Skating Through Winter on the Prairie

In the drawer beside the bed there is an old picture of me. In that black-and-white frozen moment, Patches, the dog, and I are standing knee-deep in the crisp snow of Saskatchewan. Snow thick with an ice crust. I am holding a large piece to my lips. It is sticking to my knitted mittens, and I am smiling, waiting for Mother to hurry, so we can go toboggan in the field with the other kids.

I grew up in the country village of Glidden, a four-street patchwork just outside of Kindersly on the Canadian prairie. As small as it was, Glidden had its pride and joy, an ice-skating rink.

We would wait for the weather to snap, sometimes taking the pipes with it. Then the men, grumpy about having to get up early on a Saturday, would join forces to prepare the rink. Meticulously slow they were, agonizingly so! Didn't they know that winter was ticking by and the longer they took the less time there was to skate! We waited and waited, tying and retying skates, using old socks to expand our feet to fit our siblings' handed-down blades.

Sometimes frozen farmers' fields had to suffice until the grand opening. Cattails would stick out rudely, barring serious speed skating. Hockey nets were placed at either end, if the boys got to the ice first. Or figure skating princesses would turn figure eights and try brilliant leaps, if the girls got there first. The boys would whine that they were wrecking the ice, but they watched on.

Finally, the rink would be ready. With skates tied over our shoulders, we would dash through the doors to the waiting ice. My brother and sisters glided, for they had taken figure-skating lessons. I stumbled and fell, but because Mother had layered me until I looked like a balloon in a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, I didn't feel it. Instead, I bounced and bumbled my way around the rink, trying not to get in the way.

Once, though, I'm sure my sister bumped me on purpose. I went flying at warp speed across the ice. My snowsuit was slick, and I was like a bobsledder minus the sled. I zipped past the miniature Gordie Howes and smashed into the hockey net of my brother's team.

From then on, little sisters counted as 10 points, and I soon tired of skating.

Our parents would often curl, the favored grown-up sport of the long prairie winter. We children would huddle together with steamy mugs of hot chocolate. We didn't mind the cold so much as we watched the rocks glide over the hardened ice. I thought it was cool, adults throwing rocks at one another.

During endless tournaments I learned to sleep on wooden benches. I also learned some new phrases from the shouting matches on the ice. Especially from someone they called "Skipper." He didn't look anything like the Barbie doll of the same name. But boy could he yell.

My sister told me not to use the colorful phrases I had learned, though, as adults didn't care for little kids cussing.

When we weren't playing hockey or waiting for our parents to finish their tournaments, we could be found on the hills around the village with Silver, the longest toboggan around. It was a six-seater, and after we'd spent hours packing down snow with our boots, we would drag Silver to the top, load on, and prepare to fly down the hill.

I would sit scrunched small in the front, and the toboggan would kick up powered-sugar snowflakes into my face. We would come home when the sky was turning black and we couldn't get our mittens unthawed from the icy sides anymore.

In we would walk, five little snowmen with frosted glasses and scarved to the top of our heads. The heat would hit us fast and thaw us promptly. We would be stripped down to our long underwear and hang damp remnants of our day in the laundry room by the fire. We would stumble, exhausted, to bed, visions of making snow angels dancing in our heads.

SITTING now in Victoria, I miss the country winters of my childhood, the smell of wet snowsuits, and the taste of snowflakes on the back of my mittens.

My friend Rena writes to me of her farm and the antelope who came to feed there. We reminisce about the harvest moons painted warm and golden in the autumn sky. We talk of our children and the times when we were kids, remembering the ice rink and the snow caves we carved and hid in, well-armed with a cache of snowballs in our fortress.

The snow-covered fields of my prairie childhood are just a phone call away, and the memories of those days are still etched in my mind. Like the water orbs with the swirling snow, sometimes I like to give myself a shake, strap on my skates, and head for the indoor rink with my family.

There, little sisters still count as 10 points. And future Wayne Gretzkys still vie with future figure skaters for time on the frosted ice.

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