When a mother’s own childhood trauma comes back to haunt her,
love and best intentions can’t always carry the day.
While I come up to speed, my mother perches in stands that whisper of old wood, numerous audiences, and countless off-hour practices. And she watches. She watches carefully as she finds a way to craft me into an Olympic product. . .
A nest is constructed one branch, twig, leaf, mud, and feces at a time. Some would say that the initial construction where branches interlock each other forms a kiss that hints of a home in the sky. The fact is that each piece of construction of a nest is essential. One is no more important than another. And much of the construction goes unnoticed.
I smell diesel fuel from the Zamboni. I push hard against the ice with the inner blade of my right foot. The air glitters inside the rink, something to do with its capture under the rafters. It smells of vibration, containment and weight. It is mammal-close to my skin, and crisp. An animal so far underground that it freezes as I fly down the ice into an axel.
It’s 11 p.m. The ice rink shines with a fresh Zamboni gloss. The lake outside shimmers under the moon’s light. I step onto the ice as my Mother watches from the stands. My blade hits fresh ice, melts it, and glides. I push with the inside edge of my free foot and glide faster this time. Next time will be more power, more speed and I will slowly come into this life and world of Figure Skating.
While I come up to speed, my mother perches in stands that whisper of old wood, numerous audiences, and countless off-hour practices. And she watches. She watches carefully as she finds a way to craft me into an Olympic product.
After fitting interlocking pieces of branches and twigs into a dream of a nest, the hawk does not hover back and admire the construction. She has no time for admiration. The fledglings are upon her. The spaces must be filled. The cracks must be erased. Erasure happens, counterintuitively, by creation of soft form—next is the grass, the feces. No one can see air.
I taste the spark of ice on my tongue. Crystalline ice teases my nostrils. I catch more speed as I slice through frozen air. My tongue tingles with anticipation. My nose holds a perimeter of crystals. I taste and smell nothing but a push into the heaviness of lifting into air. I know from experience that I need to stay in the heaviness. No stepping ahead. No outpacing myself.
My Mom goes to the top rafters whenever I perform or take a test. She gets more nervous than I do. She climbs to the highest rafters on the west side of the rink where all lights are shut off. There she perches on the edge of her seat to see her baby. She hears the thump of the sound system as the music turns on. She hears the whoosh of my blade as I one- push out to the center of the ice. She mentally adjusts my leotard to cover the butt cheeks and underwear. She sits higher as I stretch my arms out, ready to begin. She thinks that she knows the Blues better than I. She owns each step, stumble, misstep, and missed beat.
The day that the music fuses to my limbs, mind and torso, I leave behind what she knows and enter into my own world. Deep inside the music, I feel the sex of the Blues. Synapses, cells, neurons, ligaments, bones, and muscles trace through me. And, as they etch a longing, I slow them down into a viscous liquid as languid as sleep.
The containment of air is the most laborious step of the construction of a nest. The layering on of heavier and heavier materials lasts a lifetime. Once layered, the wet mud and feces spackle the nest together. The breast and wings compact the wet to the soft to the branch to the air. So that containment is made of all that never was.
My face flirts with the cold as I hold hope. My feet, legs and arms are hot from exertion. All I notice are crystals of ice that are now my skin. I feel my blade grab into the ice to push, click and fly.
I hear Mr. Kollen’s voice echoing across the rink. It’s a boom of sound as big as my crystalline nose.
“Keep it coming. Faster. As fast as you can into that jump.”
Down at the level of ice, the other Mothers surround my Mom. “You need to watch her. I don’t know where she learned that. But, you’re gonna have trouble with her.”
My Mom took a step away from Mrs. Cruz. I looked up at her. Her face clouded over with a doubt as dark as the Dust Bowl. Her mother came to her mind. And a broad stillness engulfed her. Her eyes grew distant, her arms held solid at her side, her words clamped tight behind her teeth.
She went back to her childhood then. The ramshackle house. The wooden floors stained with ash from the fire, spills of watery stews. The bedroom off the one main room where the five of them lived. Now, four as her father was taken away.
She didn’t want her mind to go to the bedroom. But, she could not hold the image away. In her reverie, she was 3. The man came in through the window. Then the bed shook. Then he grunted, “Uh, Uh,uh. Oh you whore.”
The bed shook so hard that she held her little sister Evelyn tight. Maybe she could protect Evelyn from the shaking.
He threw coins at her Mother as he left.
“Whore.” He said again.
This was how the children survived that day.
I knew very little of those children, except the darkness that descended onto my Mom in her polyester skirt suit in the first minutes after I took my first Pre-Gold Ice Dance test, the Blues.
My Mom didn’t know the Blues in the same way that I knew the Blues. She knew more of them and so walled herself off from the notes, the longing. Tamped down a containment.
