With This Bike, I Thee Wed

A GOLD ring is customary for the groom to present the bride. Perhaps he's already dazzled her with an engagement ring - diamonds big as headlights.

Instead of rings, I've just received....

To pedal backward a moment: Yes, after a dozen years of sort of courting, three sets of tennis every Saturday and Sunday, Henry finally popped the question. I was dumbstruck. That happened on a Wednesday mid-June. He lifted the bow from his violin and suggested we slip down to the country Saturday and get it over with.

"A bit soon," I stammered.

The phone rang. Our friend Faith became the first to hear the news.

"What'll you wear?"

As if she feared I'd still be wearing the same T-shirt and tennis shorts.

"A ring, I guess," I answered.

Faith offered to lend me a proper dress.

But on the eve of the wedding - which I managed to postpone one week - I returned to my favorite thrift shop. There, several years before, on the eve of becoming a mother-of-the-groom, I'd bought for a song a pink faille-and-ivory-lace dress; and two years later, again on the eve of the next family wedding, I'd found a swirly pink tulle dress, undoubtedly worn once by some anonymous bridesmaid. I recycled it to suit a proper mother-of-the-bride. (From earliest childhood I was never allowed to wear pink: My mother insisted redheads should not. When my own children began to get married, I figured I was grown-up enough to wear whatever I chose.)

On the eve of this wedding, I snapped up a lacy ivory linen of which everyone approved.

"Now what about the ring?" inquired the red-haired English minister. Henry looked around in alarm.

By then we were down on the shores of our beloved Patuxent River, gulls singing a cappella, cathedrals of pines filtering light through veils of gnats. We'd had a rather busy intervening week in town. Whereas my daughter and daughter-in-law had each spent a year after announcing engagements intricately planning their grand ceremonies, I pulled ours together in 10 days while simultaneously packing up to move to Canada, if not finishing writing projects first.

Our respective children, extended families, and friends, all of whom long lobbied for this union, had quickly organized a splendid wedding feast. I picked bouquets of field flowers.

Just before heading down the river, while looking for a necklace, I came across my mother's ring and slipped it into my pocket. So launch day went beautifully, loveliest wedding ever, rain held off, the groom played the music on his violin. My mother's ring is too big and slips around, so I take it off for tennis.

Tennis is where we're headed this afternoon. From our new home in Toronto, that is. Though wearing my sweat shirt with the dolphin on it, just to pretend I'm back with oceans, I'm cold. At least the courts will be deserted. Rather than drive, Henry would prefer to ride his bike. But I'd have to run behind like a faithful collie.

"We should buy bikes," he has urged for years. And for years, I've agreed: What a great idea. Fortunately, there has always been some good excuse to wait.

TRUTH is, I haven't biked for years. My first two-wheeler was rented my seventh summer on Nantucket: fat-wheeled and low-to-the-ground, like a dachshund. I braked by dragging my feet. A more advanced brake-by-back-pedaling model came when I was 10, and I biked everywhere. But that was outside Philadelphia, before we moved to New York City. In Paris, at age 18, I gained a thin-wheeled 10-speed beauty, which, throughout year one of my first marriage, age 21 in Berkeley, Calif., I rode daily because auto in surance was unaffordable. When we moved 125 steps up Telegraph Hill, however, the bike wasn't quite as handy.

I taught my children to cycle, but as they were quick learners, I didn't have to demonstrate.

Last year my daughter gave me her old exercise bike, and the handlebars serve splendidly for drying blouses.

I do learn something new every year: at 50, it was cross-country skiing. But biking I learned once, so I can move on. I get exercise enough climbing four flights of stairs in our new apartment. And this Toronto traffic....

This traffic means parking spaces are few and expensive. When Henry heard of a deal on men's bikes, he ordered one, promising mine next. Meanwhile our landlord, another red-haired Englishman, offered me a rusty bike left by a previous lady tenant: "It just needs pumping up, et cetera."

Much et cetera. We walked it through parks and lanes to the bike shop. The mechanic frowned. "Repairing this would cost more than a new bike."

"We'll buy you a new bike," Henry insisted.

I insisted we could wait for a sale on ladies' bikes. I bought him a thick helmet and tamper-proof lock, not on sale.

The salesgirl demonstrated how they worked, and on his sleek black-with-electric-yellow-and-red super-speeder, Henry wheeled away down Yonge Street toward Lake Ontario. I walked the rusty old bike back to the landlord's basement. Enough to worry about with Henry cycling to work. He admitted it has been years since he biked.

"But everyone bikes in Toronto."

Especially during the fortnight-long transportation workers' strike, cyclists like Henry looked particularly self-righteous.

"Wonderful exercise!" Henry reiterates as he puffs home every evening. "You discover interesting alternate routes and see much more than by subway. You could carry groceries and run errands by bike. You'd feel great! So why don't you...."

"Don't worry, I feel great walking. And all that locking, unlocking...."

Toronto, a clean and reasonably safe city, nowadays calls itself "The Bike Theft Capital of The World." Henry has reason to agree: The first day he rode his new bike to work, despite the huge lock that took 30 minutes to connect, someone swiped his derailleur (gear shifter).

Today, as we drove down Yonge Street toward the tennis courts, we passed a discount store - and one parking space. That in itself is worth stopping for, even if one doesn't need to stop.

An hour later, Henry bought me a shimmering fuchsia-and-magenta bike. Only six gears instead of 18, but that's fine. Fat-wheeled and so new that little rubber whiskers are sticking out all over the tires as on a Malaysian rambutan.

"Like the mountain bikes, all our children ride up mountains," I say with more apprehension than pride.

THE salesman lowers the seat, cuts six feet of chain, and finds a big padlock. I'll learn to work the combination sometime. Henry also buys a car rack for trips outside the city. One of those assemble-yourself monsters billed as "Easy To Install." The salesman admits it isn't. Though he mastered a violin, Henry dreads anything mechanical.

"We'll wait till the children visit, they're good at assembling the impossible."

At least winter will soon descend with a bang, bikes will stay in basements, I can stay by the fire, postpone until spring....

"I can ride it to the courts for you." Henry is already testing my bike up and down the sidewalk. "You take the car...."

okay, thanks, it looks small for you. I'll - I will meet you at the courts...."

"Ride on the sidewalks," he counsels.

Could be against the law, but I'll tell the policeman, "Aren't ladies allowed the sidewalk? I've seen them here, really, officer." And yes, somewhere in the half-unpacked boxes is one of the children's old helmets.

Henry looks concerned, or wistful, but retrieves the car. "Meet at the courts?"

The question is, will I make it up Yonge Street? Only six gears, but no chance to ask the salesman how to work one. Cycling uphill proves to be more of a challenge than running uphill.

Yonge Street stretches from Lake Ontario north for 1,000 miles. The courts are only a mile north. But wheels turn without resistance, and I manage without shifting. Slaloming around passersby, bumping over curbs, I careen to the courts way ahead of Henry.

Out on the courts, I feel strangely - isn't "empowered" the current in word? - and nearly win our tiebreaker. At dusk, Henry takes the rackets to the car, while I cycle homeward, calling after me, "A lovely wedding present. Thank you."

Next week I'll wax my skis.

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