By Ellie Levin
Our families’ lake in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains was frozen solid in the winter of 1941, thick enough for wild, redheaded cousin Dick, home from Yale for a week or two, to plow a large area of snow near our shallow end of the lake. His family’s house was on the opposite shore where the current ran and would have been less safe. By our shore, he and cousin Harry, home from Annapolis, laid kindle and logs enough for a bonfire to warm skaters’ hands and feet as the temperature fell. After supper we slung our skates over our shoulders and headed down the hill toward the lake, the light bursting from the ice reflecting the rays back from the stars the further out we skated, our parents calling out, “Come back!” We could see our cousins walking across the frozen lake to our shore to join us.
We danced on our toes, glided across the ice spread eagle, and skated double Dutch until our hands and noses were numb. Warmed by the fire, we sailed back out, making several more forays on to the ice before we were ordered to take off our skates, and, in our boots, trek up hill to the party where house guests and relatives sat or stood with a glass of cheer in their hands. There was eggnog, plain or with rum, coffee and tea, steak tartar on toast, plum cake soaked in liquor, cookies and milk.
My brother and I struggled with sleepiness to stay up until the clock struck midnight. Some adults were already napping in the ground floor guestroom. When midnight finally came, we were kissed and hugged, wished a Happy New Year, and told to go upstairs to bed. We were now wide awake and reluctant, but we obeyed.
This would be our last skating party on New Year’s in our country house that I can remember. Soon there would not be enough gasoline available to civilians to motor from New York City. President Roosevelt had declared war on the Axis Powers, meat and butter were rationed. Our father had volunteered his medical services to help the Allies win the war. For the next four years, our family would reside near army hospitals in southern states with scorching summers and warm winters.
By the time we were back in New York in 1946, I was a teenager distracted from the pure joy of the early years by boys, clothes, and school assignments. New Year’s Eve became one more thing to worry about. Would I have a date? What would I wear? Would my date want to be at our family’s celebration? Anyway, after Thanksgiving, my parents decided to drain our house’s pipes as they had for the years of our absence. My aunts and uncles had shut down their country homes for the winter during the war years and continued to do so in peace time. Dick had died while in medical school of a heart condition due to childhood rheumatic fever. Harry was serving in the U.S. Navy, and my other cousins were scattered.
Years later when my children were growing up, I remember one Christmas through New Year’s when the house was open, but the weather was so warm and out-of-doors so muddy that we took the children swimming at Grossinger’s hotel. Their father was a champion swimmer; both of our sons would be captains of their high school swim team. Another winter, the lake in Central Park was briefly solid enough to be open for skaters to enjoy the freedom of skating in a pattern of their choice. My immediate family put on skates and joined me. They soon tired. But for me, still even now, chilly temperatures, tired muscles, aching feet, always fade in the glow of the good times and simple joys of skating long ago with my brother and cousins on the little lake in the mountains.