My Sporty Family MAG

March 29, 2014
By Judith Ha BRONZE, New York, New York
Judith Ha BRONZE, New York, New York
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

When I heard that my Uncle Richie had invited my family to go skiing during winter break, my heart jumped into my throat. Uncle Richie has a condo near Beaver Creek, Colorado, where people from all over the world – Olympic skiers and snowboarders, Saudi Arabian princes – go to ski. Every time my uncle has tried to teach me a sport, it's ended in disaster. When I swung a golf club, I accidentally sent all of our equipment tumbling out of the cart. I sent my tennis racket flying across the court instead of the ball. And when Uncle Richie pushed me down a hill on a bike, I realized too late that I didn't know how to turn or stop. I ended up at the bottom of the road with my head stuck in a gate. I could already imagine Uncle Richie pushing me down the mountain, where I would eventually crash into a crowd of athletic aristocrats.

Of all my family members, Uncle Richie is the most physically intimidating. He is from Norway, and it shows. He looks more comfortable in the snow than behind a steering wheel, and when he's playing a sport, he squints until his whole face turns red. I think he somehow closes his ears, too, because it becomes impossible to get his attention.

I've always felt uncomfortable and bored around my family. All they ever talk about is sports, and when we watch a game on TV, I don't have a clue what's going on. Nobody ever offers to explain the rules, and I never ask. Even when the TV is blasting at maximum volume, I sit in front of it with a blank face – as if it were on mute, they tease me.

Having such different interests makes even basic communication difficult. My parents do their best. Dinner conversations always start with “How was your day?” or “Any big news?” But after I mumble “Fine,” they immediately transition to a subject related to exercise or athletics. Sometimes I wish I could talk to them for just two minutes about anything but sports. I would even settle for politics, as long as there's no ball involved.

Having so little in common with my family has incubated a small fear in me: if I don't fit in with my own family, where will I ever feel at home?

It's not just different tastes. Everyone in my family gives off a naturally athletic aura. My mom and my aunts are sports club nuts, so they're fit and powerful-looking. My cousins are muscular and tan because they love playing outdoor sports. Next to them, I feel like a frail, just-hatched duckling. Whenever something has to be hauled, unscrewed, or lifted, I'm never asked to help.

So I dreaded the ski trip as soon as I heard about it. It's not that I don't like any sports – I just don't like the feeling that I might be pummeled by a person or an object at any minute. But relaxing isn't an option around Uncle Richie; being in his presence is like being on a football field and realizing you have the ball.

Beaver Creek wasn't at all what I had imagined. I don't know what I was expecting – maybe a weight room with some hard pillows – but Uncle Richie's condo was cozy, with lots of bedrooms and a fireplace. The walls were covered with posters of famous Olympic skiers, but other than that, it was pretty homey.

I had to admit, too, that the thick woods were beautiful. Pine trees filled the air with their scent. When I stood on the balcony, the ski lift passed over my head and people waved at me with their ski poles. I was so terrified that the skiers would fall off (possibly onto me) that I couldn't wave back. They didn't seem to mind.

When the time came to hit the slopes, my family's excitement was contagious. I was starting to think that skiing might not be so bad; at least it was a no-contact sport. But even balancing the skis on my shoulder turned out to be difficult, and as I staggered along, I wondered how I was ever going to learn if I couldn't even carry the equipment.

Uncle Richie had arranged for lessons for my cousins and me, and the first thing the smiling instructor told us to do was put on our skis. Mine were as tall as me, so laying them on the snow was like maneuvering a tall, skinny, sharp-boned person. By the time I got them parallel on the ground, my cousins were already buckled in.

“How did you get your skis on so fast?” I asked.

“We've skied before,” they replied.

“What?” I was livid. Uncle Richie hadn't mentioned that his kids already knew how to ski. They outnumbered me, so I knew the lesson would be tailored to their level, not mine.

I turned out to be terrible at skiing. I collapsed constantly, and the more I fell, the more wobbly my legs felt. Time and again, the instructor grabbed my arms and pulled me to the side of the bunny hill to “go over basics” while my cousins sped past like race cars.

Back at the lodge, we took a short break to drink hot chocolate and eat brownies. Everything tasted cold and stale, and there was no way to sit on the wooden benches without exacerbating one of my bruises. Just when I was beginning to thaw out, my uncle suggested that we all go up to the higher slopes with him.

I tried to think of a polite way to refuse. But before I could reply, my cousins started cheering and running around. I still hadn't said anything, but my fear must have been obvious, because they said, “Oh, come on. You'll be glad you did!” I didn't want to stay at the bottom alone, and I couldn't ask them not to go. I had no choice but to accept.

I could feel warm condensation building up on the inside of my goggles as the lift scooped us up, but because I was entombed in my thick jacket and those dark goggles, nobody noticed my tears. As we rose higher and higher, I watched tiny people below me glide down, leaving trails in the snow. I realized that my cousins were also looking down – and anxiously eyeing the drop-off at the top of the lift. Knowing that I wasn't the only one who was scared made me feel a lot better.

Amazingly, the slopes at the top of the mountain weren't that different from those on the little hill where we had been practicing. But the view was much more beautiful. As my cousins and I found our footing, our anxiety melted away. We began teasing each other, crossing paths playfully, and racing around each curve. Uncle Richie, who was a few yards ahead, turned back and smiled.

I was surprised at how much Uncle Richie seemed to be enjoying himself. I knew he was used to skiing much tougher slopes. Without us slowing him down, he probably would have been at the bottom already. Instead, he lagged behind with us, spraying snow in our faces with the ends of his skis. As a clump hit my goggles, I realized that this was his childish way of patting us on the back. It occurred to me then that I had never actually heard him compliment anyone. His way of showing approval was just quiet acceptance – like a wolf allowing another to join its pack.

There was a point along the slope where skiers had carved out an alternate path through the woods, which was supposed to be off-limits. I glanced warily at the looming trees and the icy terrain. My cousins gave a whoop and charged into the woods, disappearing in seconds.

Trailing right behind them, Uncle Richie shouted back at me, “You can stay on that path if you want, Judith. The trails meet up again just around the bend.” Relieved, I turned back to the safe, wide pathway. I could hear my cousins laughing, even though I couldn't see them, and when they popped out a few yards later, they immediately started shouting to me about what I had missed in the woods. “Maybe I'll go next time,” I said politely.

“Liar.” Uncle Richie laughed, and I laughed too. We both knew I wasn't going to go back up the mountain, just as we'd both known I wouldn't take the path through the trees. But even when we split up, I knew we'd meet up again.

I happen to have a very quirky family, but a family is just a collection of people, not a club. Like a mathematical set, a family is made up of its elements – but those elements define the set, not the other way around. While I've felt like an outlier at times, I was never actually on the outside. I thought I was forced to accept my family, but they, too, had been making an effort to accept me, even if their way of showing it was with rackets and bats.

That afternoon, I stayed by the lodge's fireplace with a book and hot chocolate. But the next morning, I was the first one on the hill. Nobody questioned it.

It was a great trip.

The author's comments:
When I first wrote this piece it was just about a week-long ski trip with my family. As I kept reading and editing, I knew this piece could mean more than just learning how to ski and bond with my family on the mountains. I learned that there are other ways of language and communication than words. I hope that when people read this they will learn about the beauty of a family and learn how to accept themselves and others no matter how unique or different they are.

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