My childhood memories of ice-skating are hazy, and indoors: fluorescent lighting, bleachers, a birthday party, maybe, and the sudden realization that if you didn’t know how to stop on roller skates, then you had absolutely no idea what to do on ice. I don’t even think that I’ve always associated ice-skating with the holiday season, per se — except that the Peanuts Christmas special opens with that long pond montage, and there’s Joni Mitchell’s indispensable “River” that she wishes to “skate away on,” and now here comes that minor-key, tear-jerking, kids-in-bed, Christmas-lights-glowing-in-the-living-room feeling …
But, y’all, I digress. This is about the proliferation of downtown, outdoor, holiday-season ice-skating rinks across this state, and about raising two boys who see Winterfest billboards springing up each late November and say: Daddy, can we do that? Can we go? And each year, with visions of compound fractures dancing in my head, I say, Yes, certainly. As always, my sugarplums. Let’s go rent you a pair of knife-soled shoes.
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This is about renting two pairs of skates, then, one for The Toad and one for The Wee, and me sitting in the almost-snow of a refreshingly early December cold snap, wondering: How did we get here so fast? Who are these tall, stringy, towheaded boys? This is our third year of outdoor skating, and we’ve done it in Graham, and in Pinehurst, and frequently in our hometown, Greensboro, where there’s something — say it — magical about skating under the lights, the tall buildings rising behind you, the slate-gray sky hanging low overhead.
Christmas can be hard, whether you celebrate it or not: All this pressure comes tumbling down all season long, all this buildup to 24-hour holiday radio and figgy pudding and Santa and naughty and nice and, yes, I know there’s another way to read all this, a way to see it as a time of peace and stock-taking and gratitude, and I think we should read it that way, in fact. But in our house, it’s also about the mad dash to make sure the bikes have been ordered and assembled, the batteries stockpiled, the menus gamed out, the cards mailed —
What am I trying to say here, as the boys glide left to right across this ice rink in front of me? I’m trying to say that I’d better relish the season in its actual relish trays. In my buddy Terry’s annual stray-Tuesday arrival with a deadly pitcher of homemade eggnog. In the evening, just after Thanksgiving, when we take the boys out to run the rows at the tree lot to their hearts’ content.
I relish the ice rink. I relish the lead-up. The Advent, if you will. Christmas morning with these two boys is so freighted and frantic that I lean, honestly, on these early days, the single digits of December, this week when we have ample time to go skating two or three nights in a row. Here they come around again, this time asking: Will you come skate with us?
A third pair of skates, then, and here’s each boy, eggshell-light and holding my hands, and here’s the cold wind in my lungs, and the sure knowledge that there is no good way to stop, not ever. My grandmother’s old lights are hung on our porch already, and when we get home, there will be that blue glow, visible even before we turn onto our street. It’s so dark so early these nights, and my wife and I will get the boys tucked in upstairs, come back down to sit in the warmth of the lit tree and a good record — but for now, right now, it’s just push and glide, push and glide, The Wee giggling and The Toad concentrating, all of us holding tight to each other, to the season, to this one early, near-perfect night and these few flurries just starting to fall. No, of course they won’t stick. Yes, of course there will still be school tomorrow. But yes, also, we can skate a little longer. This feeling, just around this next corner, this next turn, the one where we still haven’t fallen down? It feels a lot like hope. Let’s not stop just yet.
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One of the last old-school fish houses in Onslow County stands sentry on the White Oak River. Clyde Phillips Seafood Market has served up seafood and stories since 1954 — an icon of the coast, persevering in pink.