Blonde and vivacious, Maxine had a habit of throwing up her hands and laughing at herself whenever she lost steam or balance in the middle of an exercise. It was well over twenty years ago that she and her friend Honey, both then in their mid-fifties, came together to the first Pilates classes I ever taught. Those classes were held in a basement walkdown in a two-storey building (currently roped off for demolition) on Broadview Avenue in the Danforth neighbourhood of Toronto. I rented by the hour, which meant that I couldn’t store my equipment on site. I had to park at the nearby Sobeys grocery store, carry in the deflated balls, and blow them up each time with a handpump (a workout in itself). One day after class, Maxine, Honey and I were sitting on the large balls chatting, when Maxine told me about her devastating diagnosis—lung cancer. Honey hung back, rolling slowly back and forth on her ball, her eyes on the ground not on me. Maxine was positive, and determined to continue on with her daily activities and her Pilates classes. Honey cleared her throat and echoed her support. But in a startlingly few months – maybe just three – her dear friend was gone. Honey never returned to class after Maxine died.
Some months later, I moved out of that cramped basement into my first real studio—one where I paid by the month not the hour. The new location was on Albany Ave, the part of that street close to the railway tracks, in a warehouse shared with a plumbing business. I had 500 square feet of clean and carpeted space and an extra-high ceiling where 14 balls could be hung in hammocks. The new location had no dressing room or reception area (though it had a toilet and a small equipment closet). This was where Maxine’s mother, Judith, a spry woman of eighty, sought me out.
I’d warned Judith on the phone that there was no dressing room, but she appeared to have no qualms about changing behind the coat rack, as did most students. She was shorter and smaller than her daughter Maxine; her hair coiffured, her nails lacquered, and her back perfectly straight. As she set her high-heeled leather boots on the boot rack, she told me she was fit and active but had never done ball work before. She had heard about it from Maxine. And from her granddaughter, Sophie, Maxine’s only child, who occasionally attended my classes.
Judith spread out her mat and selected her ball as if on some important mission. At the time she was my oldest student, yet her posture was better than most. She seemed to have no apprehension about working out with a large unstable ball and I recall she did very well in class. She began to come twice a week to a workout I called Basic Ball. Grandmother and granddaughter sometimes came together, though Judith was by far the more regular of the two. Like Maxine, Judith liked to linger after class, and both had a wry sense of humour. She once asked me if I had ever heard wolves howl from my studio. What she was trying to say was why had I found such an isolated location to rent—a warehouse at the end of a quiet residential street flanked by a deserted parking lot, and a railway track. (I wondered what Maxine would’ve made of it—the perfect studio in an imperfect location). More than once an evening a train loudly shuddered past, shaking the old drafty windows and the balls in their hammocks. Often, Judith and I would stand talking near the glass door to the street outside. Sometimes as we chatted two pony-sized Great Danes would step out as if on parade from a toy-sized rowhouse across the street. We chuckled about that (and sometimes she repeated her wolf joke); and then we talked about Maxine.
Judith knew that her daughter, and her friend Honey, had been amongst my very first Pilates students. But what she didn’t know (and was touched to hear) was how Maxine had persuaded me to continue to work with balls.
Maxine had championed my ball work, and she had been very persuasive. ‘You have to think about how to market yourself,’ she’d said in a deep fierce voice, ‘how to slot yourself in.’ Maxine had the sort of piercing eyes that fixed on you while she spoke. I was still on the fence about using balls and had even received pushback from professionals in the business, purists who thought Pilates could not be taught with balls. Physio balls, as they were then called, were not as common as they are today and balls were not part of the traditional equipment associated with Pilates. Maxine convinced me that it didn’t matter who disapproved; I needed to strike out on my own and create my own niche. ‘Balls will make you stand out,’ she argued, ‘give you an edge.’ Judith nodded silently as I shared the words of her daughter.
Maxine never saw that quirky albeit beautiful space where my champagne-coloured balls hung from the ceiling, but her mother and her daughter did. Judith attended ball classes at the Albany location for a couple of years. Then one day after class we found ourselves alone and standing by the glass street door. Judith shielded her eyes from the fluorescent glare of the streetlight and told me she had cancer; not the same one as Maxine’s, but serious. She stood very upright, calm and brave; she was most worried for her granddaughter. The loss of both mother and grandmother in under five years would be too hard. I saw in Judith’s face the same determination as in her daughter’s. Yet her cancer was as swift. One day Sophie left a shaky message on my answering machine. ‘Nana is not coming to ball classes anymore.’
After her grandmother’s death, Sophie, petite and upright like her grandmother and blonde like her mother, tried to keep coming to class. She was always accompanied by a friend, someone I did not know. The two of them set up close to the corner where Judith had always placed her mat. The first time I felt off kilter, having Sophie there. Losing Judith reminded me of how I had felt after Maxine’s sudden death—how a sense of numb disbelief had made my throat swell up. After class, at the door, I stood with my arms crossed awkwardly over my chest, and politely asked her friend if he had enjoyed his class. The next week Sophie was back with a new companion. But she came only two or three more times. I reached out to her once or twice by phone, but she never returned to my ball classes.
I’m taking off three weeks for writing and research and my blog will return in mid-June.