The ice skates

November 16,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

When I was back home this summer, visiting my parents and siblings, I found myself in the basement, looking for something or other. I glanced up on the top of one of the metal shelves and saw, bundled together, two pairs of old Dutch wooden ice skates. They look just like the picture at the bottom of this web page. I think we kids each had a pair of them once, although why there are only two left, I don't know. I took the skates down, and weighed them in my hand. The metal blades were a little rusty, the leather cracked, the laces frail-looking. It was hard to imagine that anyone could have skated with those. Yet there, in my family's basement, the skates brought back a rush of memories so vivid I had to stand still, for fear I'd move and scatter them. When I was nine my dad got a sabbatical from his university and we spent six months in Enschede, Holland, and another six months in Greece with my grandparents. When I think back to the Greece part of the year I remember my grandparents, of course, and stiff navy blue school uniforms, and buying school supplies, and a teacher with a ruler. I still remember the sinking, loose-stomach feeling I had when I saw a schoolmate's palm, bright red after a run-in with the teacher and the ruler. It's funny how selective a child's memory can be--a whole year's worth of experiences compressed into still images and impressions, while the day-to-day stuff is swallowed up by time. I remember Holland being a simply magical place, like out of a storybook; a place filled with miniature donkeys and ponies (my dad used to take me across the snow to a nearby field where I could feed the tiny donkeys sugar cubes--if I'm very, very quiet I can still conjure up the feel of their velvety noses and the warm steam on my palm as they snorted and snuffled the cubes from my hand), and hot French fries you could buy from sidewalk stands and dip into thick mayonnaise, and little gingerbread cookies, round like pennies, and Sinterklaas, and bicycles, and lots and lots of ice skating. Unlike my time in Greece, I remember hardly anything about going to school in Enschede, except that on the way home from school each day we'd pass a long, wide river all iced over in the winter. I'd look down from the car window and see the ice dotted with skaters as far as the eye could see. It was absolutely astounding to me, and I never tired of the sight. I guess we skated, too, although I don't remember doing this. Those wooden skates, though, are tangible evidence and there's this, too: I tried on the skates in my parent's basement and my fingers somehow knew where all the straps went, and how to tie the laces. Clearly, long ago, I had once worn a pair like those, only smaller. And my nine-year old fingers had once fumbled with the laces until they were just right. I can scarcely believe that so long ago, in a country far away, in a time that seems to belong to someone else, to another world, I'd been a skater on that ice; I'd been one of those dots of color, taking tentative slip-sliding steps--watched from above, perhaps, by a small school girl, her face pressed against the frosty glass of a car window. ************** All the above is why, when we were in Reston, VA this past weekend, I forked out $35 so the kids and I could skate at an open-air skating rink we had passed on the way to dinner. The kids stopped, enchanted by the skaters careening around and around to the latest hip-hoppy/pop music. "What's that?" L. had asked, pointing to the ice rink, and that's when I knew we had to get the kids out there--how could they be 6 and 10 and not know an ice rink, not know the thrill of skating? T. took a real shine to it--she laughed and fell and laughed and by the end of an hour she was making her way along without even holding the wall. I think L. liked it, although he fell a lot, and got mad at other people a lot, and was so determined to master the art of skating that he forgot that it was all for fun. But secretly, just between you and me, I think I paid the $35 so that I could skate again.