Learning to Fly
Ride Jane Ride!
“Please, please, please, don’t take them off. I won't even try it. Really. I mean it," I whined. "I'm going back inside. I can't do it, Dad."
I turned, stomping my Keds, letting every step have its full value in sound. And giving my dad a chance to change his mind. But occupied with wrenches and pliers, he didn't even glance at me. The Sears craftsman metal toolbox sat on the cement floor of the garage. Crank, crank and turn; one training wheel lay next to the bike.
"Pretty please," I mumbled, too softly to hear.
I looked at the red Schwinn bicycle. My sister, Jennifer, had been riding it for the past year and a half; she learned on it. Everyone had either a Schwinn or a Western Flyer when I was growing up. It was the same with cars in the late 50s and early 60s; you either had a Ford or a Chevy. The Roskin's had a Plymouth, but it was the only one in the neighborhood.
My sister's brand-new blue bicycle stood in the corner. It had a built-in kickstand, a chrome headlight, a luggage carrier on the back, and shiny fenders over the tires. Much fancier than this dumb old red one. I felt like I might start to cry. I never got anything new. I always got Jennifer’s old stuff.
Still standing and staring in the doorway of the garage, my mom opened the door behind me, surprising me. She walked with quick, decisive steps to the bike, now, without training wheels, picked it up and guided it out of the garage. I trudged along behind her. I knew once my mom made up her mind about something she wouldn't change it. I remember the apricot colored, knee-length shorts she wore that day. Her legs were smooth and tan. I looked down at my own legs with fresh mosquito bites and scabs in varying states of healing.
"Janie, you know you can't keep the training wheels on forever. You won't be able to keep up with your friends." She was using her Mrs. Martin voice; Mrs. Martin was Timmy's mother on Lassie. My mother wasn't anything like Mrs. Martin; she wasn't like any television mother.
"But M-o-m," I managed to make into a three-syllable word. "I don't care about riding with my friends. I skip-hopped to keep up with her. No one would listen to me. I was defeated. I looked at the red and white seat with the ‘S’ on it. My hands felt cold and damp. How would I ever do it?
“OK, get up on the seat, just like always, and I'll hold onto the bike," She said, still in the Mrs. Martin voice. "You have good balance already. I've seen you walk all the way across the teeter-totter. You'll see. Now I'm going to hold onto the back of the seat."
She moved her hands from the handlebars where I'd been able to see them. An icy panic crept up from my feet. I felt my leg muscles go rigid.
"No!" I shook my head. "I don't want to Mommy."
"If you don't try new things, you'll never know what you can do." She gave a whisk of a smile and went on. "Remember when you didn't want to try rhubarb? Once you tried it, you discovered you liked it," she was grinning like a cartoon character. That did not make any sense.
"You ready?" She didn't wait for an answer. "I'll keep holding on to the back of the seat. “Let's go!" Mom walked fast, then trotted along beside me. She said, "pedal, honey, pedal."
I pedaled harder, realizing immediately I wobbled if I slowed down. Discovering my own balance in that single split second is a sensation I have never forgotten. Magic. With my feet off the ground, I had the feeling of floating, kind of like when I'd learned to swim. I loved the speed. I passed yards, hedges, trees. I flew right over the chalk lines from hop-scotch. This was better than playing horses. Time suspended. I could go anywhere I wanted. I had that same frenzied feeling of shaking a wrapped Christmas present right before opening it.
I knew our block would end soon because I walked this sidewalk every day to school. We’d chant "step on a crack, break your mother’s back." I knew every inch of it, including the curb straight where I was headed. There, on the left, was the last house on the corner: white, with dark green shutters. Paralyzed with fear; I couldn't go off the curb and into the street. I had only one choice. I veered toward the yard, then careened into the grass, still going forward. Bump, bumping along, but not fast. I don't remember how I stopped. I didn't jump, I simply fell over with the bike on top of me.
A moment ago, I'd been flying. I couldn't catch my breath. The elation of riding combined with the humiliation of falling off caused a muddled confusion. My face felt hot as anger welled up inside me. I jerked out from under the bike, hurting my foot as I kicked hard at it. Why didn't she teach me how to stop?
The way my mother taught me to ride a bike became a metaphor for the way I grew up. She forgot a large chunk of the instructions. She showed me the first part, but not the second. She’d quit. And I was left to parent myself; a top spinning out of control. Years later, when I heard Tom Petty sing: “Learning to Fly, but I Ain't Got Wings,” I remembered the day I learned to ride a bike.