After sorting the nails and screws on the top of the bench, a ray of sun burst through the narrow window of the tiny basement room, illuminating the edge of something wedged between the workbench and the wall.
Just two weeks after my father died, we began the process of helping my mother clear out the house, selecting and holding on to precious tangible mementos, finding things to give away. I was assigned the basement space he used for his projects. He took pride in his handy work. A pharmacist by trade, he approached the exercise of crafting something with wood and nails with equal precision and respect for exactitude, but without the burden of life or death hanging over the success of the project.
After sorting the nails and screws on the top of the bench, a ray of sun burst through the narrow window of the tiny basement room, illuminating the edge of something wedged between the workbench and the wall. I pulled the workbench forward and plop, clink, a pair of heavy-duty gloves and a rusty nail fell onto the cement floor.
Smiling, I retrieved gloves and nail. Dad lost the gloves right after his biggest project, one I had not thought about in years – building my ice rink. I was not a serious skater, but I loved it. However, we lived far from a public ice rink and between Dad’s work schedule and my mom’s, I hardly even scuffed the white leather skates that had been my favorite Christmas gift the year before.
After raking the leaves one afternoon on a rare clear Pittsburgh autumn day, I noticed Dad staring out at our yard, thinking. I went out to help him bag the leaves.
“Where are the bags, Dad?”
He pointed to the bags, and then asked, “How would you like your very own ice rink?”
I looked up at him. “My own ice rink?”
“I can build one for you, right here in the yard.”
If my dad said he could do it, I believed him. I was fourteen. He could do anything.
We went to the hardware store together. I watched as he picked out lumber, plastic pool lining, and nails. At the register he picked up a pair of leather-palmed work gloves.
“Gloves for real work,” he said.
Over the next few days, as my father, measured, sawed, and pounded, those gloves protected his pharmacist’s soft hands. He worked afternoons on the rink, discovering part-way through that our flat yard had a slight slope.
“Math is our friend,” he told me. “You will have your rink. After all, I promised.” To give me a flat rink, one side would have to be higher than the other. He measured, calculated it all again, and renewed his efforts.
It was warmish until after Christmas that year. My white leather skates from the previous year still fit. My birthday, coming right after Christmas, was occasion for a warm white parka and some heavy socks for the skates. Thus far, we had seen only a few intermittent night freezes.
“We can’t fill the pond yet,” he told me.
Two weeks into the New Year, just after my birthday, the weather decided to be wintery at last.
“It’s time,” he said.
My father filled the pool liner fastened to the four corners of my shallow wooden pond. He filled it carefully, and then turned off the outside water for the winter. Sure enough, that night the temperature dipped way below freezing, and the next day’s small bit of sun did nothing much to heat air or yard.
“Your rink is ready to use,” he announced.
I pulled on the skates, laced them, and twirled and stumbled my way around the ice, smiling and laughing. I skated to music in my head, loving the space. My dad watched from the kitchen until he had to leave for work. I skated until my mother called me in to have dinner.
For two months, every day, I skated. I taught myself to circle and to skate backwards. I chanted Latin declensions to myself as the sharp skate blades cut a set of circular paths around the inside of my icy square. Imagining applause when my dad was at work, I reveled in his real praise, calling him outside to watch me whenever he was home.
March began a pattern of alternating warm and cold days, and all too soon the ice became too soft for even the sharpest skate blades to grip. One afternoon Dad took out the work gloves and, with the claw end of his hammer, began to extract nails and pull apart the boards. Water sloshed out onto the dormant grass. Before he was finished with the task, his work gloves went missing. I remember helping him look for the gloves – outside, in the workroom, and in other parts of the house. He used woolen gloves to shield his hands for the final phase of the demolition.
When the square pond was no more than a stack of materials in our driveway, my rink disappeared into the maw of the garbage collector’s truck. My dad never built another. I outgrew the skates, I threw out the nails, but I kept the lost gloves that had warmed his hands the year he harnessed winter’s cold to give me my heart’s desire.