sixties my sisters and I used to tumble out of the station wagon and race to see “Coach” as Mom and Dad gathered their thermoses and equipment for an afternoon of tennis. Bobby Dodd, as skillful on Court One as he once was coaching the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets from the fifty-yard line, was always there. If he wasn’t frustrating his opponents with his unorthodox lob between his legs or his finesse with soft but sharp-angled net shots on the court, he was cleaning house with his cronies at the card table upstairs. He and his gin-playing buddies always stopped mid-hand and acted like they’d waited all morning for us to arrive. After circling the card table with a hug for each neck, we left them to finish their hand.

Whisked outside and strictly instructed to play QUIETLY – there was, after all, decorum and tennis etiquette back then – we spent the next few hours in, under, and on top of the paint-stripped bleachers strategically placed in the middle of the courts. As beet-faced and sweaty as our tennis-playing parents after two hours, we came away with splinters from the weathered planks of seating and a new collection of Coca-Cola caps from underneath. In exchange for a dime clattering down its hollow throat, a Coke machine residing in the cave-like darkness beneath the bleachers relinquished the coldest soft drink in the city, well worth the risk of the real yellow jackets that swarmed over the 30-gallon barrel trashcan posing as a sidekick to the king of refreshment.

The Coke machine likely waited with the RCA on the curb years ago for the Atlanta City trash truck to squeal its hydraulic brakes to a stop for a pick-up, but a spirit of days-gone-by lives on at Bitsy Grant. I return to my car for a hairclip before my match and pass two white-haired gentlemen visiting in the parking lot. They look familiar. I wait for a lull in conversation and break in.

“Excuse me, I apologize for interrupting, but …”

“Are you Jerry Cates’s daughter?” one gentleman asks. “You look just like him.”

OK, Dad’s been gone since 2002 and probably had not played at Bitsy for a couple decades before that – these men hadn’t seen him in at least thirty years. The other gentleman interjects, “Do you know I am still living in the house your father built for me in 1963?”

Brimming with pride and a rush of old-home happiness, his next remark slams me back to earth like an overhead smash. “And you’re still playing tennis?” Ouch. I suppose we all stay spry in our own minds. Only others age… except at Bitsy Grant, which is timeless, as are its players.

My husband signals to me from Court 16 that we are up. I say goodbye and eye the water fountain mounted on the side of the building. I make a quick detour and gulp lustily from the weak spout, because maybe, just maybe, there’s something in the water. We do not come away with a win, but I am still smiling as I crawl into bed and wonder if my racket will hold out another thirty years.

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I grew up spinning rackets instead of flipping coins. Throughout my illustrious tennis career, my “Heads or Tails” was “M or W,” “p or d,” “Up or Down,” and even “Rough or Smooth,” depending on whether the knot tying off the cat gut strings on my wooden racket landed right-side-up or face-down. I spun my weapon with a flourish, delaying the first serve of the match by at least two seconds. Even after the racket fell to the court, the decision hung in the air; whoever won the toss could then decide whether to serve or receive. Life is full of choices.

When matched against a particularly tough opponent, I eventually discovered that points lasted longer and more often fell my way when I pretended to beg for the ball rather than cower from its power. With feet wide, knees bent, and grip tight in anticipation of the serve, I learned to erase her previous aces from my memory and silently chant, “Give it to me; I want this ball.” Rather than chastise myself for the countless times I forfeited two game points and found myself back at deuce, I pretended for the moment that it was I who had been down and had fought my way back with a chance to take the game. The inner coach in me was clapping instead of cussing, and I was inspired. Tennis is so mental.

Life is too. I have choices to make all day long. When my “Check Engine Light” comes on for the fourth time in as many months, I can bump the Road Rage meter to a new level, or I can remind myself that I am one of less than ten percent of the people in the world who own a car, and I am able to have repairs made. When I am supposed to meet my dad at Waffle House for breakfast and instead receive a knock on the door at 5:00 am to hear that he has lost his life the night before in a single car accident, I can shake my fist at God and swear how cruel life is, or I can revel (later) that I had no regrets as far as the time I spent with him. I told him as often as I could that I loved him, and he told me the same. He feared growing old, and he didn’t.

