Backyard rinks come in all shapes and sizes, but they are all born of one thing: love. Whether it is a love of skating, or more often than not a love of family, every winter fathers across the world trudge out into their yards and spend endless hours building and maintaining a slab of ice. I know some who build rinks and don’t even skate, and if that’s not love, I don’t know what is. The following is just one snippet of a backyard rink and how once it gets into your soul, it never lets go.
Loss, resurrection, and the last skate
“…Because life is different from a skating season, and in life you never know which skate will be your last. Only that one of them will be.”
—Jack Falla, Home Ice.
Save for a dark fall night and the intoxicating scent of winter’s first tepid breath, I would have no memory of my last skate on the backyard rink that had been an integral part of my family for nearly three decades. I would have lost two great loves, my father and the backyard rink, within a matter of weeks.
Instead, the Bacon Street Omni lived one more year, and although it didn’t provide the moments of sheer joy and exhilaration it historically had, it actually gave something more: a sanctuary for family and friends to mourn the sudden loss of my father, to reconnect, and to heal. It was one last gift from a bull ring of plywood and plastic that had, over the span of 25-plus years, given my family gifts beyond description.
How engrained was the Bacon Street Omni in our family? Typical conversation as mourners came up to me at the wake: “I’m sorry, so sorry, about your loss….So, are you going to build the rink this year?”
It might sound like a strange and trivial question at a time of mourning, but it felt completely natural. Dad and the rink were that connected. It would be like going to the funeral of an old widower who had a beloved dog. Of course you would ask what was going to happen to poor old Sparky. How could you not? It was the same with the Bacon Street Omni, which had essentially served as family connector and part-time therapist for more than two decades. My father ended up writing a book, Home Ice, about how much this rink had woven itself into the intimate fabric of his life and family.
But as friends and family came through the receiving lines and inquired about the rink’s fate, I would steal a quick glimpse at my father’s corpse, his puffy hands folded across his chest, the pancake makeup practically mudsliding off his face. I told people the truth. I told them the rink died with my father. It seemed appropriate; the relationship was that symbiotic. Besides, I couldn’t imagine, logistically, how I could build and maintain a backyard rink in absentia.
My wife, pregnant with our first child at the time, and I lived 45 minutes away from the Omni, and I couldn’t expect my suddenly widowed mother to do any real construction or maintenance. It seemed obvious. The rink was dead, just like my father.
But then fate intervened on an a crisp October night. I had been watching a Bruins game, leafing through some of my father’s old stuff, when the tears started welling up again and I stepped outside to get some fresh air and regroup. Dabbing at my eyes, I took a deep breath of that crisp fall air and listened to the soft rustle of foliage beginning its annual technicolor mass suicide. I looked up at the inky night sky, at Orion starting to assume his sentinel celestial position, where he always was on those countless wintry nights when I would glide around the rink in quiet solitude. I took another deep breath and made a decision.
When that initial foray of winter pushes into the Northeast, some people think of stacking wood, picking apples, or climbing under blankets until spring. I think of building the Bacon Street Omni. And that’s what I was going to do. I was not going to lose two great loves within a matter of weeks.
I still didn’t know how I was going to pull it off. Aside from actually erecting the rink, there were the matters of laying the plastic, as well as flooding—a 24-hour operation—not to mention maintenance. I couldn’t expect my mother to be bothered with shoveling the rink out from our annual onslaught of Nor’easters, nor would she be hauling the garden hose out of the basement to resurface when needed.
These were all daunting hurdles, but I didn’t care. I had that monomaniacal look in my eye, and my White Whale was frozen water. I needed to build the rink one last year.
I still didn’t have any idea how I would do it all, but I knew where to start. I went inside and called, of all places, Houston, that bastion of hockey and ice.
My father’s best friend, Mark Kelly, or “Doc,” as he was affectionately known in our house for reasons that remain a bit nebulous, answered the phone. I launched straight in.
“I know it’s crazy, but I’m going to build the Omni again this year,” I told him.
Without hesitation, Doc said he was in. His family owns a summer home on Cape Cod, and on more years than he would probably like, he flies up to close the house down for the winter, so he could fit it into his schedule.
But, he wasn’t just in for labor, he wanted his last skate, too. He’d be back in town in January. We promptly planned the event, and the prospective guest list—unbeknownst to all—and hung up. I was immediately stricken with a panic attack. I was fully committed to something I had no idea was possible, and I had a horrible fear it was all going to end in a catastrophic failure. But I was happy. It felt…right.
In the end, Doc, my family, and I all got to take our last skates and know it. For my part, I shot one last puck into the center of the net—can’t take any chances on blowing it over the bar—and glided off the ice, turning one last time to give a silent thank you and a final, heartfelt farewell that I never got to give my father.
*The preceding was an abridged version of an essay that is part of Return to Home Ice, a book scheduled for completion and publication whenever my kids ease off their ferocious two-man forecheck.
Falla also writes a weekly blog http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/blogs/dadventures about the odd-man rush that is life with small kids.