Mothers who kick butt

How a peace-loving mom stopped worrying and learned to love her fists.

Published January 11, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

My new accessories are beautiful -- red and white, with a slightly pebbled, leathery finish and a sharp new smell. I am ridiculously pleased when I slip them on and fasten the straps. They feel bouncy, sexy, outrageous. It's the same feeling that new sneakers always gave me when I was a kid -- I just knew that I could run faster, jump higher and fly like the wind as soon as I tied them on.

But this time it isn't new shoes I'm admiring. I've just bought myself a pair of boxing gloves.

My husband and kids are still trying to figure this out. Hell, I'm still trying to figure this out. I'm the family peacemaker. I'm the one who forbids our son and daughter to have toy guns and Power Ranger figures, or to watch Angry Beaver cartoons on television. I'm the one who thinks football is too violent, who won't let even the 11-year-old watch "Batman" and who refused to make toast for a week after the kids nibbled it into gun shapes to shoot at our two cats.

So they aren't sure what to make of it when they see me lovingly pack my boxing gloves into my backpack when it's time for sparring class, or watch as I carefully dry and air them, their inner padding impressively sweat-soaked, when I get back home from kickboxing.

In the kitchen after a class, I execute a quick right hook for my son while I whisk salad dressing for dinner and do a couple of fast side kicks before I put the rolls in the oven.

"That's really good, Mom," he says.

He looks embarrassed for me. I think he must wonder why his mom can't put on a nice leotard and do yoga or aerobics, like the other moms. Sometimes I wonder the same things myself.

I've decided to chalk it up to my granny. That's right, my tiny Southern grandmother, who died almost 20 years ago.

Granny was a fight fan. On Saturdays she tidied her house, fed her French poodle and laid out her Bible and her hymnal for church the next day. She swept her yard so clean that grass didn't dare grow in it, put on a flowered shirtdress, dabbed White Shoulders cologne behind her ears and stocked her capacious handbag with a lace-edged handkerchief, a cardboard fan with a funeral home ad on one side and a picture of an airbrushed, blue-eyed Jesus on the other side, and a pack of unfiltered Marlboro cigarettes.

Then Granny would wait on the porch swing in the cooling air of the summer evening for her cousin Brown to pull up in his car and take her to the fights in Knoxville. Once there, they would watch a variety of men in boxer shorts pound each other into salsa for three hours. Then Brown would bring her home again, walk her to the door and make sure she latched her door safely before he left.

Her friends were not so much horrified by this weekly ritual as they were simply confused. They couldn't make this fit with their picture of their friend May. It didn't go with the Sunday school lessons she taught every week, with the flower arranging she enjoyed, with collecting the tiny, girlish treasures she stowed in a special drawer for my sister and me to find when we visited. And that, I think, was the attraction for her.

Living alone in a tiny town in east Tennessee, where everyone had known her for 65 years, Granny bristled against being pigeonholed and railed against being thought of as just another little old lady.

I, too, live in a pretty conservative small town, one in which we tend to compartmentalize and stereotype one another. And I don't always like that part of living here.

It would never occur to me to arrange flowers, to collect porcelain whatnots, or -- let's face it -- to go to church. Nevertheless, like Granny, I lead a quiet, unassuming life.

But when the town's recreation department flier arrived one day, offering beginning kickboxing classes, I found the idea strangely appealing. Perhaps this was because it was the last thing on earth anyone -- me included -- would expect me to do. I was the first one to sign up and I showed up 10 minutes early on the night of the first class.

Twenty minutes later I decided I was out of my cotton-picking mind.

Too many years of sitting in my desk chair had taken their toll. The first night of class I couldn't do a push-up. Not one. Couldn't even do a jumping jack.

After 10 minutes of kicking and punching at myself in the studio mirror I had serious doubts about the teacher's judgment in choosing "Don't Fear the Reaper" as workout music. Playing a song with the line: "Another 40,000 going every day" to a group of middle-aged women who were looking like poster children for an apoplexy foundation seemed ill-advised at best. I tried to calculate how long it would take paramedics to arrive at the gym.

But I made it.

The next day I hurt in places where I hadn't known I had places. But two nights later I was back -- bobbing and weaving, swaying and sweating, swinging at the reflection of my own flabby jawline in the mirror as I uppercut and hammer-punched my image. A month later I could do real jumping jacks. Two months later I could do a whole set of 40 or 50. And by the end of the first three-month session I could do 30 push-ups -- not the girl kind, propped on my knees -- but realio-trulio hands-and-toes pushups.

I started going three times a week. I dropped three sizes and lost 20 pounds without dieting.

A few months later, the kickboxing instructor announced that he was putting together a weekly sparring class. "You should come," he said. "It's a much better workout and it's a lot of fun. You're ready for a new challenge."

Maybe I was. But hitting people? And getting hit? I had literally never hit anyone in my entire life.

"Give it a shot," he coaxed. "You can try three classes before you have to buy your own gear."

What would my family say when I, the knee-jerk peacenik, announced that -- although they still couldn't have any plastic swords -- I was going to put on boxing gloves and the kind of helmet usually reserved for psychotic, head-banging children, then go hit people for an hour once a week?

I could say it was good exercise. This would have been true. But it wouldn't have been the whole truth. The whole truth was that it sounded like a blast. And that I wanted to see whether I was up to the challenge of something totally outside my usual domain, something that no one expected someone like me to be good at.

Turns out it is. Turns out I am.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of landing a really well-placed punch. I feel competent and invincible. I feel tough -- despite the fact that more well-placed punches are landed on me than I land on others.

And my family?

I didn't fool them for a moment. "It's OK, Mom," the kids said. "We never really believed you were all that peaceful anyway."

So this one -- right right left left hammer hammer -- is for the kids. Here's hoping that they'll turn out as tough as their mother, and still be able to keep the peace. And this one -- upper upper hook hook kick kick -- is for you, Granny. Thanks, girlfriend.

By Nancy W. Hall

Nancy W. Hall is a freelance writer. She lives in Madison, Conn.

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