One of the gifts he gave my sister was a coin that he had fashioned into a medallion which she wears around her neck. What a wonderful reminder of choices we must make a hundred times a day. The heads and the tails can also be read as positive and negative, doubt and trust, and even grace and truth. Choosing which side faces up directly affects our attitudes, our moods, and our relationships.

There is no such thing as a one-sided coin. We always have a choice.

            I used to look at women in their fifties and feel sorry for them. What was I thinking? This decade could possibly be the best, but then again, I haven’t experienced all of them yet.

            For starters, I’m blessed with good genes, which means I can hardly keep up with my mom. Whether I reach her on her cell phone, through email, or by successfully flagging down her sporty convertible, I can still tell her about my day, my plans, and my mess-ups. If we’re not laughing at or with each other, she still makes most things all better for her daughter.

            I flip the coin over, and I’m the mom. My children have escaped the gauntlet of childhood, unscathed save for a few faint scabs-turned-scars. Although the house no longer vibrates with the deep bass of loud music or hums with the constant spin cycle in the laundry room, they call and they text, and when they come home they plop down with a glass of tea or a lime-topped Corona, and we enjoy each other as friends.

            Perhaps because I am a middle child, I revel in being bookended. No matter which direction I face, I make memories, learn lessons, and laugh a lot. My children and my mom keep me young. The best part of the sandwich? I share the middle with my husband. We’re the meat and the cheese – he’s tender, rare, and a cut above. I guess that makes me…American.

The red and white striped tarp covered the mound of luggage on top of our wood-paneled station wagon as Dad began feeding the nylon rope through the brass rings at each corner and securing the neatly stacked suitcases between the racks. Within moments he transformed the image of a flag draped casket into an oversized, slightly odd-shaped present. Our annual week at the beach had finally arrived.

My favorite part of the interminable ten-hour drive was when my bleary-eyed father handed off the driving duties to my mom. Dad crawled into the back where all the seats were lowered, long before car seat laws, to create a flatbed. He stuffed a pillow behind his head and stretched out the length of the car. His six daughters scrambled for position, nestling in alongside some part of his long, lean body. The prime spots, of course, were tucked up under either shoulder.

Once settled, he began his stories, the same ones summer after summer, but I’d have felt cheated if he’d left one out – kind of like going to a James Taylor concert and not hearing “Fire and Rain.” The adventures he recounted as a boy with his twin brother competed with Spanky and his gang and ramped up to equally enthralling tales as he reached puberty and college-aged antics. Sleeping in a house under construction only to find their sleeping bags glued to the newly varnished floors the next morning captivated us as much as the nail biting accounts of fighting forest fires in Alaska between semesters at Duke. The “How many more miles” question took on a different meaning in our car; we didn’t want the drive to end.

My dad’s mantra was “You are the sum of all your experiences.” His life added up to a multi-digit number. I swallow hard these days as a mother of grown children. Times have changed. The world is smaller but at the same time more daunting. At twenty-two, my daughter laid her diploma gently in her desk drawer and flew to Italy, where she lived and worked for a year. My oldest son is currently a pig farmer in New Zealand. My next soon-to-be college graduate prefers his home country but constantly creates out-of-this-world fun with high school kids he mentors. My youngest is renewing his passport to spend part of the summer in Kenya, geo-tagging motorcycles for pastors who will be able to cover their villages more efficiently. He’ll then write their stories and publish them on the non-profit’s website.

I smile when I think of my children as future parents and of their kids hanging on their every word. I hope the gift of oral history never dies. The process extends far beyond the transfer of information. I don’t know how car seats and seatbelt laws will hinder the process, but I do suppose everyone will be safer, at least on trips to the beach.

