Skating Between Carefree and Cautious

SEVERAL years ago I took my children ice skating for the first time on a small, temporary rink installed in the middle of downtown Portland, Ore. My daughter, Hallie, was just two - old enough to walk and run, but too young to sense even the most blatant danger in an activity. My son, Dylan, was seven and cautious. I was a fulcrum between their extremes, careful enough to hold onto some part of my daughter when in the city, but bold enough to think I could be there alone with two young children.

The day was clear and cold, the kind of day where ice formed naturally around street grates and in leftover puddles. The holidays were over, and though people walked with rounded shoulders as if they were hoarding warmth, the pace of both the foot and car traffic was slow.

I remember feeling flushed with the liberation of a trip to the city with my children. We walked slowly past big window displays full of color that, for a few moments, held out shiny reflections in the glass. Crossing Main Street, we noticed a big tent in the main square. A small sign advertised "Skate for $1." I wanted to go.

While I'd learned to temper some of my impulses as a parent, I felt no caution when it came to ice skating. Looking down at my daughter, so encased in winter-wear she could hardly bend her arms and legs, gave me only the slightest hesitation. "This will be good for my son," I thought.

Then, as I did when faced with uncertain outcomes, I reasoned that this would either be the worst thing I'd ever done, or the best. There was no middle ground. Good intent abounded as we joined the crowd at the canvas opening. A lady passed out scuffed, softened leather skates to the teenaged boys who stood in front of us. We took a tiny pair of double-bladed skates for my daughter, skates for my son and me, and a key to the rusty metal lockers placed adjacent to the rink.

It had been 10 years since I'd skated. I tried to encourage the feeling of excitement that we'd shared in line, but I couldn't help thinking of how much my children trusted their safety to me. Laced up and with mittens secured, we wobbled to the rink. We had more to worry about in flailing arms than we did from the ice itself. Business people of all ages, looking trim and well-dressed in pin-striped shirts and conservative ties, sailed onto the ice with the grace of windmills caught in a storm. The young

boys who had been ahead of us in line were propped up against the guardrail. Collapsed in giggles, they couldn't seem to go ahead and were as helpless to go back.

My son, usually careful beyond reason, spun onto the ice with a purpose I haven't yet seen equaled. His manner of stopping was to crash into the rink's barrier wall. Soon he was wet, nearly running on the ice, and smiling as he bumped between more cautious participants.

Hallie and I started out slow, but persistent. We didn't look up as we circled the ice. Single- minded, I concentrated on staying upright, skating one foot in front of the other. It occurred to me that what I was doing wasn't so different from what I did every day. I tried not to think too far ahead, held onto someone I loved, and endeavored to stay balanced. Inch by inch we went around the circle. The second time around, we raised our heads - the third, Hallie, in her typical way said, "Do it myself."

We spent the rest of the hour individually skating around and around. I was a few glides behind Hallie. We didn't say much while we unlaced our skates and tied on our street shoes. We walked a bit unsteadily out into the glare of a winter day. We sat on a bench in the square and drank hot chocolate. A new crowd had formed at the tent opening, caught up in the magic of a circle of ice in a city that mostly held rain and wind.

My children are five years older now. We take monthly trips to the city and skate on the big rink at the mall. We've become adept enough to consider buying skates. I've noticed that we all continue to watch our skates for the first circle round the ice. We concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. My son has altered only slightly the manner in which he stops.

At the end of a session, we drink hot chocolate and feel the tingle in our toes. It is a reminder of that day when, on a small portable ice rink, I learned I could be cautious and carefree at the same time. It was as easy as putting one foot in front of the other and not paying unnecessary attention to what was ahead.

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