There is a flutter of sound as wings and breast push against the nest to form the perfect cup and encasement for the eggs, then the cracks in the eggs, then the wide open mouths of babies. We admire so much in bird song. But, this subtle flutter of wings pushing against a nest that will be abandoned when the birds fledge outpaces a song. The song depends on the nest.
The crack of my blade pushes off the ice. Other coaches murmur to their skaters. Mr. Kollen still booms,
“You’ve got it. You’re almost top speed.”
I sweep by the boards, red and blue ribbons under the ice. I see the chopped up ice yield to a blue tattered ribbon lurching out of the ice to snag my blade. I swerve, miss the ribbon, get back to the boards. As close as I can to the slippery edge, topped by scraped plexiglass.
Going fast right by the snack bar. Hot dogs, cinnamon rolls, Ronnie’s cologne. I’m hungry. The smelter of blades being sharpened. A talisman of blood. Zamboni door. Diesel. Locker room. Deodorant.
I taste my chapped lips and hear him.
“You’re ready. Axel at the end of the rink by the Box Office.”
I push to the end. Blade grips ice tight, then flies free. My right leg extends all the way back.
“Bring it through clean.” Piete says.
And I arc my leg from back to front.
Ritual, Practice and Habit are of the same species. They are mammalian. They are where we came from in the caves, on the plains and at the waters.
We begin in them and then, sometimes, we get stuck in them.
It’s a day in any season. The words are what I remember. My mother uses her screechiest voice. She steps far inside my personal space as if she fused back to me to be my baby. Embedded deep inside me, she made a statement.
“You know that you’re a failure.”
And, you might object to this abrupt transition. As I did. It came out of some diurnal resonance created by that one comment after I slipped into my own skin embraced by the Blues.
I was 13. A young 13. And, I wasn’t sure what failure was. But, I was about to be trained to it.
It’s possible that the Blues had unleashed memories long imprisoned in my Mom’s mind. Her path as a child swerved as did many in the era of the 1930s. After her father was sent to prison, her mother did whatever it took to keep the children. But none of that worked. The children were seized as wards of the state and never returned to their family.
Sex became wired to failure. Hunger wired to a desolate prairie, hope wired solely to an air she could not see, taste, smell or trade.
The nest is built, the babies come. Some fall out. Some are pushed out. Some die. And the nest is only for a season. Because we need a new year. We need a fresh start that will pause all that’s been trained into us. We need air to find an invisible resource. An unknown. A pause.
“Take it slow. The leg pulls you up. You’ll release at the top.”
The leg brings me straight into the sky. All the way vertical.
“When you’re at the top. Pull legs and arms in. 1.5. Remember.” Mr. Kollen says.
And I’m at the top. I can’t hear anything except for silence and suspension. I know I have to pull in to rotate but I want to stay suspended beyond the world. I am tethered to the sun.
“Laurence, pull it in.” Mr. Kollen calls.
I pull in and the rotation is as fast as a top.
“Unwind.” He calls.
I unwrap my right leg like unfurling spaghetti.
The blade touches down on back outer edge. I’ve lost at least 1/3 of my speed. I glide the edge until I am almost still.
“Not bad.” He stage whispers from the other end of the rink.
Each day I listened carefully to instructions to learn the next jump, spin or ice dance. When the instruction of “You are a failure” landed on my ears, I was primed to take those words inside and execute those moves.
But failure is a state, not a move. Permanent, not temporary. The devotion to practice became wired to failure.
We sit in front of a hellhole motor inn in Lyons, Colorado long after I’d forgotten about skating. The Bluegrass festival sun pummels our skin. We’re in Mom’s tattered mesh chairs from the 50s.
And, unusually, we’re quiet. Our hands mirror each other in the chairs: her left, my right.
She draws in a breath, audible to break the silence. She hated silence.
“You’re a strong woman,” she said.
The phrase was unlike her. Unlike her in the simplicity. Unlike her in the brevity. Unlike her in the compliment.
As we grow old, we’ll remember the smell of our nest. And, eventually, I did step back on ice, feel the glide of my blade. My Mom was dead then, eight years.
As I found I could push into a glide still. As I alternated my limbs and could feel the line from the top of my head to my toes. As I felt the muscles in my thighs fire. As I felt my arms automatically reach up and out to the sky, I felt my mother’s love. Still embedded in my body, I heard her words,
“You were always the most beautiful thing on that ice.”
Lori Dewender is a writer, weaver and programmer based in Colorado. “The Nest” is part of a work in progress titled Blade: Growing up on Edge, a reverie cast into Ms. Dewender’s early experience as a figure skater and the effects of her family’s hidden history.