If we needed any more proof — and we didn’t — that Mara’s modus operandi in the face of new challenges and developmental steps is to observe for a long long time and then suddenly just do it, we got it this past summer.
We had already learned this about her. In walking, potty training, and other major milestones, Mara waited so long that we thought maybe she would never get going on it, and then one day she just did these things. She did not spend the time in cruising (walking while holding on to furniture) that most toddlers do before walking on their own; at a reception after a funeral in St. Louis for Angela’s brother-in-law, Mara left the security of my leg, which she’d been clutching, and set off across a room full of people to investigate a fake bird that had caught her eye in a floral arrangement. And she basically went from diapers to no diapers in a day, but only after we had begun to think she would wear diapers well after her third birthday.
What we learned was that while it seemed to the untrained eye that Mara was undriven, she was really watching adults and other children to see how things were done, and perfecting her plan mentally before taking the plunge. But when she did go, she always surprised us with her level of competence. It was as if she didn’t want to try something until she had worked in out in her mind and thought she could do it perfectly on the first try.
Mara had had a bicycle with training wheels for a long time, but for several reasons she never learned to ride it. Mostly it idled in the garage. The reasons are these: 1) we live on a steep hill that people bomb down in excess of posted speed limits on their way through to the freeway, and our driveway, while wide, is short and steep, so that the only paved, level, safe place for her to ride is a 3-foot wide concrete walkway at the side of the house which is bisected by a fence gate; 2) the only level spot in the neighborhood, the playground of the elementary school just up the hill from us, was fenced off and torn up for construction for the past several years; 3) the one time I drove her and her little bike to a school parking lot to help her get up to speed, it was an unpleasant experience for everyone; her bike had no place for me to put my hand to run along behind her and push by, and so I had to run fast while bending over and reaching underneath her seat to hold onto it; and she kept braking suddenly, which action had the results you might expect if you were paying any attention at all in your college physics survey course. Mass, momentum, velocity…you get the picture.
The problem with training wheels, of course, is that they don’t train kids how to balance a bike, they train kids to pedal very slowly while leaning severely to one side, as though they were on a sailboat on a tack. At turns or at unexpected jostling the bike’s frame jibes, throwing its weight onto the other training wheel, and the kid quickly has to lean the other way. They make small bikes for toddlers now that have no training wheels and no pedals — the youngsters merely sit on them and balance and push with their legs, like Fred Flintstone. At some point, they begin coasting, and once this balance is achieved they are ready to advance to a pedal bike, without ever having gone through this goofy leaning stage.
But Mara didn’t have a balance bike. Her bike was a cute little pedal bike. Pink. I had taken the training wheels off of it for her at one point and we had tried again on the walkway beside the house, she trying to balance and I running along holding her seat, wrenching my back. But the fence and gate made it impossible for me to stay with her for more than fifteen feet.
Meanwhile, Mara had bought a Razor, one of those metal scooters, with ten bucks of her own money at a yard sale a few years back. She had seen other kids with them and thought she wanted one. She was able to balance on the scooter almost immediately, but after the initial thrill she didn’t use it a lot.
Until this spring.
We started going up to the finished playground every evening after dinner earlier this year, Millie to practice her climbing on the play structures in the wood-chip-covered areas (more about that anon) and Mara to scoot around the pavement. I started to realize that she was becoming something of a speed demon on the scooter. She would crouch down and bend the onboard leg so that she could make the most of every thrust of the motor leg. Her hair, which is of a very thick, heavy warp, rose up behind her and began to flutter like a banner in the wind she created, and she began to lean into her turns as confidently as an Olympic skater.
One summer day I was standing out in front of the garage in the driveway, maybe sweeping it or something. Mara, with bike helmet on, had been scooting briskly back and forth in the cramped space and Millie was toddling around. Mara mentioned her old bike, which was now hideously small for her, and it occurred to me that now that she’d mastered balance so well on the scooter, she just might stand a better chance of learning to ride the bike. I said as much.
She disappeared for a moment into the garage, and while I was imagining the bruises and pulled muscles I would have to endure in the course of a revived Bike Riding Education Program, and wondering how long it would actually take, and whether it would be worth all the effort — my cajoling and her fearful declining, and the arguing, and my ego-driven frustration at having a daughter that still wouldn’t be able to ride a bike on her graduation day — I looked up and saw her careening out of the garage on her bike, wobbling through the narrow space between the car and a wall of storage boxes, and — once she cleared this canyon — pedaling up the few feet of steep driveway before putting her feet down to stop.
She had just ridden her bike. Just like that. Without any practice, without further trips with the bike to a schoolyard. Without coaching. Without the “don’t let go dad” at full speed down the middle of the street, when dad has already let go and is standing back at the house waving. Without any of that. She just got on the thing and started pedaling.
That’s our Mara.
I dropped the broom and ran into the house to fetch Angela, and Mara repeated her feat. And then we took the bike up to the playground, laughing and verbally reliving the amazement. She looked ridiculous on that bike. It had gotten so small over the years that she had to ride bowlegged just to keep her knees from getting fouled by the handlebars, and the back wheel was so close to the edge of her skirts that it pulled at them and smudged them. But she didn’t care. She was riding a bike, and she immediately took it to top speed. Within a few times around the playground she had the hang of the turns — which, as I recall, was the most terrifying part about learning to ride a bike — and pretty soon was racing in happy circles as though she had known how to ride for months.
We took her to get a new bike at the first opportunity, and as the summer waned we took her new ride up the hill every evening after supper and she rode like mad (and Millie rode a three-wheeled scooter we’d gotten her to satisfy her desire to go fast like her sister). Watching Mara, I thought about how worried I had been that she would never get it, that I would never be able to teach her, that there was no place with enough runway around here. And suddenly she was on the other side of that leap. A few days ago the world had been shaped in one way, and now it was shaped a different way.