I said goodbye to an old, inseparable friend and skiing partner this last winter, after what had begun twenty years ago in Stowe, Vermont, where we were first introduced, and ended in Winter Park, Colorado. It was another one of those tiny tragedies and small realizations I now endure, as I suspect most of us do, that we’re growing older. They arrive, from nowhere, and land like an unexpected letter — and with it the loss, by slow degrees, of invincibility, recklessness and all those things that I now regard and associate with youth and stupidity.
There is a story I’m reminded of from time to time concerning a baseball player who had already spent several years in the big leagues and who asked his father, a retired major league veteran, how he knew when he was beginning to lose a step. His father replied, “If you’re asking, it’s already too late.” My own moments have been more subtle and innocent, but no less disarming, the latest of which I place full blame on my six-year-old daughter.
My friend, as it was, was a ski hat, and not a particularly attractive one, given to me by the owner of a bed-and-breakfast inn I worked for during my ski-bum years. It was oversized and warm and slid down past my ears like something from Calvin and Hobbes. Two other employees received identical hats: Sara, the morning and evening waitress, who, like me, graduated from school and was also “taking some time off”; and Tony, a bearded and burly Vermonter from Barre, who plowed the parking lot and fixed whatever needed fixing or whatever he figured needed fixing. Together we formed the inn’s Ski Bum Race Team, racing every Tuesday afternoon, sporting our hats, against similar teams comprised of dubious and not-so dubious characters of varying ability from Stowe’s local bars, restaurants and ski shops. The winning team was awarded, for the week, the race’s silver cup — a bottomless, gaping piece of hardware mounted on marble that was a ticket to any bar in town to be filled with free booze until the next race, or until either you were committed. We won twice in a row and more.
Chip, a recently divorced salesman who rented a trailer out back, was a last-minute addition to our squad. He wasn’t given a hat because the inn owner didn’t altogether care for him. When we returned from our evenings, and after we bid good night, he would often later stumble out of his trailer and noisily pilfer firewood outside our dorm-style rooms and weave his way back, like a ship taking on heavy water, dropping the odd piece en route like a popcorn trail to be discovered in the morning. Sue, the owner, minded, but never said anything. We didn’t care.
My hat survived those and similar beer-soaked and smoke-filtered outings, then and in future years. It accompanied me on fresh powder days, lost escapades and ill-advised, out-of-bounds adventures, while everyone else was stuck behind a desk somewhere. It raced with me against Stowe resident and Olympian Tiger Shaw (it was over before it began), and it traveled faithfully in my boot bag when all other equipment was upgraded, lost or destroyed. I eventually returned home to Rhode Island and found a “real job,” and, for 14 years, we commuted behind school buses on brittle winter mornings, blew into bars on unforgiving evenings, made weekend-warrior trips up north. And, like the character Henry Hill in the end of the movie, “Goodfellas,” my wife and I decided it was time for a change, time for a move, and we landed in Golden, where she had been offered a job, and I left my post back East as an editor and writer for the local paper. Out of work, the kids in school and winter on its way, I did what any sensible person would do in my circumstances — I bought season ski passes. And new skis and boots.
“Oh, happy day, hat! Rejoice! We are back!” I told myself (and my hat).
The lifts deposited us atop mountains with the giddiness of the oxygen-deprived. It was as if everything had come full circle and lay beneath us for the taking. So what if my breath was shorter, my body ached more than memory served me? So what if the herniated disks in my lower back acted up once in awhile? So what?
I also purchased my daughter’s first helmet, which we had normally rented along with her equipment in previous years. Lily, as with most children her age, has a tireless, insatiable curiosity coupled with endless questions about the nature of things and the ways of the world, and when they overwhelm me and exasperation mounts, which is inevitable, I can sometimes deploy a stop-gap answer that makes inexplicable sense in her little mind. Questions, for example, like — “How do blind people drive, Daddy?”
(“They don’t, honey. The deaf people drive them.”)
But there was always one question I had difficulty deflecting, and it presented itself every year soon after the lifts began running — Why doesn’t Daddy wear a helmet? That was always a tough one, probably because I never had a good answer and because there really isn’t a good answer. Why not, indeed?
When Lily was younger, the question never posed a true threat to my hat because she generally accepted my evasive responses unequivocally, but now, at six years old, she turned an increasingly critical — and skeptical — eye toward what is said and explained to her. Still, how do you explain to a child how something so simple and regular as a ski hat contains as much warmth and comfort of past experiences as it does against the snowy elements? Or that it is a reminder, growing dimmer each passing season, of some younger version of yourself? You can’t. At least I can’t.
It was late last January at Winter Park, a rare day of fresh and much-needed snow in which skiers and boarders came off the slopes into the lift line corrals exchanging sun-bleached smiles and chit-chat like a gaggle of geese. Lily had snapped her skis on and I was fumbling with her helmet, putting it on over her ponytail amidst her small-voiced protests, when she said —
“Why do I have to wear one of these and you don’t?”
And, like that, it was over. The coup de grâce mercilessly and unceremoniously fired. The well of answers (or excuses?) I had dipped into so often was now dry. I knelt down to her as I unfastened her chin clip.
“You know what?” I said, my face peering into hers.
We stepped into our skis again after a quick trip to the base-area ski shop and rode up the lift together, as we were to do many more times last winter. It was a special year on the slopes for both of us: Lily experienced her “Aha!” moment, when everything clicked and came together, and I was there to see it unfold. I watched her gain confidence and skirt the edges of trails amongst the trees. I watched her traverse and negotiate steep pitches. I watched, freighted with worry, as she took tremendous falls, becoming a confusion of body parts and ski equipment in a tumbleweed of snow — then get back up. I watched as she bobbed up and down, in and out of sight like a boat in high seas, through mogul fields. And there’s more to come this year and next. And next after that.
Not a bad way to christen a new helmet and welcome a new friend.
Rob Merwin is a graduate of the St. Lawrence University Writing Program and left his position as a page designer/writer/editor of his hometown paper last year to move to Colorado with his family. When he’s not playing Mr. Mom, he can be found getting happily lost among last year’s skiing photos on his laptop.