My biggest struggle right now is knowing when and how to play a role in my stepdaughter’s life. She’s eleven – the age I was when my mom died – so I know that the relationship with her mom is of tremendous importance at this time. I’m afraid to broach the typical subjects of this age with her for fear that it will be discovered that I have encroached upon “sacred ground.” So, I just leave the questions about periods and boys and fashion… and just about everything else… alone, unless she initiates the conversation. I often feel like an outsider – and honestly, I feel a bit safer that way for some reason. There are days, I’ll have to admit, that I feel her life is just rolling by me, and I won’t ever be able to catch up with it.
A few weeks ago, I took her to the school’s skate night at the local rink. Although it was scheduled on a hectic school night, and our family agenda was full, I was actually a bit excited to go because it was the very same rink that I used to go to when I was her age.
“Are you going to skate with me?” She asked, with eyes wide open, legs and feet squirming in the floorboard of the passenger seat.
“Oh, no, I’m afraid I’d fall and bust my butt or hurt my back. But I’ll watch you do your thing. Did you know that this is the very same rink that I used to skate at when I was your age?” I could feel my heart start to race a bit as we turned onto the road where it was located.
There it was – Skateland USA. THE most awesome place to spend one’s Saturday afternoons in the mid-to-late 1970s. It didn’t seem quite as large as I recalled, though, but it still felt like home. She was nervous – only a few of her classmates had told her they were coming. She could barely see over the counter where the ticket window was, so I paid for her admission and rental, and they hit the buzzer to unlock the heavy metal door that opened into the rink. As the attendant told her to push hard and it would open, I was instantly transported back over 35 years, remembering hearing the very same thing said to me. I helped her push it open, and this is what I saw:
It looked exactly the same as it did back in 1977 when I opened that same door as a shy, knobby-kneed young girl. It even smelled the same — a hint of floor polish, coupled with the scent of the spray they’d put in those awful rental skates, and a dash of whatever was cooking at the snack bar.
My favorite part of the rink was always that huge disco ball. I was afraid that, along with all of their Village People, Donna Summer, and Evelyn “Champagne” King 45s, they would have tossed that ball into the trash. But no, there it was – twinkling and spinning in all its glory. I almost felt like it was beckoning me – “Hey, this is a disco all-skate in the reverse direction.”
“Wow! This is a lot bigger than I expected!” The tugging at my arm brought me back from an exquisite daydream. We got her a pair of those hideous rental skates — boring brown with thin dark-brown nylon laces that you had to wrap around the top of your boot two or three times before tying, just so they wouldn’t hang down and get stuck in your wheels. Oh, and those BRIGHT ORANGE WHEELS. Some things never change, and my guess was those were probably the same skates that were sitting on the shelves when I was a kid. I remember being so relieved the day I got my first pair of skates – no more shame and embarrassment of having to lace those things up while my good friend pulled her bright white dance skates with purple pom-poms and matching laces out of her shiny new case. I had finally graduated from Loserville.
“Are you SURE you don’t want to skate?” Her lip stuck out just enough to momentarily make me feel extremely guilty and pressured. I shook my head “no.”
“You’ve got friends here, and this’ll be a chance for you to have some fun with them. I’m just going to sit over here and read a bit. Go enjoy yourself.” While there was a part of me who knew an adult rolling around the rink, trying to converse with a gaggle of tween girls wasn’t a wise idea, secretly, I itched to lace up and get out there – especially when they turned the house lights down and the music up a notch. This music was definitely nothing like the medleys they used to play for us during the disco all-skates, I chuckled to myself.
Trying to focus on my reading grew more and more difficult as I watched her circle by, more and more confident with each lap. She and her girlfriend were giggling and holding hands as they attempted to dodge the younger kids who were darting left and right, flailing their arms and falling down for no apparent reason, other than it was just a fun thing to do. I remembered having to develop the skill of always keeping the peripheral vision going – you never knew when some six-year-old was going to hurl himself right at you and ruin your cool new dance move.
As it grew closer to closing time, parents started herding their kids out the big metal door for last-minute homework and prep for the following school day. She kept on going, unfazed by the fact that her friend had left a half-hour earlier and she was one of only two or three kids still there. I couldn’t bear to tell her that it was time to go – usually, she was in bed by that time. Okay, I’d let it slide just this one time.
