It hasn't snowed in weeks and everything is frozen solid. There are 14 inches of ice on the pond. My friend Cyndy tells me to meet her there, to bring Grace and a sled. Cyndy is athletic and adventurous: she has been a mother and a hilltowner for longer than I have, and although I don't yet know her well I know that I want to be like her.
The pond is a walk from the road, and so we park and bundle the girls into sleds, packing our skates around their padded bodies. We pull them over the icy snow, over the meadow grass and cattails that poke out near the shore. At the pond's edge we sit and fix the girls' mittens and snap their coats up over their mouths. Their feet are too small for skates so we just tuck their snowpants into their boots. I quickly lace up the skates Cyndy brought for me and stumble out onto the pond. I haven't been on ice in years. Right away it is clear that this is not a skating rink. The ice is scored with the ridges and veins of daily contraction and expansion; it is black in some places and filled with bubbles in others, as though we are skating on frozen champagne. As I skate out holding Grace up between my legs, I can't keep myself from shuddering. What is ice but water, in a slightly different form? And how do I know that this pond is really frozen? I go on Cyndy's word, but she is going on someone else's word, and I wonder if anyone has actually checked this ice? Has anyone inspected it? I remind myself that ice fisherman drive their trucks on it. They clear it with snow blowers; they make fires on it. It is as solid as a wood floor. I tell myself that this pond is as frozen in January as it is liquid in July. "The ice is a fact," I tell myself and keep skating.
Soon enough Gracie and Greta decide they would rather scoot on the ice with the help of a pair of old milk crates, so I am free to skate alone. I make a few laps around the pond and my legs begin to remember what they can do. I stop wobbling and start pushing my feet with more force as I lift them. I bend my waist slightly and clasp my hands behind my back. I gather speed. The ice is bumpy and I have to be careful not to catch my skate blade in one of the grooves, but still I feel graceful.
All day after we leave the pond I can't stop thinking about the ice. I have hated this winter, my third in the hills. There has been too much wind and too much cold and not nearly enough companionship. But when I was on the ice I loved this place. I loved the frozen pond in all its uninspected seclusion; I loved my playful toddler and my athletic and adventurous friend. On the ice I loved myself for my strength and for my bravery.
It is a good year for ice. Cold days and colder nights, weeks without snow. Not too much wind. Everything is solid this year: lakes, ponds, wetlands, swamps. All this could change in an instant--a few warm days and the ice will warp; a dumping of wet snow and the ice will disappear. But for now the ice is perfect.
We skate again with Cyndy and Greta. The girls wear skates now, and they are up more than they are down. Today we aren't at that tiny meadow pond, we are at the lake. It is a lake where we swim together in the summer so there is an odd symmetry to walking over the hill from the parking lot with a bag over my shoulder and a toddler on my hip only to see an expanse of quiet ice instead of water, a field of snow instead of sand. I see the picnic table near the shore, only now is it surrounded by boots and sleds instead of flip-flops and water wings.
It is no small thing to get two children to the lake on a midwinter afternoon. There is precious little time between the hour when June wakes from her nap and the hour the sun sets. And there are so many things to pack. Skates, extra socks, helmets, mittens, snow pants, scarves, oranges, peanut butter sandwiches, a thermos of something warm. It would be easier just to stay home and sled down the hill behind the house. But this is my seventh winter in the hills. I don't think so much about what is easier anymore.
We meet Cyndy and Greta by the shore. We sit at the picnic table and lace skates, tighten mittens, strap on helmets. The girls make their slow and shuffling way to the ice. They look like penguins in snowsuits. I lace my own skates and then strap June into her stroller. She can't skate, and she can't really even make her way with a milk crate. Or maybe she could, but I am too impatient to move that slowly. This lake is wider than a dozen ponds and I want to go all the way across.
The girls climb into a sled and Cyndy pulls them while I push June. The girls sing to each other and we skate fast and talk. We talk about Christmas and school, about our mothers and our work. Cyndy is a strong skater--she falls just once, and that is because her dog slides into her and knocks her feet out from under her. I don't fall at all, but only because I have the stroller to keep me upright. We skate all the way down to the beaver dam at the lake's northern shore, past a young boy practicing his hockey moves and a group of high school girls skating in a pack. It is not even 20 degrees and the sun, never very strong today, starts to fall behind the pine trees.
As we skate I think about the ice. Instead of frightened, I am thrilled. My face is cold and my legs are moving; the sky and ice are enormous in their common gray and I am content in my smallness. I am glad to be on the ice with my children--glad for this chance to do something fast and wild with them. This is ice, I want to say to them, and it is nothing short of magical that you are standing on it. This is ice, I want to say, and soon enough it will be water again. One day it will thin and split into floes that you will break with rocks. And then one day we will come to the lake and you will pull off your sundresses and jump into the water and, magically, you will swim further than you did last summer, the same way that somehow you can skate alone this year when last year you couldn't let go of my hand.
I don't tell the girls any of these things. I ask June if she is warm enough and I ask Grace if she needs me to tighten her skates or loosen her helmet. I wipe their noses and pull up their mittens. When it is finally time to go, I lift June's cold and grumpy body out of the stroller and unlace my skates as quickly as I can. I hold her while she shrieks with the sudden realization that she is cold and hungry. I carry her and my skates and the stroller over the snow and back to the car where I blast the heat. I try to convince her to eat a peanut butter sandwich and try not to think about the fact that her lips are blue. I rush back to the lake's edge to collect Grace who sits at the picnic table, drinking hot chocolate. I gather her skates and her mittens and coax her toward the car. When I turn to say goodbye and I see that the full moon has risen over the blue-white ice, I do not turn Grace around to show her. Instead, I pull her hat over her ears and tell her to walk faster, her sister is waiting for us. This is Grace's sixth winter on the planet; her sixth year of ice. This full moon and frozen lake might be my magic, but they are just her winter afternoon; they are what you see and where you go when you are having a good year for ice.