father was born in 1933. This made him,
or might have made him, many things. A
child of the Depression — although in fact his family's financial struggles,
their shuttling from one Williamsburg
tenement to another, were unexceptional in a world suffering economic
collapse. A younger brother of the
Greatest Generation — although his own older brother never went to war, section
4-F, too short to be of use killing or being killed or engaging in any other
valorous act for the nation. A young man
of the postwar boom years — an engineer who married, bought a first home in a
residential borough, had three children, then traded up to a larger house on Long
Island and had another child. A living
fulfillment of the American dream paid for with his work on defense contracts,
his small part in creating the aeronautic muscle our country flexed in the Cold
War and Vietnam.
But what it made him most saliently in my childhood and
my memory of childhood, this having been born in 1933: it made him forty-two and a half years old in
February 1976. And that was when Dorothy
Hamill — of the cute bobbed hair and the Hamill Camel sit-spin — burst across
the screen of our new, our first, color television, as she brought home the Innsbruck
She was a pixie, an icon, a source of national pride.
She was my father's midlife crisis.
I do not now consider forty-two and a half so old as to
warrant a midlife crisis, not as the gray hairs and laugh lines, the slowing
metabolism, and the
lightly aching muscles and joints sneak up on me and my partner and all
of our friends. Perhaps in 1976
forty-two was older.
Old enough to have four children ages six to fifteen, and a wife who'd
long grown bored with being a housewife.
Old enough for my father, finding his job a little dull, to have fallen
into the habit of taking out his frustrations on his family, as petty tyrant in
his thirteen-room suburban fiefdom.
enough to feel his day to day existence devoid of
beauty, and to fear the years slipping by in unspoken yearnings.
And so, seeing Dorothy Hamill,
the graceful American darling beating out the world, my father decided
he too would figure skate.
Parkway is a curving, hilly route that meandered
through my childhood as it did through our town. The high school from which I would graduate
stood on one stretch, the synagogue where I would be bat mitzvahed sat on
another. My first minutes and hours
behind the wheel were to be on that street, mandatory road training for
In 1976 my father drove Vanderbilt Parkway to the Half Hollow
Hills Public Library, a seventies split-level in steel and glass and
stone. He ran his fingers through the
card catalog, flipping past one aged yellow entry after another, until he came
upon Subject: Figure Skating, Call Number 796.91. Off he went to the shelves. He pulled books down one after another,
leaving a gap into which other books
would slide and fall once he turned away, taking his armload to check out.
figure skating tomes were tall and wide, just under Oversized. Their covers were wrapped in plastic, which
imbued them with that peculiar odor shared by all our library's books. They were full of illustrated diagrams and
photographs anointed with arrows, instructions in motion, balance, and grace. My father took each book to work and in a
quiet hour of the afternoon Xeroxed every page.
He three-hole punched the photocopies, placing them into fastidiously
labeled three-ring binders. He read and
reread every word, studied every illustration, penciled notes to himself in the
margins in his meticulous block print.
father drove Vanderbilt Parkway
again, to the Dix Hills Ice Rink, an open-air facility operated by our
township. He took to the ice. He taught himself. He learned to glide, forward first, then
backward. To turn, tracing the delicate,
mincing steps the books labeled a mohawk or choctaw or twizzle. To jump, shaky and uncertain at first, then
with greater confidence, a half rotation in the air, a full one. Higher and faster, farther and farther my
father went round.
taught himself with the same engineer's precision he brought to designing a
printed circuit board or disciplining his children. He left work early every afternoon from
October through April to make the start of the 4:30 session, skating two full
hours before he drove home in the dark.
Saturdays and Sundays he roused himself from bed in time for the first
of the morning sessions, often staying to skate in the afternoons as well.
rented skates at first, cinnamon suede boots with dulled blades, that's what
they offered at the rink. But soon he
found someone who custom-made skates for competitive ice dancers. My father bought a pair of castoffs, used but
still expensive, carved of stiff black leather that made his ankles ache. He kept the skates in his car, carrying them
daily across the ice rink parking lot, his talismans and tools.
on a polished wooden bench before the wall of beige metal lockers, he slipped
on sweat socks, then the skates. He wore
his polyester work slacks and dress shirt on weekdays, removing his tie and
sport jacket before taking to the ice.
On weekends he wore a polyester track suit, chocolate brown with three
white stripes running up the pantlegs and down along the sleeves. It reeked of perspiration, acrid testament to
his strenuous workout.
older siblings, already adolescents, refused to have any part in his ice
capades. But I went with my father a few
weekend mornings that first winter. I
was seven years old, my own hair cut in imitation of Dorothy Hamill's short,
winged style. I coveted the velvet
skating dresses with flounced skirts, royal blue or ruby red, that hung in the
skate shop at the rink. When my father
refused to buy me one, I decided I had no interest in skating after all.
my father begged my mother many times to skate with him, that year and the
years that followed, she rarely did. She
had the house to run, the kids to care for, the meals to cook, plus a part-time
job selling light fixtures at the mall that she took just to escape from all of
us. Pair skating, ice dancing, held no
attraction for her. She did not need a
hobby in which my exacting father could find yet more reason to bully and
father's entrance into our family's house always commenced a catalog of
wrongdoing, our shortcomings exposed, his punishments meted out. The hours that ice skating took him from us
every day of every autumn and every winter were a respite. As each March, my parents' anniversary month,
faded into April, my mother's birth month, the days growing longer and warmer,
my mother turned apprehensive. We all
did, knowing the ice rink would soon close for the season.
and summers he returned to us. Returned
our lives to what they had been in the antediluvian days before Dorothy changed
father never threw triples, he'd started too late and too old for anything like
that. But singles and doubles, toe loops
and lutzes and salchows and axels — over the next two decades he mastered them
all. His children didn't congratulate
him. We didn't keep track of his
accomplishments, just as he didn’t kept track of ours. We grew up while he skated, we graduated,
moved far away.
one winter afternoon he jumped, alighting the same as always, but came crashing
down flat on his back. His head hit the
ice. He blacked out. He came to as strangers huddled in a circle
above him. Their breath turning to
vapor, they asked if he was alright.
was, he told them. He got up, shaky, and
skated another circuit or two around the rink just to prove it to them, to
himself. Then he stole off the ice, made
his way to the familiar bench, put back on his shoes. My sixty-three year old father headed home
for the night.
mother was furious. He had blacked out,
he might have blacked out again, how could he drive himself, he might have
killed someone. She wanted to take him
to the hospital, he ought to have his head examined. He refused to go.
tried to lay down the law, said that henceforth he had to wear a helmet
whenever he went skating. He
refused. He promised instead to stick to
turns and figures, no jumps.
suppose he might have lied to my mother, might have gone on jumping without a
helmet, and she never would have known.
But I don't think he did.
lasted longer than a red sports car or an affair with the secretary would
have. But still it couldn’t last
forever. Sooner or later each of us,
even my father, has to realize we are skating on thin ice.