My Mom, the Derby Doll

In which I attend a roller derby training class with my straight-laced mother.

When I decided to visit my parents in Los Angeles for a weekend — a trip that I hastily booked as a last-ditch remedy for my seasonal affective disorder (shout out to rural Ohio, you keep me humble, and depressed!) — I anticipated several different parental reactions to my homecoming. I expected general concern over my mental health, and/or concern about my finances (check and check). What I did not expect was to receive the following message from my very reserved, pragmatic mother a few days before my flight:

I know, I need to charge my phone.

My mom is many things. She is a brilliant computer engineer, a connoisseur of small-batch craft beers, and a fitness addict — at the age of 53 she is in the process of acquiring formidable abdominal muscles. But, diminutive size aside, my mom is not Ellen Page in Whip It. Though I like to think that in general, human beings are fluid by nature and that sexuality is a construct, I truly believe my mother is a solid 0 on the Kinsey Scale. She also, very much like her eldest daughter, deeply hates socializing with strangers.

So the fact that she had signed herself up for a two-month program in a space I associate primarily with badass queer women was shocking, and unspeakably exciting. It was the most punk rock thing she had ever done, bar none. “Yes!! That sounds so fun!!” I texted back in disbelief.

The way she stumbled across the class was also #ClassicMelinda. A few weeks back, she and my dad had participated in an “urban hike” which led them from city streets into the mountains above LA. As they crested a hill and took in the neighborhood below, my mom suddenly recognized a large, tan building in the distance: it was the Dollosseum, the home of the LA Derby Dolls, a roller derby team she had just read about in the Los Angeles Times. She signed up for the session as soon as she got home.

“I don’t really care about roller derby specifically,” she told me over dinner, the night before our class. “I just always wanted to try speed skating — like Apollo Anton Ohno. I felt like this was the closest I could get to that.”

I nodded and stuffed pizza into my mouth, grinning inwardly at my private fantasy of my mom being slowly indoctrinated into a group of supercool and tough-as-nails middle-aged women, despite her initial resistance. In my mind, this culminated with her being christened with a moniker like “MelinDANGER” (or, like, something else, idk). I might have even envisioned her with pink hair, or a least a magenta stripe. To me, this was her mid-life renaissance; a reinvention both inexplicable and sublime. She’ll come around, I thought.

Sunday morning arrived and we pulled up to the Dollosseum nearly an hour before class started. As we approached the instructor, a woman wearing taco-patterned spandex and sporting yes, pink hair, she looked taken aback. “No one ever gets here this early,” she said. With time to kill, I wandered around taking pictures of the warehouse (where Whip It was filmed — classic LA, am I right?!).

Slowly, the other women began to trickle in, and we strapped on our gear. During this process, I began casually snapping photos of my mom — admiring her calm, stoic demeanour in the face of a sport and an environment that was wholly unfamiliar — until she begged me to stop.

“You don’t have to come back next week,” she whispered. “I do!”

The class itself was everything I could have hoped for — it was genuinely challenging and fun, and totally kicked my butt (along with every other weak muscle in my body, which is to say, all of them). It was only the first lesson in an eight week session, and the instructor told us right off the bat that the first thing we would learn was not to skate, but how to fall. And fall we did.

I fell on my butt, my knees, my arms, bouncing off the banked track and sometimes landing painfully on the concrete floor. But every time I tumbled to the ground, instead of feeling embarrassed or self-conscious, I felt a weird rush. There was something strangely liberating about literally falling on your ass, over and over again, and simply getting back up again. Every time you fell, you failed instantly — but you survived with few consequences, and got the chance to immediately try again. I loved it.

There was also something undeniably energizing about being in a space with exclusively women. I felt no judgement or competition (although I was jealous of the way some of my classmates virtually flew across the track). The hour ended too soon, and as I turned in my sweaty gear, I wished more than anything that return the next week.

My mom has gone to several more sessions since I left LA, and I’ve yet to check up with her about how they went. I’m still clinging to my fantasy re: her reinvention, but I know I also need to let her do her own thing. At the end of the day, I’m beyond proud of her for stepping out of her comfort zone, and throwing herself headfirst — quite literally — into a new arena, without blinking an eye. It gives me hope that one day, I’ll wake up and realized I’ve inherited her moxie. And, hopefully, her abs.