Out come the brooms, mops, buckets, scrub brushes, paintbrushes, sandpaper, rakes, shovels, clippers. Out comes Stephanie Hamm, still stunning at 40, lush dark hair flowing over her shoulders. She's a rare cat. A prospective nun who became a ballerina. The eldest of 11 children, daughter of an Air Force pilot who grew up, like Mia, bouncing from town to town, determined to exhaust her love for dance and fulfill her mother's wish that one of her children become a nun or priest, dedicated to following her Aunt Margaret into a convent. Until, at 15, she met Bill Hamm and fell hard.
Somehow, the nun and the ballerina inside her survived the fall. Six children to raise, a home to pack in cardboard boxes and a new town to learn every few years: They aren't alibi enough for her conscience, aren't freedom from all those expectations. She sees her children off to school, spends the day on the phone or running around town gathering funds, food and clothing for another church campaign or community cause, making the house shine because what if someone comes to the door—what'll people think?—as she's preparing dinner, then rattling off instructions to Bill when he returns from the base and racing off to the theater to choreograph a recital or to perform, off to the dance studio to take or give lessons. She can't say no. She's too kind. If it's Wednesday during Lent, they'll eat peanut soup or potato meal or unseasoned rice and lentils, the blander the better, so the Hammies can learn what it's like to spoon down the grub that African children do, so they can swallow the family's prevailing ethic: You're no better than anyone else. We're all equals in a community, all responsible for one another. She hurries back at 10 p.m., brainstorming the church rummage sale that her children will captain that weekend, her eyes sweeping the floor to make sure the dinner crumbs were swept, because if not, they'll be in a pile on a plate at the offender's place at the table in the morning when the Hamms show up for their bowls of seven-grain gruel. Stephanie is the prettiest and trimmest, the most competent, selfless and giving mother a girl could have, but it's not enough. She doubts all of it. Every one of her mosts should be even more. If someone like that doesn't measure up, how can her daughters begin to think that they do?
It all crests one day when Mia's mom finds herself in a hospital bed. She's a fervent Catholic, ripping herself to pieces because she's just suffered a third-month miscarriage of a baby that, God forgive her, she secretly dreaded having, that she never should've conceived because four daughters and two recently adopted sons and a half-dozen charitable causes and a dancing career have left her feeling as if she's got nothing, God forgive her, left to give. A doctor enters the room and begins to gently chastise the woman on the next bed, scolding her about the abortion she's just undergone and the failure to be responsible about birth control, and the words pierce Stephanie's ripe conscience as if they were arrows targeted for her.
Suddenly Mia's mother is in charge of the Maternity Cottage, a Wichita Falls shelter for unmarried mothers who've been a little lax about birth control as well. Suddenly the Hamms are buying and gutting a dilapidated four-bedroom house, renovating it, maintaining the property, fund-raising to keep it afloat and inviting the spillover into their own home. Suddenly there are pregnant, unhappy strangers and their toddlers occupying what's left of Mia's mom's time and attention, not to mention her family's dinner table and the television set when Mia's favorite show is on. And no matter how much Mia respects her mother's golden heart and her father's generous spirit, she's a 12-year-old kid, for goodness' sake, who just wants to go home after a soccer game, wolf down a half-dozen chocolate-chip cookies that no Ethiopian kid'll ever lay eyes on, and play two-on-two hoops with the three guys on the next block. Instead she picks up a paint scraper and starts chipping away at the misery of the world.
Oh, boy. Here comes a grenade, rolling straight toward the Hamm house: a TV truck. Word's spread about this cute little 13-year-old gal on Notre Dame's junior high football team. That's worth both the six and 10 o'clock news, for sure, in North Texas in 1985.
Sure, her mom said, when Mia asked if she could play on the football team. Go for it, Mia. There's so much encouragement in this house. So much Reach for the stars, girl! But it's all beginning to grow confusing, sometimes even inside the white stripes. Guys who used to be fine about Mia's playing ball, after they saw she had the goods, aren't so fond of the idea now that the testosterone's kicking in and she's still beating them deep on fly patterns. Some have started singling her out, ridiculing her, steamrollering her. She doesn't sob inside the lines, though. You can't do that if you want to play with boys. Nobody bites her bottom lip better than Mia Hamm.
Play on girls' teams? She tried that once. She's just not like other girls. Some of her teammates layered on eye liner and mascara to play soccer. Some looked at boys during games. A few so resented her dominance that they stopped passing her the ball. She'd get it anyway, but how are you supposed to feel knocking some lipsticked center half off the ball and banging home your fourth of the day? She felt apologetic. She felt like the kid always raising her hand in class with the right answer, and so she pulled back sometimes, disappearing right in the middle of games.
The TV truck's nearly here. Mia's in her bedroom sobbing. Her mom's calling, Hey, Mia, you better pull it together fast. What'll people think? But she's flattened. Lovdy, avenging some previous sisterly atrocity, has just lowered the boom, the Hamm hammer, the clan's heaviest guilt mallet. "You think you're better than everyone else, don't you, Mia? Just because you're gonna be on TV, you think you're pretty hot. Well, you're arrogant." Mia? Mia hasn't puffed or crowed in her life, but ohmygod, if that's what people might think....
She's a Hamm. She does the right thing. She exits her room when the doorbell rings, and tries to be polite. She gives the microphone and camera a few monosyllables, so no one can possibly think that she thinks she's hot stuff. The family gathers around the TV that night when her big moment comes. Where in the world is Mia Hamm? Holed up in her room.
Let her stay there. She'll loathe this section of the story, about what a phenomenal soccer player she turns into, and how a small girl from a small town gets discovered. It's full of compliments, which are almost as painful to Mia as insults.