Frozen Air

Frozen Air 1200 1600 Linda Briskin

Be vigilant. Protect yourself. Find a safe place. Expect the worst.

My white skates, tied together and flung over my shoulder, swing with each stride. The blades brush rhythmically against my red down coat.

I’m eager to skate on Grenadier Pond in Toronto’s High Park, frozen smooth for the first time in five years. It’s nestled at the bottom of a slippery hill. The city vanishes amidst the trees, their branches laden with snow. Not a burden, I imagine, but a lacy protection.

At the edge of the pond, I sit on a log, remove my mitts, and then my winter boots. I finger the white leather of the skates, appreciating the scuffs. The decades-old memory of buying them used at Newson’s Exchange surfaces. These are for “serious” figure skaters, the young clerk said. Sadly, my skating skills never lived up to these skates.

As I lace them up, a sign, frozen at a tilt, catches my eye.

I ignore it.

Impulsively, I surrender to risk. I place each foot tentatively on the pond. Precarious, I steady myself before gliding cautiously off to the right.

But I’m afraid. I’m always afraid.


My mother’s voice is ever-present, haunting.

Be vigilant. Protect yourself. Find a safe place. Expect the worst.

Sometimes I sympathize with my mother. As a Jewish woman born in Montréal in 1921, my mother encountered window signs which read “Pas de juifs.” As a girl of fourteen, her beloved father died suddenly at forty-nine. Her relatives in Kiev and Brest-Litovsk, who she only knew by name, disappeared during the Holocaust.

My mother had a right to be afraid.

But she also wanted me to be afraid. Maybe to assume the burden of her fear. Her warnings—an unwelcome inheritance—buried themselves deep in my psyche. They were not a caring gift. They did not protect me.

And my mother did not protect me from my father’s arbitrary rules or his rage.

“You cannot … ,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because I say so.” His fury explosive, predictable.

My mother left the room.

Maybe she was afraid.

Sometimes I tried to have conversations with my mother. But she was not a teller of truths and we never got to the heart of our family history. With a childlike ability to slide away from reality, she offered only imagined versions of her past, and of mine.

“Why do you think I left home at sixteen?” I once asked her.

“You were such an adventurer,” my mother, then seventy, said with a smile.

The day I moved out, my mother said nothing.

My father said, “I don’t care what you do.”

It was not an adventure.

The erasures, her complicit silences, hardened my heart against her.


Now on the tenth anniversary of her death, I light a Yahrzeit candle, a soul candle. The dancing glow flickers. A Morse code memory.

I remember the photograph of my mother at eight, dressed in her Russian costume, one hand covering the other. She told me that just hours before this photo was taken, she had suffered a bee sting on her finger. Her smile was enigmatic for one so young. It’s 1929.

In my high school graduation picture, the same half-smile. Like my child-mother, I turn toward the camera, distant and aloof. We’re almost twins, she at eight and me at sixteen. It’s 1966.

Here my mother is twenty-two. It’s 1943, the year she married my father, and six years before I was born. The photo was taken during the war, yet she seems carefree, smiling for the camera, flirting with danger. She is perched on a railing, likely at the Parc du Mont-Royal in Montréal, poised at the edge of a precipice.

I never knew this woman. She bears no resemblance to the mother I remember who was deeply disappointed, angry, resentful, fearful.

When I left home, I took my books, a single peacock feather, and a small blue cobalt bottle. The money saved from years of babysitting would pay for a rented room.

I was determined to leave behind her warnings, her disregard, his rage and bullying.

I did not.


I skate—tentative, vigilant. I yearn to embrace the freedom of movement. To welcome the challenge of danger. I long to hush her warnings with the whistle of the wind and the singing of the blades on ice.

In the distance, an expressway breaks the circle of trees surrounding the pond. Cars whiz past recklessly. I turn away from the road and skate toward the far end of the pond where reeds caught fast in the ice are sentinels standing tall. Beckoning. My arms swing in concert with the measured stroke of each leg. My skates leave a trail of waves.

Holding my confidence like a banner, I skate as if I were safe, pushing myself to gather more speed, then coasting with the air at my back. The delight of continuous movement. The exhilarating cold.

Surrendering to desire, possibility.

Then the whisper grabs my attention. Be vigilant. Watch for those pockets of air, frozen white just below the surface. They might fracture under my weight, grab the picks on my skates and trip me.

I no longer take in the black treetops etched against the sky or the circling raptors. No longer look at what lies in the distance.

Now my wary eyes track the marks on the surface, my breath strangled and shallow—never deep enough to dispel the clutch of fear in my stomach. My skate touches the edge of a crack. My arms come up to balance against a fall, and my mind imagines my knee striking hard ice. Caught in the catastrophe of a broken limb, I’m gone from the park and the pond, already planning how to survive weeks of pain and a clumsy white cast.

With gritted teeth, I bring myself back to the ice, heart staccato. I hum “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to silence the mantra of danger danger danger.


Lying in bed that evening, finally calm, I remember the sheen of the ice, the span of the frozen pond. In my imagination, I skate fearlessly, without caution, permitting the joy of it. I embrace the wind in one direction, battle it affectionately in the other. I delight in the dance of the trees, and race the clouds as they travel across the sky.

As sleep descends, Be vigilant. Expect the worst. My skate hits a crack and I hurtle into the air. Arms elegantly wide, I land with grace. With muted elegance, I create a perfect figure eight and I twirl and spin with abandon.

In my dream, I mail a postcard to my mother.

            I went skating yesterday. I did not fall. 

                        Your daughter   


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Header photograph © Mane Hovhannisyan.

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  • I’m touched by your story, Linda – the deep & embodied beliefs

    that underscore the messages received from your mother

    & the struggle to deconstruct those beliefs in your own life – the place the story begins & where it ends

    You went skating & didn’t fall – so succinct

    I thought about Lillian Hellman’s pentimento, how images from the past, obscured

    begin to surface, sometimes

    & can be seen . . . rowesa

  • Susan Detlefsen 12/09/2020 at 11:30 pm

    I enjoyed the privilege of watching this piece evolve, and am very happy to finally see the ultimate version. Linda captures so poignantly the often painful mother-daughter struggle.

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