Fingers crushing the handle bars, I started to pedal. The bike steered me on a wavy path before I realized I was leaning too hard on the handle bars and squeezing too tightly. I loosened up and got more control over the bike. I pedaled it up the incline, around the circle, shaky. It wasn’t true what they said. You really do forget how to ride a bike. I made a few laps around the cul-de-sac and slowed down for a break. I wasn’t used to using those muscles. I braked slowly and when I’d slowed down enough, put one foot down for balance. At least I remembered that.
I hadn’t felt that shaky on a bike in nearly forty years. I thought of the hot-pink bike my parents bought for me, with the chain guard that said “Sweet and Sassy.” Neil, my next-door neighbor, made fun of that all the time. “Sweet and Sassy, Sweet and Sassy,” he’d taunt in a singsong voice. Even so, it was a great bike. It was two steps up from my tricycle – I’d never had the middle step, so I wanted training wheels.
My dad would have none of that.He took me up to my school’s parking lot, where I’d sit on the bike while he held it up from behind, and he’d run after me as I pedaled. I could smell the tar in the newly-paved asphalt and feel the heat of the sun on my skin as I gripped the handle bars. The ground looked hard and hot as my wheels tread over it but I wasn’t scared of falling because I trusted my dad to hold me up. We must’ve done that for weeks, until he let go and I didn’t even notice. Truth be told, he probably let go long before that, but didn’t tell me until I had enough confidence. I was proud that I could balance myself, and I started riding bikes with the rest of the kids in the street.
When I got old enough, we’d take bikes to Red Mills – what my parents called “The General Store” — about a mile away. I would never let the kids do that now – at least not until they’re teenagers. But those were different times. We’d buy candy cigarettes – they had this kind that were round sticks of gum with powdered sugar around them, all wrapped up in a white wrapper, and when you blew on them, “smoke” would come out. They even came in mock-branded packs. Back then nobody blinked when we played smokers. Imagine somebody selling candy cigarettes like that now? They’d get sued before their gum lost its flavor.
My dad disappointed me on a lot of stuff. He was really good when I was a little kid. He’d let me ride horsie, put me on his shoulders, throw me into the lake over and over as I laughed. He was a fun dad then. But once I turned twelve something happened.
He went from all-around good dad, to grumpy, angry guy who picked fights with my mother. He’d wave away her opinions, and talk over her – he talked over everybody, all the time. Maybe it took until I was twelve to notice it. I used to sit on his lap and we’d read the comics together after dinner. Somewhere around twelve, it stopped. I had to read the comics by myself. I can understand why twelve might be too big to sit on his lap, but nothing was ever said. One day I could, the next day I couldn’t.
Our relationship spiraled downward until I was 30. That’s when my mom first exhibited Alzheimer’s symptoms. We got along out of necessity. We didn’t have my mom as a buffer anymore, and we had to talk about her.
But despite all those antagonistic years, I will always remember my dad teaching me how to ride a bike. He spent so much time, had so much patience and so much dedication. It’s because of him that, almost forty years later, I can teach myself to ride again. My dad died last year, but riding my new bike reminds me of “Sweet and Sassy” and such a good memory of him.