Reading: A Reinvention on Roller Skates

Personal Growth

A Reinvention on Roller Skates

I wanted to roll back time, so I got a pair of roller skates.

By Julie Whitehead

Normally, I hate getting asked what I want for Christmas. I never know what to say or how to judge what’s appropriate. But one year, shortly after I turned 40, I knew exactly how to answer that question. 

“Do you know what I really want for Christmas?” I asked my husband, seemingly out of the blue.

“What?” he said.

“A pair of roller skates.”

Stunned silence from the other end of the room. “Okay,” he finally mustered.

Apparently my whole family was in disbelief. A few days later, my daughter Terrie asked, “Why do you want roller skates for Christmas?”

“Because I want to learn how to skate again,” I said. I thought back to one of my earliest memories, of riding high on my daddy’s shoulders when I was about three, as he sailed around the rink. Of how Daddy had taken the brand-new combat boots he’d been sent home from Vietnam in, and had a local shoemaker attach wheels to them. And of how money was too tight for me to ever have my own pair of skates.

“Oh,” Terrie answered. Clearly, this was all she needed to hear to solidify her hunch that I had lost my mind

The family seemed to drop it  until three weeks before Christmas, when my husband came to me a little flustered.

“Terrie  says you really do want roller skates for Christmas.”

I thought a minute. “Yes, I do.”

He handed me an envelope of cash. “Go and try some on and pick out some you like and can wear. Then you can wrap them up for Christmas morning.”

“Sure,” I said, marveling at how smart he was to listen to what I said for once. “I can do that.”

On the Hunt
I had to call five sporting goods stores before finally hitting pay dirt. As I drove out to the store, I tried to remember the last time I had skated. I decided that it was at my sister’s 21st birthday party at our hometown skating rink. I was 30 then, and didn’t have any trouble skating. Maybe 10 years won’t affect me that much.

I got to the store and the polite door attendant directed me to the roller skate aisle. The shelf housed 10 boxes of skates, their entire selection.

I picked out the most ladylike pair — white with pink racing stripes — but they weren’t my size. My third box was exactly the size I was looking for. They were white with blue detailing on all four wheels, and a toe stop in the front.

I walked over to a circular bench next to the skating aisle and pulled the skates out of the box. I sat down, crossed one leg over my knee (no small feat at 205 pounds), and laced up the skates. 

I slowly stood up, holding onto the bench for support. I let go, and my feet went right out from under me. BAM! I landed right on my butt.

 Well, that’s not a very good start, is it? I thought to myself. I started to pull myself up by the bench again. Maybe I’ve got all the falling out of my system already.

I noticed three employees looking at me with varying degrees of concern on their faces. I knew what they were thinking: this fool is going to break something right here in the store and sue us, leaving us nothing but the fillings in our teeth.

“Are you all right?” one of them asked.

“I think so,” I said, pulling myself back to my feet.

Another one of them, a big muscle-bound guy, came up to me as I let go of the bench and grabbed hold of the aisle shelves. “Do you know how to skate?”

“I used to,” I said with gritted teeth. “I’m trying to learn again.”

I walked up a few aisles and then came back, with the big guy hovering over me the whole time. I didn’t mind; my feet were out of my control, and I knew it.

Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer, and he took me by the elbow and escorted me back to the bench. “Are you sure you can skate?” he said.

“I’m going to do my best,” I said back.

So I packed the skates back in the box and went to the checkout counter. I couldn’t stop smiling. 

Becoming Fun Again
Sometime in the past year, I discovered my life was boring. I couldn’t find books in the bookstore that I wanted to read. I rarely bought new music anymore, defaulting instead  to my old CD’s. I didn’t like anything on television. All my friends seemed distant and busy. But one friend was always surprising me by the width and breadth of her interests — songwriting, piano playing, tennis, swimming, body sculpting, practicing baseball with her daughter, reading a new Bible study. I had become a one-trick pony as far as my interests were concerned: I liked to write and that was about it.

So I tried to think of things that made me happy. Baking was one, but everyone in my family is overweight, and so the fun of cooking yummy treats was cancelled out by the damage they could inflict on my family’s health. Playing with the kids had been one, but they were growing into teenagers who wanted to be alone or with their friends. I liked traveling, but finding someone to babysit three children for a long weekend was no small task.

When I was young, I was never at a loss for things to do. I read books, I played musical instruments, I sang, I always had cousins around to hang out with, and I went places with my small youth group at church.

I tried to  think of the one thing  that had been the most fun of all, and I immediately recalled Saturday afternoons at the National Guard building, skating on their old-fashioned rink. I grew up in a make-your-own-fun kind of town, but the skating rink was one of the few places around where kids could hang out. It even had a working jukebox, playing rock that suited our Boomer parents’ tastes better than our own. But that was part of the fun.

