issue no. 5 | fall 2021
Running on Ice
No matter how many layers of gloves I put on, or how deeply I bury my fists into my pockets, my fingers are twice as cold as the rest of my body. Too anxious to search WebMD and too embarrassed to try mittens, I’ve resigned myself to compulsive, diagnostic knuckle cracking and the certainty of frostbite.
I mention this because I have only one memory of a winter day outdoors wherein my fingers were not exhausting the “ifs” of my hypochondriac brain. It was a Sunday in February, 7 a.m. Downing my second cup of hotel coffee and curled beneath my brother’s jacket, I watched my mom stare blankly ahead as the turn signal blinked.
She had never looked more gray. Gray coat. Gray ear warmers pressed against the gray car seat. Our suburban Maryland surroundings unveiled lone gray joggers idly crossing narrow gray bridges and milky gray slush pools. Bleak. Even for February; even for a funeral day.
I could smell grandpa’s apartment on her, from the jarringly strong coffee (our duty as Norwegians, my grandpa would say, is to drink coffee as dark as dirt and dust every delicacy with powdered sugar) to the knit beanie flung across the dashboard. Whether she was aware of it herself, I’m not sure; but later on, she carried this scent back to Atlanta in every musty photograph and neatly pressed sweater in her suitcase.
Now my sister and I wear those sweaters. Several washes later, grandpa’s extra large T-shirts and blue Nike pullover preserve his legacy in the messy piles of my closet.
I’ve never felt strange wearing others’ clothes; I have the Goodwill receipts to prove it. Yet, in this case, they’re so fragile. Even around the house, wearing them brings me uncanny awareness of a role I may have neglected. How fair is it to claim my grandpa in this way when, just a year ago, I couldn’t even bother to return his emails?
Because most of the time, if I’m honest with myself, I am supremely self-centered. Not out of narcissism but in a uniquely torturous loop: berating myself for awkward eye contact or rendering myself the protagonist of nonexistent self-discovery.
My mom once remarked that my notoriously awful driving, which leaves family members gripping their arm rests every time I’m in the driver’s seat, stems less from a lack of skill than a fundamental disregard of my surroundings. I struggle to cram even those I love most into a brain that wakes to five alarms in a five-minute span and counts calories in the iPhone Notes app.
But in the car that morning, I felt oddly apathetic toward my own present. Every strip mall, park, and streetlight appeared to me only as my mom perceived them, or at least as I imagined she did: colored by favorite childhood restaurants, traffic on the Beltway, early morning drives to swim practice, and grandpa belting out Germanic operas. A life in which my nearest and dearest lived without even a vague notion of me: in which my mom was not “mommy,” “mum,” or the sardonic “mother dearest,” but just a person.
I know I’m not breaking new ground with this thought: that even those we’re closest to exist outside our frames; that our 300,000-year-old brains assign the most reductive roles for nothing more than a vague sense of order.
Still, this didn’t make the revelation about my mom less shocking. I witnessed my perfect collage of her pulled apart and tossed into a far greater pile of parts. The grieving daughter. The nostalgic adult. The woman returned home. I was the daughter of a grieving daughter.
It was a moment that collects all its meaning in retrospect.
Example A: At age 11, I overheard my mom on the phone with a friend discussing her and my dad’s divorce. Her voice cracked on the words, “I’m just really scared.”
Example B: My dad and stepmom visited me in Chicago my freshman year of college. Dad got teary when we parted at the end of the weekend, and I pretended not to care but sobbed back in my dorm room.
Any inkling of my parents’ vulnerabilities paralyzes me. For as blasé as I am with my mom and dad, it sometimes feels more like a part I’ve bought into: the eye-rolling young daughter, the twenty-something lamenting her parents’ failure to catch up with the times. When I witness my dad cry or my mom grieve, I regret ever playing that part. Because in these instances they’re breaking from script – acting outside the roles I’ve prescribed them – and I can never bring myself to do the same.
We pulled into the empty lot beside Wheaton Regional Park. It was my first time there, though I’d heard mom speak fondly of it: fields nestled by loops of woodland trail and, in a depressing juxtaposition, horses grazing beside a multilane highway.
I found it difficult to feel one way or another about it. I was too cold. I’m rarely, if ever, inclined to view my Southern roots as consequential, but sub-freezing weather is an exception. I watched my brother grab a tree for balance and swing each leg back and forth like a pendulum, loosening his muscles. Somehow, he wore shorts.
I shouldn’t have been surprised because, really, this is just Chance. When my brother suggests things like a sunrise workout on a blustery morning or, back home, runs before dawn every day with a twenty-five pound weight strapped to his chest, my ego goes straight to belittling.
“But what’s the point?” I’ll ask him when, at 8 p.m., he announces his retreat to bed like a hero off to battle.
“I don’t know,” he’ll reply with a shrug. “I just like it.”
His shorts pissed me off, just as every 8 p.m. bedtime pisses me off. Despite being five years my junior, despite being only 16, Chance embodies our family’s resiliencies to an extent that I’ve never quite managed. Even in the simple things, like his indifference to cold weather, he’s a living piece of those Scandinavian relatives bundled up in log cabins, of grandpa’s childhood in Minnesota and mom’s love of running when her breath is made visible.
Like two criminals in cahoots, my mom and brother plan twenty-mile treks through the Appalachians and order Egg McMuffins in pre-hike ritual. They jump out of bed to blinking, LED numerals in dark rooms and lace up their tennis shoes without a second thought. Meanwhile, across town, I roll to the other side of my pillow.
I was relieved when we agreed to run separately and meet back at the car in an hour or whenever it happened to start snowing. Chance took off immediately. Mom and I watched the bob of his wool hat disappear around a bend as we set off together toward the main path, zipping our collars up to our chins and treading with caution over hidden ice patches.