On the way home, she was full of commentary on the evening. “That was SO much fun. I’m surprised that not many kids came out to skate, but I’m glad they didn’t because I would be nervous and I’d probably fall down and embarrass myself in front of everyone and DID YOU SEE THAT GIRL DOING THE LIMBO? How’d she do that? I think I did pretty good tonight – I’d say I was probably one of the top five skaters there. I was going pretty fast there at the end. Wow, my butt really hurts. Can we come back again?”
In that moment, I felt a twinge in my gut – kind of like the Grinch felt when his heart grew three sizes that day. I had made a connection with her, sharing something that was extra-special and important to me when I was her age… and she thought it was cool.
Less than five days before Christmas, I learned that she had told her dad that she wanted a pair of skates. While I know that he wanted to be able to pick out her present, I was dying to take the lead on this venture. So I battled the raging shopper traffic (something I typically REFUSE to do during Christmas) and headed into the deepest of the bowels of shopper Hell – Wendover Avenue – to find these skates. Dead ends everywhere – all skates in her size sold out, or they were so cheaply made, I couldn’t bear seeing her attempt to use them. So, I went back to the rink to see what they could do to help. I told the lady at the counter about my stepdaughter’s excitement over discovering skating and how she wanted a pair of skates. She pulled down a pair of the most beautiful white speed skates with shiny black wheels and handed them to me. I cradled them, spinning the wheels, just to hear that familiar whirring sound. I told her that I used to skate there just a few years after they opened.
“I’d doubt that, since we opened our doors 40 years ago this year,” she laughed. I told her I started skating there in 1977… and that I had just turned 47. “Well, you don’t look a day over 30, dear. Good for you! Go ahead and try them on. Take ‘em for a few laps.”
As I took them over to the carpeted stool to have a seat and lace them up, I froze. For a brief moment, I flashed back to a Saturday afternoon in 1977 – the throbbing drums of Amii Stewart’s version of “Knock on Wood” coaxing me and all the rest of my friends into a speed skating frenzy. It came so effortlessly back then – I could carry on conversations about the cute guy who just passed us and pull the comb out of my back pocket to perfect my “wings” – all while managing to dodge the younger kids who didn’t understand the rules of the rink and were toddling along and falling down, right in the middle of the lane.
I undid the laces and brought them back to the counter. I really didn’t need to try them out. I knew she’d love them. Truth of the matter was, I was terrified to get out there. My 47-year-old body doesn’t have the ability to maintain good balance lately, and we can’t afford more doctor bills for back and neck issues. My moment has passed – time to let the younger kids enjoy this rite of passage.
“I think she’ll love them. And how great that you’re her stepmom, and you can have this special memory to share with her.” I smiled at the lady and took them home to wrap. No one was home yet, and the house was quiet. I stared for the longest time at that box, and then I opened it up and took out a skate. It wouldn’t hurt just to slide it on, so I could remember how they felt on my feet. It felt just like I remembered. Good. So I slipped on the other one. Standing up slowly, I pushed myself from the kitchen chair to the counter. Maybe just one quick lap around the downstairs wouldn’t be so horrible on the floors.
Oh, how I wanted to skate like I did when I was young. No worries – just trying to go as fast as you could and ignoring the fact that one little slip could land you in the hospital.
The look on her face when she opened the box said it all. They were on her feet in a few seconds, and she refused to take them off until she went to bed. The day after, I took her back to the rink to give them a try. Admittedly, she’s a good skater, but she’s still a little shaky, so I was a bit nervous as to how she’d handle them. I held my breath as she stepped on to the floor… and glided away effortlessly. She glanced back, as I was lacing up those ugly brown rentals, secretly wishing I was wearing hers.
She skated a lap and then waited for me to hobble to the edge of the carpet and step on the floor, with a big smile and hand stretched out to grab mine. “You got this! You can do it!”
What she didn’t realize was that, to a stepmom like me, that moment meant much more than she’d ever know.
PS – I know you want to hear that Amii Stewart song (smile).