This weekend my Dear Li'l Sister (aged 51) and her son (10), our brother (49), his wife (ageless), son (17), daughter (20), her boyfriend (who cares?) and I (64) came together for a very rare family reunion that I hope can become a regular thing. We met at a rented cabin on Grandfather Mountain, NC, a place that was recently our Scottish family's land and before that our Cherokee family's land and before that maybe the land of bears and cougars. We made a ski weekend of it at nearby Sugar Mountain. My glorious skiing days are legend long past, and so I spent the day in the bar sitting on my jacket, smiling unproductively at the lovely barmaid and drinking $8 (plus ambitious tip) beers.
For 10 year old nephew it was his first ski outing, and I hated that by dint of being too cheap (Scottish, after all) to buy my own ticket I had to sit on the deck and smoke cigarettes while some half-competent teenager in a clean ski patrol jacket running the beginner school neglected to tell him to set his skis across the fall line before clicking in. He somehow learned to ski anyway, and eventually Mom (my Dear Li'l Sis) rescued him and took him onto the blue & green slopes, where he did fine, mostly.
His cousins have been skiing for years, often in their mother's native Alps or near my home in Colorado. I remember the day that my niece Emily, then maybe 7, was deposited at ski school, aka child care, while we adults headed uphill. After about an hour I heard in the lift line behind me "Hey Ton-Ton” (French for Uncle). I looked around and there she was, escaped from ski school and ready to hit the big hill. I picked her up and swept her into the lift chair, wishing that it wasn’t the one going nearly to the top of the mountain. At least there was one green slope up there. I hugged her as we slid from the chair, but then lost control as I tried to also gather my poles (she had none). I called, sliding over toward the green slope, but saw to my horror that she was turning to the black diamond and gleefully yelling “C’mon Ton Ton”. Well, at least (entirely by chance) she hadn’t chosen the double black (probably would have if she’d understood the code). I did a quick herringbone to that side and chased her.
She wasn’t hard to catch. After all, she’d only been skiing for a little over an hour in her whole life, and this was a pretty tricky hill. She fell almost right away and skidded down the steep upper part on her back, losing both skis, the little things they give beginner kids way down there where it’s not clear what’s up or downhill on the bunny slope. I gathered them up and then her, and from there we skied down. At first I held her between my legs but very soon saw that she was getting it. I let go and she moved out ahead as I snowplowed behind. Before long I wasn’t snowplowing. By the middle of the hill she was finding the faster line and I was getting ahead to steer her toward safer territory. She’d have no one of that, and so I found myself mostly trying to cross slope or make shortcuts just keep up with her. When we got to the bottom I got her some better skis and some poles.
Oh she wasn’t an instant Picabo Street – only part of that kind of talent is innate -- but she was damn good for a first-day beginner little girl – amazing really! She fell a lot, and I helped her up at least in the beginning, but she began to outrun old me, which is no huge trick. We saw less of one another during the day until I encountered her on one of the off-to-the-side steep parts where she was carrying her skis and stumping back uphill. She said that it was fun but she messed up and didn’t want to go all the way down to the lift to try it again. An uncle has only so much room to be proud, and I used it all up right there. She and I skied that deceptively tricky side hill the rest of the day, taking off our skis and stumping back up each time.
Until yesterday I hadn’t seen Emily in almost 6 years. And then she was a teenager with no time for anyone but herself and her other teenager friends. We spoke maybe 6 words the whole weekend, and there wasn’t much of import in them. Her parents tell of the hell of her teenage years, and of finally losing control, much as did that babysitting ski instructor. But yesterday I at last encountered a poised young woman who resembles the little kid with whom I shared that day on the snow so long ago. She studies obscure birds in south Florida, writes influential academic papers about them and drives an old car 12 hours to ski in North Carolina. She’s still stumping up that hill, skis on her shoulder, not willing to wait on the lift for a chance to get it right. I could not be more proud of her.