My Last Chance at Sledding
by Vivian I. Zumstein
The gentle, white-clad hill beckons. Snow softens the land, but naked trees thrust their branches sharp and stark against a bright, blue sky. The frigid winter air bites my nostrils, while inside my mittens I flex and ball my fingers, willing the cold away.
The sound of laughter drifts out from my left. The neighborhood kids, including my oldest three, are building a sled run down the steep slope through the woods. For years the hill on which I stand was the snowday Mecca, crawling with children and watchful mothers. But the kids grew and abandoned it as too tame; all except for seven-year-old Tommy. Both the youngest in the family and the neighborhood, Tommy, like the hill, has been left behind. He wants to be with the older kids, but he dares not. He is stuck with me as a playmate. We stand at the top of an otherwise empty hill.
"So, you want to get going?" I ask. Tommy casts a wistful glance in the direction of the other children's voices, but he nods and hops in the green plastic sled. I settle in behind his little frame and push off.
The sled goes like the dickens, a slight crust of ice providing a fast surface. We zip down the hill, snow flying in our faces. Wind whips tears from our eyes. We both shriek with pleasure: Tommy from exhilaration, me from both that and the rekindling of many childhood memories. I have always loved snow, a rare event in the temperate Seattle area where I grew up. A snow day was a gift from God; I savored every second. All those treasured recollections rush upon me, just like the snow thrown up into my face.
The sled hits bottom, gliding to a gentle stop. We roll out, covered with snow, laughing. Tommy has momentarily forgotten the fun he is missing with the older children in the woods. I throw a soft snowball, deliberately missing him. He throws one back. It smacks into my chest, spraying more snow in my face and eyes. I drop to the ground, feigning mortal wounds, and Tommy pounces. I am a child once more as we tumble together, Tommy trying to stuff handfuls of snow down my back.
Then we head back up. Tommy's legs disappear up to his knees in snow. I trudge along, one hand pulling the sled, the other hauling Tommy. To distract him, I show him how to throw his head back and exhale plumes of steamy air to pretend he is a steam engine. We continue slogging up the hill, saying, "We think we can! We think we can! We think we can!" A trickle of sweat slithers down my back, and my hands are no longer cold.
Tommy and I sled for about an hour. At first he is very happy, but the laughter of the other children keeps tugging at him.
"Can I go over there for just a little while?" he begs.
"Sure." I know he is too timid to risk a sled ride through the trees, but he wants to be part of the crowd. Tommy leaves me. I take a few solo runs, but it's not the same. He soon returns, downcast.
"Want to sled some more?" A shaken head. "How about hot chocolate?" He takes a last look toward the woods, and then nods without enthusiasm. We walk home, Tommy's little mitten-clad hand in mine.
It's tough for a mother to realize that she is no longer enough. One by one, my older children abandoned me. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I should have a few more sledding days with Tommy this winter. But next year, he too will join the kids in the woods. And who will sled with me then?
Zumstein, a Bay Weekly regular, last wrote Whoos in the Woods: Heard any owls lately? in October 2004.