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Gabi Rose, 45
Rachel Rosenthal, 13
Pembroke Pines, Florida
Six years ago, when Gabi Rose enrolled her 7-year-old daughter, Rachel, in tennis classes, she had no illusions about creating the next Serena Williams.
The twice-weekly lessons, which had been suggested by Rachel's school counselor as a way to help the girl focus, were more like a last-ditch effort. Rachel was having regular meltdowns in the classroom and her grades had plummeted. The unacknowledged culprit behind the behavior? Her weight, a problem she had in common with her mother. Rachel, a second-grader, was so heavy she bought her jeans in the women's department, while Gabi weighed nearly 260 pounds.
At first Rachel was the slowest player on the court and regularly broke into tears. But with her mom on the sidelines, shouting encouragement, she gradually stopped dreading her lessons. "I started to hit more and to follow what the coaches said," Rachel says. Best of all, she lost weight -- 50 pounds in all.
Most of Rachel's teammates were enrolled in the class because they had parents who were tennis fanatics. Gabi, on the other hand, had never even swung a racket. But she was soon inspired by her daughter's success. "Tennis transformed Rachel so completely that I decided I should learn," she says. "I joined a beginner class and ended up liking it." Before long her husband and another of the couple's four children took up the game, and the family began spending Saturdays on the court.
Now 130 pounds, Gabi plays tennis every week, but she's no match for Rachel. The seventh-grade honors student competes with a college-level tennis team that practices four hours a day. The upshot? Gabi can't even get to the balls Rachel slams across the net. But she still loves to try.
Deborah Asberry, 51
Lauren Asberry, 20
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
The first time Lauren Asberry pushed the screenplay she'd just finished into her mother's hands, Deborah Asberry didn't have time to read it. A divorced mother of five, Deborah was trying to start two new businesses and care for a son with autism. Poring over a script for a futuristic animated fairy tale was not on the schedule. But after weeks of Lauren's nudging, Deborah sat down with the manuscript. "I was like, 'Wow, this is good -- Pixar should do it!' "
Deborah always knew her children were creative. When they were young she lulled them to sleep with made-up adventure stories, then watched approvingly as the older kids invented tales to tell the younger ones. "A vivid imagination was a prerequisite to being in our family," she says. Deborah, a journalism major in college, had put her own writing ambitions on the back burner for years -- until she read Lauren's script. "It got me thinking about plays I'd started." She was also inspired by Lauren's discipline: The teen would crawl out of bed at 6 every morning to crank out a few hundred words on the family's single computer. "I thought, 'She did it, why can't I?'"
Now, for the first time in 30 years, Deborah is working on a play she started back in college. She's optimistic about Lauren's prospects but believes just as firmly in her own. Even critiquing each other's work -- often a parent-teen minefield -- has bonded them. "My mom's a great critic because she's always honest," says Lauren. "She'll say, 'Okay, this part is terrible.' Working with her has not only brought us closer, it's given me a thicker skin."
Karen Paxton, 46
Rachel Paxton, 19
In her tiny dorm room at Brigham Young University in Utah, Rachel Paxton pushes all the furniture against the wall, then Skypes her mother, Karen Paxton, in Ames, Iowa. With Karen watching via webcam, Rachel performs an entire four-minute Zumba routine she's just learned. Within a week, Karen will be demonstrating the same moves in the Zumba classes she teaches at a health club in Ames. "Our system is kind of ridiculous," says Rachel, "but it works."
Karen is used to following her daughter's lead when it comes to this Latin dance–inspired workout. She first got hooked on Zumba in December 2009 when Rachel dragged Karen to a free class at a local rec center. Karen found the moves surprisingly easy, so when their health club began offering Zumba workouts, she and Rachel signed up for a class. "My daughter throws herself into it, so you can't stand next to her and do it halfway," Karen says.
What Rachel didn't know was that Karen had always dreamed about being a fitness instructor. "But I didn't know how to enter that whole world," she says. "I'm not exactly a size 4." So she was thrilled when, a month after her first class, her Zumba teacher asked if she'd consider training as an instructor. "When I told Rachel, she said, 'You have to do it!'" Karen began teaching just after dropping Rachel off at college last fall; now Rachel Skypes almost every week with dance moves. Karen loves her new job. "I am so happy," she says, "and I would never have done this without Rachel's telling me that I am not too old, too curvy, or too frumpy to follow a dream."
Thea Miller Ryan, 45
Maddy Ryan, 16
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Blame Project Runway. Six years ago, at 10, Maddy Ryan fell in love with the design-focused reality show; for weeks she littered her family's house with her fashion sketches and tested out her sewing skills on her grandmother's ancient sewing machine. "Maddy's into fabric and color and style," says her mother, Thea Miller Ryan. "That stuff's a foreign language to me." Knowing she couldn't teach Maddy a stitch, Thea signed up her daughter for a sewing class at a local fabric store.
After a few years of watching Maddy sew dresses, pillows, and quilts, Thea asked for some pointers. "Seeing all that creativity made me hungry to learn," she says. She settled in at the sewing machine, gingerly pressed her foot to the pedal and was astonished to see straight lines emerge. With that, Maddy became her mom's instructor. For Christmas that year, mother and daughter embarked on a joint project, sewing cloth shopping bags for everyone in their extended family.
For Maddy, teaching her mother to thread the sewing machine again and again took heroic amounts of adolescent patience. But, she adds, "it helped us get closer." When Thea is at the machine, Maddy hovers behind her, pointing out when she should backstitch or make a narrower seam. Often they sing along to the country music playing in the background. Maddy still kids her mom about her lack of fashion sense ("You're wearing that?" she'll ask in mock horror), but Thea is just grateful to spend time with her daughter. "I like sewing," Thea says, "but I really like that I do it with Maddy."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2012.