Each crunch of my feet brought a bit more novelty. Disconcerting. Exciting. Readily uncomfortable. And here was my mom beside me, familiar incarnate: her gait characteristically determined, her voice the same that has talked me down from ledges and reminded me to unload the dishwasher more times than I’d like to admit.
How she could walk beside me in this unfamiliar setting, filled as it was with grief and grey and snow, was inconceivable to me. Yet, here she was: far away from the cheerful morning glow of our sunroom, where, selfishly, my mind often keeps her.
As we moved to split up and take our separate routes, all that child-like attachment came to me at once. “Not yet,” I wanted to say. “Let’s wait till the novel becomes familiar. Let’s stay together until the snow on the branches feels normal, and I don’t feel so strange.”
But we did part, and I ran alone. Immediately, as I had suspected, my fingers went numb inside my gloves. No longer good for grasping or waving, they swung at my sides like phantom limbs.
Clench my fists. Crack my knuckles. Bend my fingers one by one. Nothing.
I had never run through snow before and slowed instinctively as paths curved and gnarly roots reared, tiptoeing down small slopes with the focused resolve of a rappelling rock climber. I had absolutely no idea where I was going. My hands had long since passed the point of being able to check my phone map, and averting my eyes from the trail for even a second could, I knew well enough, lead to imminent disaster.
A trait from my mom: clumsiness. So ingrained in our DNA that the only place I’d trust either of us to not slip, trip, or fall is a sensory deprivation room. Some of my most mortifying memories, like dropping a tray full of salsa bowls at my restaurant job or tripping up the stairs of my school’s busy dining hall, are colored by a sense of inherited inevitability.
In those embarrassing aftermaths, covered in salsa or limping across campus, my only mild solace has come from recalling my mom’s many moments of utter incompetence with the natural world: a scream from the kitchen as she drops a stack of wine glasses; a curse as she slams her finger in the bathroom door. And yet, despite this battle with the ground, my mom is a rock: the last person to ask for help and the first to run up a hill.
I’ve grown up hearing that curiosity is stifled by the cynicism of adulthood; that my wonder and draw toward the novel will fade with a mortgage and a 401K. But the great thing is, I’ve never believed any of it. Because the pessimistic prophets who make these claims have clearly never met my mom, who discovers hidden nature reserves on long walks, swims laps through lakes, and takes commemorative photos of every restaurant dish she eats.
I had no doubt that in this very moment, she was photographing the horses by the highway or watching a cardinal flit across the snow. Because that’s another thing about my mom: she notices things. While I burrow in the internal, she looks to the world for little signs of meaning.
I thought about this as I ran. Where were the signs? As much as my brain loves the poetic when it’s on the page in front of me, I can never seem to find the same in real life. But mood is different; mood is hard to avoid. It was in the overcast skies and the dog barking just outside my line of sight. It was in my inability to look at my map, my wind-whipped ears, and the knowledge that, in five hours, I’d be standing at a gravesite.
I’m not sure how I’d have felt about these things on any other day. Maybe, I’d have felt nothing at all. But sometimes the pace of my breathing matches perfectly, eerily with the rhythms of my setting. The film buff side of my brain wakes up and imagines each sight and sound orchestrated by a director, the gray cast of the sky rendered just so by a brilliant cinematographer.
I often feel embarrassed, pretentious even, trying to discuss fate, but I suppose these moments are the closest I get to genuinely trusting in it. If this morning had been sunny and warm, birds singing, kids playing, I doubt my mind would have wandered to these corners. I also doubt I would recall it all so vividly. It seems to me that the universe underlines experiences we should remember by dropping us—like a pin on a map—into settings that press on our consciences. Places that, like fresh cement, come primed for a permanent footprint.
I may never return to Wheaton Regional Park. Especially with grandpa gone, it seems unlikely that I’ll ever have reason to go near it. Instead, it has lodged inside me with a developing mythos, crystallizing my train of thoughts into something relatively comprehensible. Like a dog-eared page, I can flip to this day and this moment knowing exactly what feelings I’ll find. Sometimes, I welcome that; sometimes, I’d rather skim a different page.
And here’s another thing about that run: my hands warmed up. I’m not going to pretend to understand it physiologically, but as I ran, the aching and stiffness subsided. I could swing my hands by my sides and bend my fingers. I could take off my gloves without a jolt of cold.
Maybe I was just distracted by the scenery. Maybe all the coffee running through me had somehow reached my fingertips. But one way or another, my body came to terms with my weird, frigid fingers for the first and only time ever, and I’m inclined to believe that means something. Can one pain be subtracted for another pain gained? Does the universe deal in that kind of math?
These days, my grandpa’s things sit in my childhood bedroom, filling the drawers and shelves I emptied when I left the nest. It’s an odd collage - my music posters supplemented by Japanese textiles, my bookcase loaded with World War II history and opera singers’ biographies.
I don’t know if there’s ever been a more unintentionally hilarious depiction of generational change. But when I look through the remainders of his life, dropped so haphazardly against my family’s present, I mostly just feel calm. Having these pieces of him around is a green light: for myself, my mom, all of us; an ordinance to accept and move on, but only carefully.
I can imagine myself in the throes of next winter, and again, my hands are throbbing. However, this time, my brain is quiet. It’s not calling the doctor or spelling out illnesses; it’s matching my breathing. I am someone’s daughter and granddaughter. Niece and sister. In sync, as much as I can be.
Holyn Thigpen is a writer/producer/pop culture freak from Atlanta. Her work has been featured in Creative Loafing, Bright Lights Film Journal, Drunk Monkeys Literature + Film, and WABE Atlanta. You can also find her every week on Bust.com covering film, television, and all things feminist.