The sun slipped up over the horizon as we pulled away from the country house. We were up before dawn and quickly in the car, dressed in full ski gear. Our drive to the mountains was three hours, a little more, moving from Autoroute to Route Nationale to mountain roads, gray ribbons weaving through steep fields of snow. The Massif Central is not France’s most chic ski destination, but it is the right terrain for our little skiiers to get their legs. They’re in training for a full-on-week-long-rent-a-chalet-ski vacation in the French and Swiss Alps, hopefully next year.
On the mountain, the continuous hum of the ski lifts became our soundtrack. Blue sky arcing over us meant uninterrupted sunshine and perfect temperatures. Little feet tucked into tiny boots snapped into bindings on short skis, midget-sized poles at their sides. They looked ready to ski.
Short-pants shuffled across the snow, one ski at a time, especially awkward in all her gear. It was more like walking than skiing. Encouragement was required.
“Look at you! That’s it! You’re doing great! You’re skiing!”
She inched along. Her spirits seemed fragile – she was at once thrilled to be so equipped and engaged in the snowy sport we’d been previewing for days, and at the same time terrified of the burden upon her to turn down the mountain on two such narrow boards.
Buddy-roo was already essing from side-to-side on the slope, slowly but steadily reacquainting herself with the actions required to steer and stop on skis. The four of us made a long – though slow – parade of snow plows down the slope. It was a start. But now we had the real challenge: the lift.
Last year, the girls debuted on skis and we ramped them up to use the big chair lift, though not without a bit of stress and scurrying at the last minute to be sure everyone was in place to be scooped up by the giant mechanical chair. They had some experience with other ski lifts, T-bars and J-bars, too, but never with a poma-bar. But that was the only kind of lift at this resort. Sometimes the lift lines could stretch out across the bottom of the slope, not because the resort was so terribly crowded – it wasn’t – but because of the succession of little kids or beginner skiers falling of the lift and needing several tries to get situated on the bar.
Even as an experienced skier, I’m always a bit nervous the first time I use a ski lift. Especially the ones that drag you up the hill. The moment it jerks forward can catch you by surprise. Or it can move so smoothly that you get lazy and forget you’re not supposed to sit. Next thing you know, your ski tips are crossing and you’re horizontal in the snow.
Our foray into the land of the poma lift was not without a few errors, but quickly both girls mastered the art, and moving them back up the mountain was the least of our issues.
After one run, Short-pants wanted to take a break. She’d adapted to the skis with more difficulty than her sister and it was apparent she was enjoying it less. She looked adorable, her little legs not much thicker than the ski poles in her hands. But you could see she was miserable, which was maddening because we’d driven three hours and invested in ski rentals and hotel reservations and we’d toted all the gear from the car to the lodge – that in itself a production – and we just wanted her to try it a bit longer.
The earlier enthusiastic encouragement, more like coddling, took a different tone: cajoling.
“Oh, come on.” I said. “We’re out here, the sun is out and the sky is blue. It’s a gorgeous, perfect day to do just what we came here to do: ski! You can’t give up now.”
She could. Give up now. But she didn’t. She’s an obedient child so she suffered another series of snowplow turns down the gentle slope of the bunny hill. But she spent more time on the hill than on her skis. Halfway through the run, she headed the direction of the lodge, situated at the mid-point of the hill.
“Can I take a break?” she said, sniffling. She was on the mend, or so we thought, from a cold and she’d been sniffling for days.
I cajoled some more: uplifting, you-can-do-it logic and don’t-give-up-yet appeals to keep her at it. Just one or two more runs before we stop, to cement the muscle memory, to get her skiing with a bit more confidence before she stops to rest.
“I want to stop.” She was on the verge of tears.
I didn’t know which way to go on the scale. Tone it back down to coddle, stay steady at cajole, or ratchet it up to command. We’d only started. She couldn’t be tired. It wasn’t cold out – if anything the sun made it too warm for her ski-coat. We’d just had lunch. There was no good reason to stop.
This is one of those parental dilemmas. How hard do you press your kids to go beyond their initial limits? When do our gentle and respectful requests get put aside because the situation requires a firmer tone? And when is the right time to scale it up to the strongest command?
I remember my early skiing career, being miserable and freezing cold, standing in a line in a group lesson, making-a-pie with my skis ad nauseam until my little thighs were burning, and wanting to do nothing but klunk through the lodge and have my mother unlace my boots and let me sit by the fire. But my parents commanded me to gut it out, despite the wet snow and cold toes. It’s true that I came to love skiing. In high school I adored the ski club’s Thursday-night excursions. Later I spent most winter weekends skiing in Vermont. In my thirties, I even took a winter off to be a ski-bum in Switzerland. If they hadn’t pushed me, I’d have missed out on all the fun.
Short-pants turned her skis down the mountain and pressed on, falling often and finding it harder and harder to get back up. De-facto took over the coaching, but her heart wasn’t in it. At the bottom of the slope we promised that she could ski right to the lodge on the next run.
Which she did. And sat at a table on the terrace and watched us tour up and down the wide trail with her sister, who was now getting confident enough to obtain speeds that merited her new nickname: the Bomber.
I’d ski over and visit Short-pants every other run, notching down to cajole as command obviously hadn’t worked. What became apparent, at each visit, is that she wasn’t so against the idea of skiing as she was truly feeling ill. Her cold was not on the mend, and she was slightly feverish and even a bit dizzy. No wonder she couldn’t get excited to ski. She was permitted spectator status the rest of the afternoon.
Later, at the hotel, she went horizontal immediately while De-facto cooked up a dinner in our kitchenette. She was truly sick, and I was feeling horrible about how I’d commanded her to ski earlier.
“It’s okay, mama,” she consoled me. “I’ll ski tomorrow.”
“We’ll see,” I coddled, “only if you feel like it.”
We took it easy the next day, but she rallied. Her skiing grew steady and she spent more time upright than on the ground. We let her sit on the terrace whenever she wanted. She counted the skylights on the building and read the signs outside the shops and restaurants.
On the third and final ski day, it was Short-pants who didn’t want to stop.
“One more run!” she said, wearing a wide grin. This provoked a long groan from the Bomber who was tired of skiing and ready to stop. I guess it paid off, this time, to scale things down.