University of Baltimore MFA grad Sue Loweree remembers her ice-skating contest/identity crisis. It’s such a cathartic read, especially in the Baltimore summertime, you’ll likely shiver.
The Omaha Convention Center is a big, cold building with ceilings as high as our new two-story house. I follow Mom and Miss Darby, the skating coach down the hall listening to them talk about Thursday night lessons.
“Let’s take a look at the rink first and then, if Sue thinks she would like to join the club and start lessons, we’ll look into some skates.”
When the doors opened to the great bright quiet of the indoor arena I almost fell over. It was the biggest indoor space I had ever seen and I knew I belonged there. Shafts of afternoon sun streamed down from the clerestory onto the silver oval of ice making the arena into a beautiful quiet church. I could barely look at the light reflecting off the ice, but wanted nothing more than to skate alone over that calm silver sea on waves of music.
“When you come in for your first session you will be assigned a patch of ice where the first hour is spent doing school figures,” Miss Darby explained. “ In the second hour you will learn jumps, spins and dances.”
With no words and one look at each other, Mom signed me up to start classes the following week and we headed for the pro shop to look at some skates.
“Your boots and blades are purchased separately.” Miss Darby reached for a big box. “The boots will be tight to support your ankles. I have a very special pre-owned pair that might be perfect for you. Barbara Ann Scott used them for practice. She gold-medalled just last year in the 1948 Olympics.”
When my feet eased into those beautiful boots, I imagined they knew all the figures, jumps and spins, and all I had to do was move my body to their command. It didn’t quite work out that way, but after they were fitted with new blades I walked around in them just like Miss Darby, as if they were regular shoes.
I hadn’t been excited about anything for a long time. Moving from home to a strange town, a new seventh grade full of unfamiliar faces and walking alone to a house we only called home had me trying not to cry all the time. I was embarrassed about being homesick but it wouldn’t go away. Twelve years of friends and family were erased. Suddenly becoming nobody was the part of “alone” that hurt so much. My old self had friends to help me know who I was. I felt as if skating might help me be somebody the new people could see.
One Thursday Miss Darby was teaching me how to land a waltz jump when she mentioned an end of the season party.
“Oh, it’s a big event in Omaha! Everyone in the club dresses up in costumes for the contest. This year’s theme is popular songs. If you win, you skate alone to the song you choose. Keep practicing and think of a fun costume for the party!”
Finding the right song seemed impossible until Johnny Carson’s radio show introduced Johnny Ray singing “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” When I heard the words I knew that was it.
I went walking down by the river, feeling very sad down inside
When all at once I saw in the sky, the little white cloud that cried
He told me he was very lonesome, and no one cared if he lived or died
And said sometimes the thunder and lightning
make all the little clouds hide
He said have faith in all kinds of weather, for the sun will always shine
Do your best and always remember, the dark clouds pass with time
He asked if I’d tell all of my world, just how hard those little clouds try
That’s how I know I’ll always remember
The little white cloud that sat right down and cried
I ran down stairs. “Hey Mom, can you make a cloud?” Mom was pouring her coffee.
That afternoon, when I got home from school, Mom had sketches scattered all over the table.
“Let me see! What does it look like?”
She showed me the two small clouds on the arms of a white turtleneck with a bigger cloud as a skirt.
“We’ll use stiff buckram and cover it with cotton. The raindrops will be this shiny blue cellulose strung from the clouds on threads. Will that work? Can you skate with it?”
“Thanks, Mom! You bet I can skate in it. I’ll glide and float on deep edges, the way clouds do. This is perfect, Mom! It’s perfect!”
In mid-creation, we heard seamstresses and costume designers were creating major productions. Mom sewed on and finished with a wig of cotton ringlets tied back with blue ribbons matching the raindrops. When I tried everything on and looked in the big mirror in Mom and Dad’s room, it really was perfect. I was the little white cloud that cried.
The night of the party the arena swarmed with popular song people. “Candy Kisses,” “Chantilly Lace,” and “Blue Suede Shoes” were easy to guess. I signed in and got a number four card to hang around my neck for the costume judging. Mom, Dad and I jostled through the crowd to some rink-side seats just down from the judge’s box. The evening started with announcements, ribbon awards, a dance competition and some single performances. Miss Darby skated in a beautiful routine before the judges announced the costume contest.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, will everyone in a costume skate around the rink so the judges can get a good look at your beautiful creations?”
I adjusted my sign, plumped up my clouds and looked over at Mom, who raised her eyebrows and gave me a sweet “maybe” shrug with her shoulders.
I floated in and around all the costumes the way clouds do, until we were called off the ice. The judges began to announce the winners with third place, “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” when a monkey in a tutu shot out on the ice and skated around.
“And the second prize goes to ‘Chattannoogie Shoe Shine Boy’! “
Instead of being nervous, I was beginning to feel disappointed.
The shoeshine boy clanked by with his shoeshine box.
“And first place goes to beautiful Mona Lisa!”
I glanced at Mom with a weak smile, shrugged and watched Mona glide by. I was trying hard to be happy for her and started to get ready to go. I stopped listening to the announcer’s voice until he boomed,
“The overall winner of the 1949 contest is ‘The Little White Cloud that Cried’!”
I looked up at Mom and Dad who were laughing and yelling, “Go! Go! Go!”
“I went walking down by the river,“ echoed through the arena and I stepped out onto the rink all by myself. Keeping my arms out so the raindrops could spin was a little awkward, but Johnny Ray singing about crying being okay was perfect skating music for this moment in my life. After two circuits around the rink it felt like time for a change so I stopped gliding and raced like a hockey player to the top of the rink. I needed speed to crouch down on one foot, aim the other straight toward the opposite end of the arena, hold out my arm-clouds and float the full length of the rink on a wave of “Oh-h-h!” from the audience. (This was called shoot the duck, a simple trick perfect for crying clouds.)
It was all perfect: Mom making the best costume, floating over the rink alone—and my new self etching a single, sure line down the middle of my new world.
Sue Loweree is a memoirist, landscape architect and children’s book author. She lives in Easton, Maryland.