Every relationship, no matter how difficult, has a tie that binds. For my father and me, over decades of ups and downs, that tie has been made of the most delicate of substances: snow.
My life growing up in the 1960s and 1970s was a dichotomy: We lived in grand houses and even grander weekend vacation homes. We skied, sailed, powerboated and did everything entitled families do as we moved from Massachusetts to Minnesota and back again.
But things weren’t always what they seemed. My father was (and is) a brilliant man. Raised by poor Irish immigrants in one of the toughest sections of New York City, he found his way to MIT and then to success and riches (first as an engineer, later as a developer). But at home, he was often angry, sullen and unhappy. And his tension seemed to seep into the walls of wherever we lived, with one exception: our New Hampshire ski house.
There, for as long as I can remember, skiing was the one thing that always clicked for us as a family. We never missed a ski weekend (other than February 1978, when our oceanfront home floated away in a massive storm).
Everyone-my older brother, younger sister and my parents-watched every televised ski race we could. Christmas finished a distant second to the annual gear tent sale (at Hoigaards in Minnesota when I was little; later at Jack Frost Shop in New Hampshire). We’d go as a family, anxious to check out the hot new equipment. We’d line up to be form-fitted into the Hanson hot-wax boots. And we stood as a group in awe when I picked out my first pair of boards over 200 cm.[NEXT “”]
Dad was funny with money. Probably as a result of his needy childhood, he’d nickel-and-dime me on $3 movies or a new pair of $20 sneakers. But tell him I needed a new type of ski pole for freestyle competition? He’d drive to the end of the Earth and pay top dollar, no questions asked. At any given time, I owned a good four pairs of skis. The “ski room” of our Jackson, N.H., weekend house overflowed with the best of everything.
That feeling of connection and comfort continued onto the slopes. We’d head to New Hampshire each weekend as a family. I was the early riser, and while Dad was always willing to get up and drive me two blocks to the base area of Tyrol Mountain (now closed), I often walked, skis shouldered, just to enjoy the anticipation of the day. But once the ski day started, it wasn’t hard to spot Dad. What he lacked in polish he more than made up for in glee. An adult initiate to the sport, he made the kind of choppy, hockey-stop turns that I would demand my fiancé learn his way out of before marrying me. And while Dad could afford the best outfits, he chose a hideous one: a red, white and blue flag- motif jacket and pants topped off with a knitted flag hat. It was his way of screaming, “I love this!”-and saying to the world (and me) that the gruff businessman was not along for the ride on the hill.
I’d ski a few runs with Dad each day, hooting and hollering as we bombeddown the slopes. We had a long-running NASTAR feud (I was better), and now that I’m a parent and in the middle of my 40s, I’m not sure which he enjoyed more: beating me or having me win.
At night, we’d settle in at home-a comforting mix of deep carpet, soft couches and a giant, ever-burning fireplace. I grew up hating Sunday evenings, knowing we’d soon leave the warm cocoon of our ski house to head back to the cold reality of the homestead.[NEXT “”] After Dad abruptly left my mom and his three kids in the early 1980s, the thing I mourned most was the loss of our ski house and our life there. Dad sold the house as part of the divorce, but for years I still felt like it was mine. The other homes, the boats, the fancy things?
I couldn’t have cared less. But the ski house? My husband knew without me telling him that every time we went to Jackson, our first order of business was to drive by the house. I could almost still feel the happiness inside.
When Dad left, our relattionship ended. For two decades, I didn’t know his address-or even the city where he lived. I’d hear rumors, and every single day I’d read the out-of-state obituaries in the Boston Globe, wondering if that was how I’d hear of him again.
Then came an email. It was from a new friend who was organizing a ski trip. As one sometimes does, I scrolled down the list of addresses, looking for familiar names. And there it was: my father’s best buddy. I decided to contact him, and he helped me contact my father. So there I was last spring, waiting in my house in Plymouth, Mass., to lay eyes on my father for the first time in more than 20 years.
I was petrified. He was 71 now. What could we talk about? When he pulled in, I ran out to meet him-not out of excitement, but out of a jolt of nervous energy. He swung open his car door and pulled out a gift. “I held onto this because I always thought you’d want it some day,” he said. It was a painting of Tyrol Mountain, home to so many happy memories. Dad got it. He knew the tie that binds.
My father and I are still working to rebuild our relationship, but one thing we can always rely upon to smooth the way are ski stories. He’d kept our family’s season passes and had them mounted and framed. He brought them to my house that first day to help break the awkward tension and begin to erase those 20 years. He pointed out that one ski season of mine, 1975, was missing. “Too bad,” he said. “I always thought those kind of things were keepers.”
I smiled, opened my wallet and pulled out the missing season pass. Me with braids on the front, and the $9 day-ticket price listed on the back. “Me too,” I told him. “I take it with me everywhere.”