S. Lee Manning: When I was around nine, I loved to ice skate. I was one of those weird kids who liked to read all the time and didn’t have many friends. Sometimes it bothered me. But not when skating. I liked to skate alone.
There was an ice skating rink at the Cincinnati Gardens and my parents would drop me off at the beginning of the session. I was not very good, couldn’t do spins or even skate backwards, but I didn’t fall – much – and gliding on ice felt like flying. Ice skating also made me think of snow, and snow, for me, was magic, even though we averaged maybe two big snows a year in Cincinnati that melted within days. But in the heart of the gray Cincinnati winter, with brown grass and barren trees, there was the skating rink. Skating transported me to a fantasy world.
I would skate by myself for hours while tinny music played, and I’d make up stories. Day dreaming, my parents called it back then, and I thought I might be a little crazy, and maybe I was, in the way all writers are crazy. Time on the ice was my time – and I savored it every Saturday night. Now, looking back, I wonder what my parents thought about it – and whether they worried about my isolation and my escape into fantasy.
After a year or two, I grew out of my skates. I developed bad knees. Then I hit the teen years – and it was the late 1960s. Skating was not what young hippies did in the late 60s – and I was most definitely a young hippie. So I put skating on ice, so to speak.
Over the following few decades, as my life changed again and again, I would go ice skating from time to time – with friends and then with my children.
Then maybe fifteen years ago, I stopped. Life is complicated, and we don’t always have time for things we enjoy. My parents needed help, my kids had issues, and I had a different job. Besides, my feet and ankles weren’t what they used to be.
I thought from time to time about trying to skate again, but the thought of a teenager slamming into me while on the ice kept me from giving it a try.
Then two weeks ago, on a whim, I looked at the ice skating schedule at a local rink while spending a few weeks in New Jersey with my son. There was adult only skating at 8:30 a.m. I remembered how much I used to love skating. My husband still skies. I am terrified of heights and therefore don’t ski, but the ski resort where he went in December has a skating rink. It would be something for me while he skied.
At 8 o’clock the following morning, I dug out my skates and looked out the window at the inch of snow that had coated the neighborhood overnight.
I am aware that I am no longer nine. (Not going to say how old I actually am.) I am aware that my balance isn’t what it used to be, nor are my feet.
I am aware that a fall at my age could be a lot more serious than a fall for a nine year old. I know that older people skate, and there’s an 87 year old who competes (and wins) in figure skating. But most of those senior skaters know what they’re doing and didn’t give it up for twenty some years.
But that morning, I just said, what the hell.
The snow was still drifting down as I drove to the rink in my Subaru. The skates were tighter than I remembered, but they still fit. Kinda. I strapped them on and wobbled to the side of the rink. There was a wall all the way around the rink for grabbing purposes. There was only one other person on the ice. Perfect. I took a deep breath and stepped on the ice.
And didn’t fall.
But I didn’t glide either. My feet felt like lead, and I clung desperately to the wall, taking baby steps to move forward.
The sole other occupant of the rink skated over to me and introduced himself as Jeff. “Bend your knees,” he suggested. He was fifty-nine, and he also had started up skating after twenty years or so off the ice. That was reassuring. He also thought that I was younger than him. That was more than reassuring.
I bent my knees. I tentatively pushed off with my left foot. I glided a foot and then I grabbed the wall.
I made it around the rink, never far from the wall, clutching it every few feet. I celebrated my success by getting off the ice and tightening my skates. Then I tried again. This time, I would make it maybe twenty feet before grabbing the wall. Then fifty feet. I made it around five times staying close enough to the wall to grab it if necessary. By then, my feet were protesting the too tight skates. I had felt the flush of victory – but it was time to leave.
The next day, I was back with my son’s wider and slightly better fitting skates.
I did better, lasting forty-five minutes on the ice. I wobbled here and there, and never strayed far from the wall, but I rounded the rink, gliding. I remained afraid of falling, but there were moments when I recaptured that old feeling of flying. Then I grabbed the wall again. My son’s skates were better than my old ones, but not perfect.
Jeff was there and gave me a thumbs up for persistence. Jeff had been joined by a man in his seventies who skated backwards to me to offer his suggestion.
“Buy some skates that fit.”
A week later, I called my cousin, two years younger than me, and told her that I had gone ice skating.
“You’re brave,” she said.
Am I? I didn’t feel brave on the ice. I felt scared. But I felt something else as well. I felt alive. There will come a time when I am physically unable to do the risky things I used to enjoy as a younger woman, but while I still can, I damn well am going to keep trying. As we age, we have to distinguish between what we can actually do and what we are afraid to do. I hate that my body will eventually limit me. I am not going to be limited by my fears.
So I’m in the market for a new pair of skates. Suggestions?