A cold spell of single digits. With the ground frozen hard after a wet fall where the trees stood in shallow puddles throughout the woods, a walk meant the danger of a twisted ankle as crunching underfoot, the ice lay along the paths to the field and skimmed the pond. For a few days, I didn’t venture out. Then a call around 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening. It was Paul, my oldest.
“Mom? Meet us down at the pond. We’re going skating.”
That was it–the unexpected gift–the moments for which I live are just this: the offer of a bit of fun coming out of the dark, the excitement because of the dark, the daring to skate down in the woods on a clear, still night when one cannot even see the edges of the pond, the grass that might catch a skate encased in ice, the twig lying on the surface ready to send anyone sprawling. The embrace of danger. More than that, though, was Paul’s thoughtfulness. It was he who had inspected the ice, gathered twigs for a fire in the afternoon, and piled them high in the center of the pond, right on the ice, and who brought a chair for me so I could sit safely with the fire at my feet, none of which I knew when I saw the flashlight in my driveway and heard the two of them, Paul and my granddaughter, Sadie, coming toward me. Paul was full of assurances that the ice was firm enough, and besides he had his cell phone if we needed it and the folding chair for me while Sadie dragged a sled, for “the both of us, Omie.”
After the fire caught, Paul sat on the sled to put on his skates, the creases around his eyes sharply defined by the light of the fire, reminding me that despite the persistence of time, we are fortunate to keep certain parts of us alive through all the changes, no matter what. Sadie, giggling, tried to push me as I sat in the chair, then gave up. Without skates herself, I offered my size 8’s but she only wears a 5. She’s just 11 years old. “It’s okay,” she said, “Dad will take me for a ride on the sled.”
Soon Paul was skating around us as we hovered around the fire. “You see how the wind is coming out of the southwest,” he said. “Unusual.” The smoke shifted even though the air was still, as if there were spirits alive, awakened by the sounds of us, Sadie chatting about new skates that maybe her mother would buy for her the next day, and the crisp, crisp sound of Paul’s skates. He was speeding now, with an abandon not visible in recent years. Prodigal, like a homecoming we rarely experience as we get older but instantly recognizable and reassuring, he skated magnificently despite all the years way from the ice.
“Come on, Mom. Get on the sled. I’ll pull you and Sadie.”
My trust was complete as I got on the sled, Sadie between my legs, my arms around her. We took off, and Paul spun us into a whiplash, the sled skimming sideways across the ice. I screamed and laughed from way down, a sound which astonished me because I hadn’t screamed or laughed like that for a hundred years and all it took was a hair raising slide across the ice. I was aware of Paul’s strength as he held onto the rope of the sled so that we didn’t fly off into the trees at the edge of the pond. Pausing for a breath, I heard the ice crack a loud, muffled thud.
“Don’t worry, Mom. It’s only the stress cracks at the edge of the pond.”
I believe him. I believe in him. I believe in fun, in screaming in the dark with the light from the house streaming across the ice, the firm shadows of the trees reaching us, the crackling of the fire and the melted ice at its base, the wonder of heat rising so that there could be such a thing as fire built on ice. Most of all I believe in the generations we are. There would have been no generation without Paul’s father, that silent, shadowy, well-concealed self around which I tried to build a life, and did. Therefore, I believe in replenishment on even the coldest night, the bold human spirit that sparks unexpectedly, the details of callused hands building a fire in the dark, the old skate hook saved all those years with which to tighten laces, a granddaughter’s mittened hand orchestrating the hope of new skates.
In time, they helped me off the ice, Paul on one side, Sadie on the other. Feeling my helplessness at stepping to the edge of the pond, my only comment, laughingly was, “If this is the way it’s going to be in a few years, I don’t want to play!” But when something fills you to the brim, it seems like even death will be all right; saying good-bye possible.
Just before we stepped to the bank, Paul held the flashlight downward and through the clear ice were bright green shoots, waiting among last year’s debris from the trees. He said he even saw tadpoles swimming under the ice earlier in the afternoon.
Alone now, I walked toward the house, toward the light that is to be kept lit for occasions such as this, giving a reason for everything, including fire on ice.