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When the daily walks we’d been taking since the pandemic began to wear thin, my husband suggested we try skating, something we’d never done in our 10 years together. I was nervous about getting on the ice again. A good friend had fallen on skates a while back, hitting her head and losing all sense of taste and smell for months. But there was a long, cold winter ahead.
I hadn’t been on the ice since my kids were young. Life got too busy and I hung up my skates, as they say. I didn’t think I’d be able to find them in the garage, but there they were on a nail, beckoning. The blades were mottled and rusty, the boots stiff from lack of use. I’d bought them second-hand from a local shop that had supplied my family for years. I was sure they’d be tight, but I tried them on and, lo and behold, they fit like a glove. I’d forgotten what it felt like to walk on blades and, suddenly, was flooded with memories.
Growing up, some of my happiest times were on the ice. The first time I laced up a pair of rented skates at Drummond Arena in Toronto. I was just 6 or 7, a fairly new immigrant and had never seen boots with blades before. They were like dangerous weapons to me and I was terrified. A kind and friendly girl in my class who was effortlessly whizzing by saw me floundering and offered to help. First, she showed me how to stand, then skated backward the entire time we were there, pulling me along, patiently teaching me how to move myself forward. She didn’t let go till I got the knack. When, after an hour, I managed to glide on my own for a few feet without falling, I was elated.
Soon, I was at the outdoor rink most weekends with my best friend, wearing a pair of her hand-me-downs. In the brilliant sunshine, I scurried along on the ice, trying new moves, falling and getting up again, the wind making my cheeks burn. Nobody bothered, teased or bullied us novices. Everyone just did their own thing. It was a safe place to be and I felt free. It was like magic.
Eventually, Drummond was torn down and an indoor rink, Mimico Arena, was built in its place. I continued to spend my winter weekends there, holding hands with girlfriends happily, spinning around the ice, moving to the music, which evolved over time from the Beatles and Beach Boys to Fleetwood Mac, the Stones and Supertramp. Some girls always had boys’ hands to hold. That wasn’t in the cards for me, but I didn’t care. While kids whose parents had money went skiing or snowshoeing to places I’d only heard of – Hockley Valley, the Laurentians, Whistler – Mimico Arena was all I needed.
We’d go Friday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Sometimes, when no one was looking, the cashier would take my money, and give it right back to me with my ticket and a wink. I’d use the extra dough to buy a hot dog and root beer at the concession stand when the Zamboni was clearing the ice at half-time. If I got lucky, the girl serving the hotdogs wouldn’t charge me either. We were rink rats. Regulars. And I felt like I belonged.
For years, as I navigated my parents’ divorce, financial hardship, precarious living and the uneasy feeling of being different in a world where everyone looked the same, I found my place at the rink with my friends.
Skating saved me once, so, with the spectre of a second pandemic winter staring me in the face, I decided to try again.
We got my old skates sharpened and went down to the local park. There were two options – a hockey rink where my husband sometimes played pickup with his sons, and a picturesque circular track surrounded by trees. I insisted on the hockey rink – I needed to be able to slam into the boards to stop. I warned my husband I was going to be unsure on my feet. Basically, I’d be skating like Adrienne in Rocky. He didn’t care. He was nothing if not patient, impressed I was doing it at all.
He was a natural. Also from an immigrant family, he’d spent his youth skating on a pond every chance he got, playing hockey and dreaming of the NHL. A fondness for skating was something we had in common, but our skill levels were not at all matched.
At first, I was no good, wobbly at best, but, with practice weekly, I found my footing and picked up speed. I rediscovered how to push to the side, stop with my picks, look ahead not down. And though I was really shaky, the second I was out there, I felt the same exhilaration I’d experienced as a child. Face cold, the rest of me toasty, I felt free. And happy.
We went out often and, as I got steadier on my blades again, we discovered many beautiful skating trails around the city and even braved a few ponds. My husband joked that I finally had someone’s hand to hold now. I did hold his hand from time to time, but more often than not, we just skated at our own pace, enjoying the music, the exercise, the outdoors. It’s one of my happiest pandemic memories to date.
Still in touch after all these years, I called my childhood friend and told her how grateful I was that she took the time that day long ago to help me build my confidence on the ice. She didn’t have to do it. She could’ve skated off with her other more capable friends and let me fall. But she didn’t. She hung in there with me, just like my husband did this time around.
Recently, he surprised me with a gift I wasn’t expecting. When I opened the box and saw what was inside – gleaming white skates with shiny notched blades and cushioned interiors – I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.
In the midst of our second pandemic winter, I can’t wait to get out there and skate, to hear the lovely sound of blades scraping the ice and feel the momentum propelling us forward. For me, it’s one of the true pleasures of winter, and this year I’ll be doing it in the first pair of brand-new skates I’ve ever owned.
Shirley Phillips lives in Toronto.
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