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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The Hemingway Connection

Hemingway believed his writings would assure literary immortality. He had not foreseen a time of dismantling labels: misogynist, war monger, hunter/bull fight lover, animal rights foe. I, however, have not abandoned Ernest, and one long library shelf is dedicated to Papa Hemingway: 15 books of novels, short story collections, journalism, poems, and critical works. For years in classrooms, a young woman in love with Papa, I showed the Chet Huntley narrated documentary made on Hemingway in the late 50s. My own literary love of him had begun the 1958 summer I read Old Man and the Sea: experienced Santiago's test of courage and endurance, felt his determination not to be defeated by forces against him, and envied his fortitude. Ironic that by then, I had come to regard myself as a quitter and despised hearing my father say, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

At fifteen I did not understand my internal war: of wanting to please Father while wanting to spite him. In retrospect it seems obvious. I began tennis when Mother almost died at age 38. No twins, just two operations that left her barren, bitter, and unavailable. My father approaching 50 must have felt some mid-life disappointments. In his youth he had dreamed of being a tennis champion. Could his daughter be one, another Little Mo? In fifth grade I turned to Father for attention, took tennis lessons, threw myself into the sport, willing to be what he hoped I might be. Yet I was a dreamy child who lived in imaginary worlds and liked to wander the seashore collecting shells and loved spending an entire day in the library. The summer I was fifteen and read Santiago's story, I had heard Billy Jean Moffitt declare she was going to be the best woman tennis player in the world. A singular dream and pursuit; a willingness to wholeheartedly enter the world of competition, of winners and losers, and focus only on tennis.

By sixteen my tennis collapsed. My Romanian coach did not understand what had happened. My father gave up on me, too. Yet a year later I tried to stage a comeback: worked my junior year after school in a sporting goods store to earn enough money for the Pacific Southwest two-month tour from San Francisco to Canada, which would give me a chance to play on grass and clay, and to claw my way back to a high ranking. In my first match at the National Hardcourts in Burlingame outside San Francisco I fell, which is something I had never done before on a tennis court. I broke all five metatarsal bones in my left foot, finished the match and even won. Two days later with a cast on my foot I boarded a train for Los Angeles. At the exact hour I fell, my father was vomiting blood in a strawberry field near Newport Beach. Then, hours later in a life-saving surgery, half of his stomach was removed. A fortuitous fall for me. Mother worked, and I was needed at home to care for Father that summer of 1960. More than this, the accident gave me an excuse to quit competitive tennis. Not that I ever really stopped. In college I played tennis for USC, taught the sport for years, even met husband Mike in 1967 when we were both instructors at Montecito-Sequoia, a posh girls' camp in California.

Now, I appreciate that everything in my life is strung, in one way or another, to tennis; and I pay tribute to Father, and deeply dread the day I will no longer be able to feel the joy of hitting tennis balls. But what's tennis got to do with Hemingway?

The summer I read Old Man and the Sea, a new desire arose; that one day I would be a storyteller, use words as my instrument to better understand life, and seriously study literature. My senior year in high school, when I was no longer competing in tennis tournaments, I had open eyes and ears for a brilliant English teacher. And Mr. Hines at Fullerton High introduced me to writers like Thomas Hardy. Next week, The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Post script: Years ago I gave a lecture on Ernest Hemingway in a course that included F.Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos, who had lived in the Northern Neck of Virginia. If anyone would like to receive the lecture via a file on e-mail, please let me know.

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