In other seasons, it’s just a pond. A small and nondescript one at that, subject to some sort of algae-like scum in summer, and with a row of ducks on the side. It’s located in the park where I frequently walk, so I get a good look at it in all seasons.
In the last two weeks, since it’s gotten so cold, it’s been transformed into a classic winter scene–frozen, with skaters. They’re here when the slanted winter light dazzles as it reflects off the snow, they’re here when it’s cloudy and a blizzard threatens.
These skaters aren’t twirling dancing couples, or even singletons practicing their jumps. They’re all men and boys–sometimes, very very tiny boys–playing ice hockey. That’s what skating is really about in New England–playing a beloved and rough game, playing it hard, and playing it young.
You hear it before you see it–the echoing “thwack” of the puck being hit, and the indescribable scrunching sound of ice being thrown up by skates digging in for a sudden stop. They’ve brought two netted goals and placed them on each side of the ice, and I realize that this pond is perfect for this purpose, since by accident (or design?) it’s almost the exact size and shape of a hockey rink.
It’s been cold lately, very cold, but today it’s warmer. Each day I’ve noticed–with some trepidation–a large sign by the pond that says, “Warning: Thin Ice!” The sign is on a post staked into the ground. There’s a nail on the post, and hanging from it is a buoy with a long rope attached. If you fall in, the means to rescue you is right at hand–if the rescuers know what they’re doing, and if they’re very quick about it. There’s danger here, and the danger is real.
I used to skate on ponds, too, when I was young. The pond of my youth was much bigger, and the borough park department used to come and test the ice and put up a sign–a red ball– signifying it was okay to skate. When it wasn’t, it was strictly forbidden, although every now and then you’d see a lone skater or two tempting fate.
But here, people seem less apt to rely on others to tell them what’s safe and what’s not. They figure they can get out of any jam. Sometimes they’re even right.
This morning I’d been awakened, as I sometimes am these days, by a phone call from my mother. She was agitated and anxious. I’d gone to bed very very late, and was hoping to sleep longer, but no dice. Her caregiver wasn’t there yet, she said, and the agency phone didn’t answer.
But it was still a minute before her caretaker was even due to arrive; my mother is an expert at anticipatory anxiety, and as she’s gotten older (in fact, very old) it’s only gotten worse. And I’m trying to be more of an expert in patience, a hard lesson to learn.
So I tried to be gentle as I told her to wait, to wait a full half-hour, actually, and see if the woman wasn’t just delayed. And I tried to reassure her that I had all the emergency numbers to call (she actually had them, too, but couldn’t find them), and that in fact she is not helpless, even when alone.
I mentally ran through all the possibilities, including my going over there myself if the agency couldn’t find a substitute. My mother called me one more time, eighteen minutes later. Again, I told her to wait out the full half-hour (twelve minutes more!), and then to call me and I’d fix things if no one arrived.
I’m not sure how it was that I chose a half-hour, but it turned out to be a good choice: the woman arrived twenty-six minutes late. I could hear the relief in my mother’s voice when she phoned me to tell me the wonderful news: rescue! Rescue for her–and for me.
Sometimes we want that perfect assurance, that red ball that says there’s no risk, all is well, everything is safe. But we know that’s not going to be happening. So it’s good to have the buoy and the rope close at hand, just in case, and to try to learn how to use them.