Just like that, winter is over.
At least, that’s what it feels like today, as I look out at snowless fields under a sunny blue sky. The temperatures over the past week have been unseasonably warm for February in Vermont, culminating in a high of 66 degrees at our house. Our entire family spent the morning outside: the children romping in t-shirts, the adults starting some early yard work. As if to confirm the change of seasons, two honking V’s of Canada geese flew north overhead.
In all likelihood, winter is not over yet. My online forecast for the coming week predicts temperatures that are half of what we’ve experienced today. Like a cruel barn cat, the Vermont weather will toy with us for a while; it’s quite common to have decent snowstorms here in March, April – even as late as May.
But it feels as if a corner has been turned: If winter isn’t over, we’re heading into its downslope. As I look back upon the winter of 2016-17, it’s certainly not the snow I will remember; the Champlain Valley received very little snow, which came in a few dumps with long, bare breaks in between.
For me, this winter was about ice.
Our household functions best with clear divisions of labor: my husband cooks the meat and I bake, my husband prepares the taxes and I prepare the birthday gifts, my husband takes our daughters swimming and I take them ice skating.
My husband is the designated pool parent because, after four decades, I’ve finally embraced the fact that I just don’t enjoy swimming all that much. Any exercise that requires a drastic change of attire, total immersion in water, and immediate showering is too complicated for me; I’d much rather wear my exercise clothes all day and put off showering until after my children are in bed. Plus, the pool chemicals make me break out in an itchy, red, full-body rash.
I used to feel bad about this. “How come you never come to the pool?” my daughters ask plaintively. I remind them that I don’t “never” come to the pool: Remember that time a few months back? And then I give up and say (lamely), “Well, the pool is Daddy’s special thing to do with you.”
But now I feel less conflicted by my poolside absence, because this winter ice skating became, officially, my thing to do with my daughters.
I grew up skating: Although my Northern Virginia hometown is hardly known for winter sports, annual skating parties at local rinks were a highlight of every school year throughout my childhood. I can’t remember when I learned to skate, but my New England parents made sure I was comfortable on the ice at a young age. While attending college in Massachusetts, I took a figure skating class one year to fulfill a P.E. requirement; after that, skating became a fun way to endure the long winters.
My husband does not skate: He never learned to skate well, and he has flat feet that make skating uncomfortable for him. So, since moving to Vermont six years ago, skating has been my domain.
The challenge in the past was that skating with children who are still learning to skate requires a lot of mopping up: My daughters would lie flopping on the ice like beached salmon, and I’d have to pull them up, brush them off, and prop them up for the next attempt. Even giving them milk crates to push around didn’t get me off the hook: Inevitably, they’d get tired and beg me to push them around while they sat on the crate. Multiply that by four, and it wasn’t much fun for my spirit or my lower back.
Add to this the fact that, for most winters past, I’ve either been pregnant or had at least one child who couldn’t yet walk, let alone skate, and you’ll understand why we haven’t logged in many hours at the rink.
Until this year: This was the magic year, the year when I was not pregnant, when I had four mobile children, and when at least half of my children could skate well enough to render them totally independent on the ice.
We spent many hours at Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center, courtesy of a fistful of free rink passes that we received from my parents. The best part of skating at Memorial Sports Center is also the best part about living in a small town: Every time we went, we found that multiple friends had had the same idea. (My daughters would probably tell you that the best part of skating at Memorial Sports Center is the Zamboni.)
When we couldn’t make it to public skating hours at Memorial, my daughters skated on our yard. Yes: on our yard. The upside of some major drainage problems on the fields around our house is that a little bit of precipitation creates at least three sizeable, shallow “ponds” on our property. This winter, my girls and their friends had such a blast skating (and dragging out tools from the shed to play “ice harvesting” and “ice boating”) on our yard that we’re second guessing trying to remedy our drainage issues.
The culmination of our icy winter was the annual Middlebury Winter Carnival Ice Show. Every February, Middlebury College hosts an ice show over President’s Day weekend as part of their Winter Carnival festivities. The ice show features Middlebury students, guest skaters, and local youngsters who’ve participated in weekly figure skating classes throughout the winter. Because we know many of the performers, the show has become a tradition for our family. This year, we took our daughters and a friend, and the show made quite an impact.
“Whoa!” breathed the daughter sitting next to me – a daughter not easily impressed. “I’m really enjoying this!” she said with total sincerity.
Perhaps because they’ve spent this winter skating, and therefore know that simply skating forward smoothly is an accomplishment, my daughters had an increased appreciation for the feats being performed on the ice.
One of our favorite acts in the ice show -- an act that received some of the loudest cheers -- was performed by the youngest skaters. These children (averaging about five years of age) wobbled out onto the ice with arms outstretched for balance. They skated halfway across the rink, where they stopped to form a tenuous line. Two of the skaters were slower than the rest; they grasped hands and advanced haltingly towards the gap in the line together, while their friends beckoned them on. When they reached their spots at last, I felt like giving an ovation.
We are earthbound creatures. We slog through the snow in winter; we stick in the mud come spring. But strap on a pair of skates and wobble out on the ice: It’s learning to walk all over again, except that success feels like flying. And like most things, it’s even better if you do it together.
This is why iceskating has become my thing.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.