Pleasures of Life Dept.

How I Learned to Skate

By Nancy Roy Fiorillo

One night not too long ago, I dreamed I was roller skating. The rink was big, and I was all alone except for my dad. He was standing at the railing. I tried a difficult jump and fell, not once but three times. Then my dad said, “Hold your head up — that will help you keep your balance.”

I tried again and mastered the jump. It was a dream that came from long ago, before I really grew up, before high school and boyfriends and life.

I grew up in a small town in New England. Famous for the manufacture of Frye Boots, Marlborough was an unremarkable haven for first generation immigrants — French, Italian, Irish, Greek and more. I was third-generation French Canadien, my antecedents hailing from Prince Edward Island and Toronto. My parents met at a St. Mary’s Catholic Church youth group and later dated as the King and Queen of the Mardi Gras. I was told the priest attended the crowning of the “royalty,” but the dancing could start only after he made his exit.

Our modest two-bedroom house sat on 12 acres with enough room for two parents, one sister, batches and batches of kittens and me. My paternal grandfather lived two houses away, and both he and my dad raised chickens. Often I accompanied my dad to the chicken coop to feed the squawking birds, eagerly plunging both of my hands down into the mash we mixed for their dinner, and more often than not coming up with nothing much more than an itchy nose. Dad always kept one hand out of the feed, free to scratch my little nose for me.

Receiving the fluffy, yellow chicks we called peepers and putting them in the little room with the bright warming light was a cozy act of faith. On Saturdays my dad was the egg man, and I rode the route with him. His regular job was at a General Electric facility called Telecron. When I asked him what he did, he told me he put faces on clocks. And indeed he did, on an assembly line.

My sister and I walked to school and back. Summertime was a flight of imagination in the large woods behind our house. We buddied up with a couple of kids from across the street and built a bike trail, including jumps. One summer we put together a three-room house with bundling sticks and string. We discovered a pond that we named Crystal Lake and told imaginary stories about who drowned there and who drew their drinking water from this little muddy lagoon. We built a 9-hole cement miniature golf course complete with twists and turns and waterfalls. The architect was the boy across the street (who would become an engineer), and we were his crew. We dug holes, moved rocks, poured cement and cleared paths. We made sandwich signs for our bikes and rode all over town advertising a round of miniature golf, 5 cents. We made enough money that summer to go to the finest amusement park in New England — my dad drove four of us as if he were delivering eggs and we stayed all day.

In the winter we’d sling our ice skates over our shoulders and walk to Lake Williams, as frozen as the concrete we poured. We changed into our skates near the warmth of the burn barrel and stayed on the ice until we couldn’t feel our feet, then returned to the barrel to change into our frozen boots and head home.

Just before fourth grade we found out I needed allergy shots and special shoes. My mother was offered the entire vial of medicine for $85, or we could pay $5 per shot. She took the installment plan and then declared she would be going to work at a factory in Sudbury. My sister and I left public school to attend St. Anne’s Academy adjacent to our church. The academy was both a school and a novitiate, run by the Sisters of St. Anne. Most of the students were boarders, and my sister and I joined the ranks of the day students. School started at 8 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. We had a half day of French and religion and the other half of the day was for everything else our nuns knew. We diagrammed sentences ad nauseam but learned little history, geography or science. To fill the full day we had 2 1/2 hours for lunch, time used in the winter for skating on Lake Williams, a group of wobbly young girls led by penguins on ice. Our nuns were strict and unyielding, but they could skate like Boston Bruins, gliding along with their hands behind their backs.

My dad eventually closed down the egg business and, with help, dismantled the chicken coop. I remember them removing the baby chick room, then pulling off sides of the troughs. The roof was still standing when they pulled up the floor. Underneath was beautiful hardwood, perfect for roller skating. Our neighborhood engineer was no skater, so he rigged up a bowling alley, too.

One day after watching us, my dad announced that we were good enough skaters to go to the real roller rink, named Lyonhurst, up on the hill above Lake Williams. In earlier days the Big Bands, even some famous ones, performed there. When the music died out, a couple bought it and turned it into a skating rink with smooth flooring, organ music, dances and games. My first Saturday afternoon was pretty scary, but Dad stayed close by leaning against the rail to give me confidence. The rented skates were big and heavy on my skinny legs, and I didn’t have a skating skirt like most of the older girls, but I rolled on, weekend after weekend.

Soon my dad presented me with a used pair of excellent skates — Douglass-Snyder’s — with toe stops. My mom knitted skating skirts for me and bought the panties that go underneath. I took lessons and became a real skater. I won some games and learned some jumps and danced, going over the steps before I slept just to make sure I knew every single one.

Then it happened. I woke one Saturday morning to the news that Lyonhurst, my skating rink, had burned to the ground during the night. I was heartbroken! Other skating rinks were too far away to even think about.

We still ice skated on Lake Williams when it froze over in the winter, but as we grew older, the woods held no interest for us. Our backyard rink was gone and high school was ahead. I was forced to give up my skating and learn to do more grown-up things. But sometimes, even now, I dream about mastering a jump with someone standing against the rail with a free hand.  PS

Nancy Roy Fiorillo, a former mayor of Pinehurst, loves reading and occasionally a little writing.

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