The Moment of Truth
I counted down the days until Christmas, imagining myself gliding down the sidewalks around my neighborhood. I knew I wasn’t going  to start out there in the Big, Big World, so I settled on my fairly large kitchen as a makeshift skating rink. It has an island in the middle and enough room around it to accommodate me and my skates…

The day arrived, and though my skates were thoroughly overshadowed by the fever-pitched frenzy of my nephews tearing through gifts, I was still excited. The chaos took a toll on me and I was exhausted, but I did want my husband to see how they fit. So I sat down at the dinner table, laced them up, and stood in them for his inspection — with one hand on a nearby wall, of course.

“Cool,” he said. 

I took a few very tentative steps toward the island. I felt pretty good, but was glad to again put my hand on something solid. I tried to remember how my dad had taught me to move my feet as I made one slow run around the island, one step at a time.

I made it around the island and back to my chair without falling. My husband and my daughters were amazed and so was I. I am really going to do this thing, I thought. I’m crazier than I thought.

Round and Round I Go
On New Year’s Day, it was time to start my resolution to lose weight. I decided to be cautious and not ask too much of myself this first time, and skate for only five minutes. Just to get my skating legs back.  

I sat down and laced up the skates. I was wearing jack o’lantern Halloween socks because they were the tallest pair I owned and I didn’t want to rub up blisters anywhere on my feet.

I stood up gingerly and took a small step forward. Then another. Then another, until I got to the corner of my kitchen island. Then I slowly started to skate around in a circle. Already I could feel my ankles resisting the twists I was making on the turns. But I kept going until I finished my five-minute goal.

Then I applied what became my exercise mantra: you can do anything for five more minutes. I got back up from my seat and started around the island, ignoring the protests of my back, ankles, and calves. I kept one eye on the clock and the other on my feet as I skated for another five minutes.

I sat back down, tired but proud. I hadn’t fallen, I’d gone longer in the skates than I thought I could, and my vision of skating on the sidewalks of my subdivision seemed more real.  

The next day I skated for 15 minutes. When I woke up the morning after that, my back and legs were screaming at me. So I decided not to push my luck and try to go longer that day — just stay at fifteen minutes a day for the entire month of January. 

As the month went by, I felt more and more comfortable on the skates, to the point that I would let go of my death grip on the kitchen island and skate without holding anything. I even started trying to put a little speed on the skates. But of course, that  became my undoing. I was speeding without holding onto anything when my right foot slipped just as I was turning a corner. Down I went on my bottom, right between the island and the refrigerator. That hurt, I thought. I think I’ll pack it in for the night.

My husband had been watching all of my antics, and he picked this moment to venture a comment. “You need to be careful,” he said.  “You could really hurt yourself.”

So the next day I was back up skating gingerly again, holding onto the kitchen island. No more speed, no more free hands. Just trying to stay vertical on the skates and get through my 15 minutes.

I kept going like that through January, and when I weighed in at the end of the month, I discovered I’d lost five pounds! More than one a week, just by skating the fifteen minutes every day. It focused me and made me resolve to skate 20 minutes a day in February.

By March, I felt like I had improved a great deal. I didn’t have a death grip on the  island anymore, and I could skate faster as I went along. 

It was time to take this show on the road.

I laced up my skates as usual, and started slowly for the front door. I wanted to test myself out on our parking pad, just outside the garage. I took baby steps, but did it under my own power. I got to the door, opened it, and headed for the driveway.

I was doing great until I hit an area where the garage slopes up just a little bit. One foot slipped on the concrete. Then both my feet went up in the air, and I hit the ground flat on my back.

I lay there in pain, unsure if I’d even be able to get back up.I couldn’t remember the last time I’d fallen and hurt myself like that. My back ached so much I wanted to cry. My legs were more or less useless, held down by the weight of the skates. But since I didn’t carry a medical alert, I was going to have to get up and get myself back inside.

I rolled over toward the car and grabbed the edge of the wheel well. I pulled myself into a sitting position and bent over to unlace my skates.

Instant pain. But it had to be done, so I gritted my teeth, undid them, and pulled them off. I crawled around the car to make it into the house. I left the skates outside figuring I could go back for them when I was ready.

It took a good three months for the pain in my back to recede, but I continued to skate inside for my allotted time every day. By the end of March, I had lost 15 pounds.

I went on skating until I took another fall and decided it was a matter of time before I seriously hurt myself. But I had learned something about myself: It wasn’t athleticism I was chasing — it was the feeling of bravery and risk-taking that characterizes the young. I wanted back the sense of new horizons and possibilities that somehow seems to narrow as you age. I wanted to avoid “settling in,” where you can’t be blasted out of your comfort zone without involving a stick of dynamite. I also learned:

The roller skater in me wants to take risks. The walker likes life just the way it is.

The roller skater wants to be brave. The walker likes safety and security.

The roller skater wants to be different from everybody else. The walker searches for conformity and anonymity.

The roller skater wants to be an open book. The walker wants to keep secrets and keep to herself.


  1. Suzanne C Frank

    Congratulations on learning to skate again, (and not injuring yourself permanently). I love the lessons you learned. Staid mid life is boring. We have to find out what energizes us. We are the only ones who can.

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