The truck circled the cul de sac and slowed to a stop along the curb. The ladders on top skimmed our maple tree that had recently burst into dusty rose-colored flowers. The jostled branches released a gentle torrent of petals, the ones my sister and I used to call helicopters as they spun to the ground averting our outstretched hands. I waited for the young repairman to ring the bell before I opened the door to usher him through the house and out back to the chimney. I shaded my eyes with one hand and squinted into the bright sky, pointing out the rotting corner boards. He followed my gaze to the roofline, but every time I turned toward him to confirm we were looking at the same thing, he was looking at me.

The third time, he shook his head and apologetically said, “I am sorry, but you just look so familiar.”

He was easily twenty years my junior and spoke with an accent born across one ocean if not two. I politely shrugged and offered, “I’m not sure how we would know each other.”

Fishing for common ground, he persisted with a few questions. Slowly his eyes grew wide. “I think I stayed in your home; it would have been maybe fifteen years ago.”

“What?” I offered a placating smile and wondered whether I should argue the unlikelihood or just let him believe what he wanted.

Visibly excited, he said, “I am from Kosovo.”

Memories of an overwhelmed family huddling together as they toted their life’s belongings in one bag apiece into our home flooded my mind. “Oh my gosh! Your brother Roma and your sister Ariana.” I threw my arms around Ben’s neck.

Escaping a war torn country, his family last glimpsed their own home in Kosovo as it blew up. The unlikely band of political refugees arrived in America with no home, no jobs, and no English. Ben’s parents, his grandparents, his two siblings, and he stayed with us for several days while their church-sponsored apartment was made ready. We taught them how the hot and cold spigots worked in the shower, how to reach up under the lampshade to turn the light on, and how to run the washing machine. Ben’s grandmother tapped her clenched hands together in a game of charades until I figured out that she wanted to knit. After a trip to Walmart for several skeins of yarn and a pair of needles, she relaxed for the first time and presented a sweater for my daughter that same night.

Over the ensuing months, we enjoyed a meal here and a Braves game there but eventually lost touch. Now fifteen years later Ben, who obliged his boss one afternoon by offering to provide an estimate far outside his territory, met me again at my door in a different home and in a different city. As we made the connection and I barraged him with questions, he beamed as he told me they are now American citizens; he had quite literally climbed the ladder to success. His company did repair our chimney, but he will be making at least one more trip to the house. He, his wife, his two children, his parents, his siblings, and their families are coming for dinner next week, and I can’t wait.

I cry as easily as I laugh; neither takes much. I used to tear up at Kodak and Coke commercials, and my kids still rib me for crying at Air Bud. I find most jokes funny, especially my own, and I don’t mind embellishing a story if the addition adds humor or provides a slightly different angle from the last time I told it.

My life bleeds into my pen. Heeding the advice Jo Marsh received in Little Women, I write what I know – what makes me ache, what makes me cackle, what empties me, and what fills me. I write what I would love to read; I think most writers do.

We plod along a line that makes its first chalky mark the day we are born and continues, however straight or squiggly, until we take our last breath. Writers nudge us off our timelines, tripping us up on experiences and discoveries of people and worlds other than our own. Their stories, true or imagined, catapult us backwards, forwards, into blinding light, and sometimes into the deepest black, but seldom are they a mirror of our own lives.

A close friend told me he doesn’t read fiction because he considers it frivolous. Life’s too short, he says, and he’d rather learn from biographies, historical events, and devotionals, enriching himself to be a better man. Good novels accomplish no less. The more fiction I inhale, the better I understand the human condition, the more compassion I develop, and the greater conviction I face. To step into a poor family’s cabin in a West Virginia holler or a ninety-year-old’s nursing home through the pages of a novel cracks the protective shell I’ve developed throughout a blessed and privileged life. Light shines through, sometimes searing, sometimes seeping, but I always see more clearly.

I write to provide another flame by which readers might see outside themselves. My spark might flicker, it might ignite a bonfire, or it might only emit the sulfur-like smell that shoots up your nose when a match fails to light. When all my matches run out, though, I will find another matchbook, and I will strike again.