The first job I really aspired to- after artist and teacher- (those are the only two careers I could imagine at the age of 7) was professional ice skater. My parents had taken us to the traveling ice show, Holiday On Ice, in Knoxville, Tennessee. There were spinning teacups, Snoopy writ large, mad hatters, Alice in Wonderland- skimming around on the ice- oversized and plush- in the follow spots that crisscrossed over the rink. There was a Vegas number- there always is- looking back- I realize that was for the dads who got roped into taking the kids. If the thought of that makes you sick- well, I’m right there with you. I remember the moment one of the showgirls- on ice skates- with plumes of ostrich feathers coming out of her head, in a tight sequin skating costume- legs for miles, eyelashes that touched the first row in the mezzanine- Cleopatra eyeliner- winked at me. I thought it was a sign. Someday I will join the corps of Holiday on Ice!
Once we got home, I schemed. I wanted to be an ice skater more than anything. To be clear, I have never put on a pair of skates, nor have I attempted one single lesson. I’m from a place where there were roller rinks (thank you, Bloomer family) but even that I was not allowed to attempt- my mother did not want us to break our teeth. Evidently, kids who skated slammed into things - hard. And one of her goals was to make sure that we made it to 18 with our teeth.
When my mother spoke of growing up in Chisholm, Minnesota, (I chronicled this in fiction in the novel The Shoemaker’s Wife) there’s a scene at an ice rink- completely and totally lifted from my mother’s life. She had a twin sister and they had matching red velvet skating costumes. They skated from the first snowfall to the last one- which meant that they were practically skating year-round on the Iron Range. My mother could do jumps and figure 8’s- they spent long days on the ice - in their tams (berets) with their long black hair whipping around in shiny braids in the costumes made by my grandmother. They were twins- they matched! Ida and Irma! They loved ice skating so much- they would wait until nightfall and watch Mr. Uncini flood the rink to make the ice for the next day. It was all magical to my mother- it was a huge part of her life- and she loved it.
I tell you this because I grew up in the American south in a lovely town called Big Stone Gap where there was no ice rink. When it snowed- we got our sled and shared it- 7 of us- took turns. My pal Fletch said her family wore bread bags on their shoes and sailed down the hill. There were tires for tubing- all manner of moving fast on the icy hills. But there was no rink. There wasn’t that experience to be had. It had to live in my imagination.
I was not an impractical girl. I knew that there was no way I would grow up to be a professional ice skater but allowed myself to believe it at the time- because that’s what creative people do. We pretend. We embroider. We embellish- and we convince ourselves what we know to be true is truth- and wherever there is authenticity and truth- well, beauty follows. The creative mind is so convincing, that I actually believe - and I’m not kidding, that if I just applied myself, I could ice skate today. I could learn it. I could take a class- and I could learn not only how to do it, but become expert at it. I could win a medal. Who thinks like that? Artists do.
The creative life is the limitless one- where ideas are launched in voids- in places where there isn’t room for optimism or glory or faith- it’s just pure imagination. We never think result, we think process. We think the why and the how- never the actual mechanics of a dream. We imagine it and we create it- the reality in our heads. Sometimes I imagine my mother, age 9, when I didn’t know her- when she didn’t know me- and I watch her as she sails on the silver rink. My mother- who I remember hauling laundry for 9 people up and down stairs- cooking dinner every night- setting the table with a tablecloth and candles every night, I tell you every night because it was a ritual…I think of her- the kid on the ice- not the woman in the kitchen so much- the woman I barely helped if I remember correctly- that beautiful woman who was once a girl and skated on the rink in her hometown on the Iron Range.
She grew up with an understanding of simple beauty… How to take nothing and make it beautiful- and fun- and interesting. How to be creative every single day of your life because you are committed to elegance- to raising your children with a sense of decorum- manners- and surrounding them with beauty so they might always crave it. When I tell you she did it with nothing, I’m not kidding. She had a flair- a craftsman’s eye. She’d make fists and quietly say, “I know perfection exists and I know I can’t reach it- but I must try.” She didn’t say it to encourage me to study harder- but to look at the world with the intensity of an artist- a writer. She was a librarian- and books were sacrosanct to her. If you wonder how I got here, there were some invisible hands pushing me up the mountain trail. They were hers.
The creative life is knotting of threads. It’s sometimes sewing as we learned from Mr. Dior and my grandmothers Viola and Lucia- and sometimes it’s just the idea of it- relayed in story, in words, by my mother to me- and now to this page.
In your own life, the stories are vivid and glorious- and wholly your own- dreams can be born any time or anywhere- at the behest of whoever is looking for one- I realize now that my mother’s skills became my dreams- and helped me aspire to whatever it is I do- she is gliding on the ice, but it is me- my cold face in the Minnesota winter, that brings her to you- that brings this story to you.