My maternal grandfather, Clarence Blake, was from Clinton, Ontario, and as best I could tell when I was a kid, was the self-appointed Canadian ambassador to the east side suburbs of Cleveland. While most of his duties seemed to entail casually and repeatedly remarking on how much better Canada was than America to anyone who would listen — something I never once questioned for a second, what with him being the patriarch and all — they also involved making sure everyone in his bloodline learned how to ice skate shortly after exiting the womb. It wasn’t just for recreational purposes, either. To my grandfather, skating was serious business.
“What good are you if you can’t skate?” my grandfather groaned after my eldest sister, Miriam, decided to give up skating for General Hospital around the age of 12.
At the time, I assumed she’d just written herself out of his will, and made a mental note to never make that same mistake myself. As a bit of extra insurance, I even joined the local youth hockey league.
While the rest of my siblings eventually abandoned the ice for dry land, I continued to skate into adulthood, usually in the form of reluctantly joining my mother at the local skating club where couples and trios skated in time to live organ accompaniment — no small feat for man in his twenties just trying to get through the grunge era without incident.
“There’s a lot of nice young ladies there,” my mom would say, trying to sweeten the pot, as if offering to buy me whatever I wanted within reason at the concession stand weren’t enough. “You might meet someone.” The fact that almost no one else there was under 60 never seemed to register with her. Hope springs eternal. Especially in suburban Cleveland.
Illustration by Chloe Cushman
While I wore my hockey skates at our mother–son ice skatings, my mother wore the same skates she’d had since at least the ’70s, a weird sort of hybrid pair with a figure skating boot and a hockey blade, which I’d never seen before or since. They were at once dainty and tough, just like her.
I’d made it to the rink with my mom at least a few times a year into my thirties, the promise of not-so-young love eventually replaced by her springing for Mexican food beforehand, which was endlessly exotic to her, no matter how many times we’d gone to the exact same restaurant. To this day, I’ve yet to hear anyone else pronounce tacos as “TACK-os” like she did, even after we’d practised saying it the correct way right on up until the waitress came over.
My mom died in 2010, and a few years later, my dad sold the family home in favour of a retirement community. And while my siblings inherited most of the big-ticket items in the place, the only thing I wanted was my mom’s old ice skates. They now hang above the fireplace in the living room of my apartment in New York City, a constant reminder of the simple pleasures of hitting the ice with your mom no matter how many times you tried to get out of it.
What good are you if you can’t skate?