millerI’m not a graceful child. I bump into furniture, spill drinks, wake with bruises for no discernable reason at all. I trip over carpets, stain my shirts the minute I walk out the door, and my lank hair slithers free of any barrette. But when I put on my roller skates, I turn into a different person, a person who can skim lightly above the surface. I’m going so fast—the world is a blur—but I know how to stop. I can execute the perfect turn that will keep me from spilling off the curb.

And now I’m putting on a show, wondering if my mother is watching: my mother who used to be a star skater, nearly a pro: she has a picture of herself in the short-skirted outfit, one foot pointed to show off her shapely calves, one hand casually settled on her tiny waist. Her hair is sprayed, her lipstick bold. Her skates gleam white, the blonde wood wheels momentarily at rest.

This person exists before the varicose veins, and the heart attacks; before the husband and children and the worry that’s her constant companion. It’s a mother’s job, she says, to worry, though for years during my childhood she displayed a needlepoint on the wall that intoned: “Worry is the advance interest you pay on trouble that seldom comes.” And now, at age eighty, she stands perpetually in the posture of unease: her back bent, hands wringing one another, though when I point this out—uncharitably, making fun—she pulls them apart and says, you’ve got it wrong. Her wrists, she tells me, hurt her all the time, even in her sleep, and she wakes crying, her hands ablaze with pain.

I want to say I’m sorry. I want to enter the old photograph, go out with that young skater onto the smooth floor of the roller rink, its shine high and clean, and take my mother’s hands in mine. We would enter the circling flow of skaters: some who clomp across the floorboards; some who swoosh by, hands clasped behind their backs; some who skate backward with sly grins. Couples skate side-by-side, holding hands both front and back; solo skaters spin in place, slowly, carefully. Some may try jumps and spill onto the rink laughing, while children race, arms pumping, and over it all: the music—music like a carousel, music made for circling—occasionally interrupted by a voice far above, a voice directing us clockwise or counterclockwise, fast or slow, while benched spectators watch from the sidelines as the gyre turns.

My mother and I might skate side-by-side, holding hands like sisters or best friends, her knuckles pressed against mine, wedding ring glinting like the mirrored disco ball above. Or perhaps she could stay young for this excursion: a teenager, and me the elder, watching as if she were my own child, both of us obliged to surrender to momentum. We’ll understand how grace arrives only after long practice, and the falling down is really the most essential part of the glide. Eventually the music squeaks to a stop, and we’ll skate easily back to the bleachers, sit down to untie our long complicated laces. My mother will note how the white leather is now scuffed with our passage, and she’ll rub at the stains with her thumb—licking and scrubbing, licking and scrubbing, saliva, as all mothers know, the most potent of cleansers. I’ll quickly tie up my sneakers and wait patiently until my mother is ready to put on her ordinary shoes.

Brenda Miller directs the MFA in Creative Writing and the MA in English Studies at Western Washington University. She is the author of four essay collections, including Listening Against the StoneBlessing of the Animals, and Season of the Body. She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes.

Artwork by Stephen Knezovich