The day after Thanksgiving, we took the girls skating.
A’s family has lived for a hundred and thirty years in the same county—a flat place laced with lakes. They know which one freezes first, and where the ice is thinnest. They know that five inches is plenty thick to hold a man and his wife, his son and daughter in law, and two little girls.
But I’m not from here, and at the beginning of winter, without that knowledge so deep in my bones, I’m not at ease on the ice. I was sort of against having us all on the lake on Friday, lined though it was with the tracks of other skaters. But I made myself shut up and pretend I didn’t think we were all doomed.
A frozen lake makes sounds, always, and in the early, warmer days of winter they’re persistent. Cracks peel across the surface, louder the more people stand together. High pops and pings sound off, near and far. The ice acts like the skin across the top of a drum, magnifying it. It sounds a little like impending death. Ingrid feels safer about it: Maybe it’s the fish talking, she suggested as I strapped on her skates.
As we began to shuffle, Iris, in the backpack, threw up a giant fuss. She hadn’t slept well the night before, and I worried that her ears were bothering her. I took her out to try to comfort her, but she wriggled and pointed to be put down. I set her in a snowy patch, and she threw her little self down onto her bottom. She gave a hard look to each of our skates—Ingrid’s purple, double bladed contraptions, the grown ups’ long blades snapped onto ski boots. Then she jabbed at her own plain snow boots with a mitten. ME, she demanded. ME.
The girl wanted skates.
We happened to have an extra pair with us—white leather ones a tad small for Ingrid but several sizes too big for Iris. A took off her boots and laced her in, and she stopped yelling. I wiped the tears and snot off her face, and she and A took off. He dragged her along, wobbly-footed and tangle-legged, and she laughed and laughed and yelled Wheeeee.
I held Ingrid’s hands and skated backwards, or held her by the armpits until my back ached, or took one hand while A’s dad’s wife took the other. Or Ingrid sat on the ice and I pushed her along until I couldn’t push any longer and the butt of her snow pants was caked with fine dirt. We circled, passed each other, skated all together.
After surviving loop after loop, I started to believe, along with the rest of them, that frozen water, even in November, was solid as ground.
Nearly an hour later, Iris went from grinning to cranky, and soon she’d wound up to full-time fussing. I scooped her up and tried to troubleshoot. Her fingers and toes and the back of her neck were toasty. Do you want to nurse a little bit? She nodded.
I sat on a little dock and unbuttoned my coat. She snuggled under my layers of long johns. It wasn’t so cold out, and she was still bundled up: fleece hat, flowered coat, polka dotted snowpants, and skates. As she nursed I realized she was dozing off, and soon she was sound asleep.
She hasn’t done that so often lately—fall asleep in my arms. And these days, whenever it happens, I wonder if it will be the last time, or one of the last. Holding a sleeping child is one of the sweetest pleasures of parenthood. It’s a privilege to be on the receiving end of such pure trust: I know you will hold me and keep me safe. I watched A and Ingrid skate more circles over the groaning lake, and thought about Iris—her insistence on being a whole, full family member, even as we still sometimes treat her like just the baby along for the ride; her persistence in setting us straight. I wondered how much longer my arms will seem such a natural resting place that she can let all her muscles go and sleep deeply in the sunlight.
Ingrid hung from A’s arms, her blades barely skimming the ice. Iris rested in mine, cheeks pink, breath deep. And, somehow, the lake held all of us up, some way I don’t quite understand, in the sun on the last Friday of November.