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The Manly Art of Armchair Sports

  • Lois Manton

Corps de l’article

On weekdays, our family ate in the kitchen, at the grey arborite and chrome table. Dinner together was mandatory. But Sunday dinner was a hallowed ritual; the grandparents came and we all sat around the enormous oak dining room table. Many people will remember those dark old beauties, chiseled along the edges, elephantine legs, sculpted in an attempt to add elegance. During the day, the table was graced with an ecru, crocheted cotton tablecloth, removed briefly so we could do our homework. It took all my strength to push my hard, heavy chair back into place. The extra chairs, those that didn’t fit around the table, were placed, soldier-like, on either side of the credenza that held all the precious table linens and the china tea cups, only brought out when we had “company.” I can still see my mother polishing that table. The rag was one of Dad’s old flannel shirts and the pungent smell of the wax lingers in my memory.

In my youth, people usually attended or participated in sports events. Saturday nights were the one departure, when a majority of Canadian men listened to hockey games on radio. Hockey Night in Canada began its broadcasts in 1933 and the voice of Foster Hewitt lulled many a Canadian baby to sleep.

The purchase of our first television, in the late 1950s, forever changed the family dinner tradition. Weekend dinners became a two-part event, not between courses but between venues. The main dish was served at the dinner table, then the men enjoyed dessert in the den, to the cries of Danny Gallivan calling the Saturday night hockey game. Mum and I did the dishes. Sunday dinners were now organized around football telecasts. Before a Big Game, Dad would be in and out of the kitchen, fretting that main dish time might encroach into game time.

After dinner and dishes, Mum and I would have coffee and chat in the front room, she with her knitting, me with my needlework. Coincidentally, just as we would take our cups to the kitchen sink, the men would bring in their mugs and pudding bowls from the den. By that time, they were invariably just a bit peckish and would mooch in the refrigerator for some little snack. Maybe a pickled egg or a wedge of cheese, a chocolate or perhaps two. These would bring on thirst that would require another trip to the refrigerator for a glass of milk or request for a pot of tea.

In between seasons, there was no dearth of sports. After the brief withdrawal period suffered between hockey and football seasons, the men took solace in the astonishing range of other events that television had to offer: baseball, curling, fencing and golf, basketball, billiards, boxing and bowling, rugby, soccer, tennis and polo. If the television offerings were bleak, they would be obliged to watch interminable cricket matches or real-time running marathons—but never figure skating, a woman’s sport. In desperate times, there were high school competitions.

Olympic Games were a particular affliction to the women. Mum abandoned formal meals entirely during the two-week Olympiads. We were subjected to endless qualifying rounds of sprints and sculling, slolams, sledding, and luging. Then there were the interminable bi-, tri-, and pentathlons.

There are several idiosyncrasies in the relationship between men and spectator sports, most notably the extraordinary impact on male appetites. The snack table in our den was something to behold. Strategically placed between Dad’s corduroy recliner and the plaid hide-a-bed where my long brother sprawled out, feet hanging over the end, the snack table held a dizzying array of treats: bags of chips, pretzels and potato sticks, tins of fruit drops and toffees, jars of pork rinds and dry-roasted peanuts, packets of caramels, mints, and wine gums. The moment the men awoke from their frequent naps, hands would reach out and grope for something to tide them over.

The language of manly sports is another curiosity. Calls of “unnecessary roughness” and “illegal interference” strike me as oxymoronic, but to the men in my family, they were cause for serious and sometimes heated discussion. But while the concepts of offsides, downs, punts, scrimmage, icing, spearing, blue-line penalties, checking, waivers, lateral passes, and draft picks will always elude me, I am surprised to find that I am warmed by these memories. The fragrance of Dad’s pipe, the image of Mum leaning against the door jamb, smoky curls engulfing her, the decimated snack table and the deafening cries of “he scored!” have become as precious to me as the venerable family dinner.

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