I bought the skis on Craig’s List for $25. I would have paid more than $25; I would have paid full price even though Grace is only five years old and didn’t ask for skis. It would have been a foolish thing to do, and I am glad that I didn’t end up doing it, but I would have. I want her to learn to ski. I want her to love skiing.
Chris brought the skis home on Tuesday night, and Grace skied across the living room rug before bed. “Would you like me to take you skiing?” I asked casually. I tried not to sound too invested. She said she would. I planned on taking her to Sunday’s Bill Koch Ski League, a lovely New England institution that, as someone raised in Colorado, I initially found inadequate, but grew to find charming. Children and parents gather for ski games and hot chocolate, and for one afternoon a week we get to pretend we live in Norway.
On Friday, I remembered that both Chris and I had to be at a meeting on Sunday afternoon and we couldn’t take Grace skiing But our friend, who is the unofficial coach of the League’s five and under skiers, offered to take her for us. I told him thanks, but Grace wouldn’t want to go without me. On Sunday morning I asked her, just to be sure. “It’s kids’ skiing day, but Mati and I can’t take you. Do you want to go without us?”
“Sure,” she said.
She has a fantastic time. When our friend dropped her off he told me she did a great job, and that she will do even better next time, which is Ski Coach for “she fell down a lot.” But she was none the worse for wear. “I’ll be there next time,” I told him.
“I’m happy to take her again,” he said, which is Ski Coach for “please don’t come.”
I know it is easier for him to help her learn without me there. She can endure more and she can focus better if I am not there.
My father taught me how to ski. He taught me how to clear the snow from my three-pin bindings with the sharp tip of my ski pole; he taught me how to slow down when the trail was too narrow for snowplow and how to climb when the hill was too icy for herringbone. He taught me how to open and close my fists with each glide to keep my hands warm. I want to teach Gracie those things. But mostly I want her to love skiing. So I sent her to Bill Koch without me.
When I was a few years older than Grace my family started skiing on a trail that quickly became our favorite. It begins in a ghost town called St. Elmo, which is really nothing more than two dozen dilapidated wooden buildings nestled in Colorado’s Sawatch Mountains. Even as a young girl, I knew there was something magical about an abandoned mining town in winter, the way the snow drifted to the second-floor windows and filled the entryways of old storefronts. Several times each winter we parked on the snow-packed road at the edge of town and skied from an unplowed service road onto a trail leading through the woods.
I have not been to St. Elmo since Grace was born. We visit Colorado every winter, but I haven’t skied once. I could easily say that this is because of babies and nursing and naps and short visits and holidays and bad colds, but there are other reasons, too. There is the acute beauty of these mountains and the stark contrast between the girl I was when I lived in them and the woman I am now. There is the security I felt there when as a young girl I followed my father as he broke trail through deep snow, and the freedom I felt when as a young woman I drove over mountain passes to a place where I made fires and slept in a one-person tent. But in these last five years security has become something I provide and freedom has become something I no longer have. So I have often turned away from those rugged and familiar places because balancing the equation of self and mother was hard enough without introducing the variable of landscape.
Instead, I made the subtle and accessible beauty of New England mine; I claimed these gentle slopes and stone walls and fields. I have skied every winter in Massachusetts, sometimes right off our back porch and through the woods behind our house, sometimes on the groomed trails of the Nordic center where Grace skied last Sunday. I have skied while my babies sleep soundly in their cribs down the road; I have sat on fallen logs to nurse my bundled daughters before strapping them onto my chest and sidestepping back onto the trail. I thought this was all I wanted, but it’s not.
I realized that when I saw Grace slide across the living room rug on her new skis. I realized I wanted her to learn to ski, not so we could go to ski league together or even so we could ski off the back porch and through our woods, although all those things will be wonderful. I want her to learn to ski so that someday I can ski with her and my father at St. Elmo. I can see us in my mind’s eye: my father breaking trail and Grace behind him. We will ski until we reach the abandoned mine and when we stop to eat our lunch my father will plant all our skis in the snow facing the sun so that they don’t ice over. Or maybe that job will be mine. Either way, when I take her there it won’t matter that she went to Bill Koch without me, it won’t matter that it was a ski coach and a handful of m&ms that got her up her first hills, hills that were groomed by snowmobiles. What will matter is my father and my child. What will matter is the mountain pass, the narrow trail, and the deep snow. What will matter is security and freedom, both given and received.