Pat got her roller skates on her 5th birthday in the summer of ‘66.
They were her “big present” that year, not the cheapo kind that clip onto the bottom of sneakers. These were the real-deal with ankle-length lace-up boots and “competition wheels,” made out of some special sort of plastic—who knew that plastic could be special—that gave them better grip.
Pat loved wearing them, not so much at first for the skating because she was still barely able to walk in them. The spanking-new white leather, shiny chrome grommets, and red shoelaces were eye-catching. Even at that age she was all about making a fashion statement. In fact, Pat loved her skates so much that she gave up her Barbies, at least for a while, to become the roller-derby queen of Lowell Street.
It wasn’t easy, though. My sister’s training regimen, recommended by Mom, was to first learn how to balance herself in the skates. This happened on the front lawn. Dozens of face-plants and a bunch of grass-stained clothing later, Pat had the hang of it. I laughed only a bit, until I got a withering “don’t fool with me, buster” look.
Believe me, even then, you didn’t want to mess with Pattina.
Her tenacity was impressive. Pat stayed with it, and soon enough she was off to the races. Mom gave her the freedom to explore the sidewalks so long as Pat didn’t skate out on the pavement. All was bliss, except for one problem.
Shoelaces. Pat didn’t know how to tie her shoes.
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To those born in the age of Velcro, this might not seem a problem. But it was. Pat wasn’t allowed to skate inside, so any time she wanted to use the bathroom, get a toy, say hello to the cat, or God knows what else, the skates had to come off. Pat could remove them. It was that someone had to help so she could return to her wheeled adventures.
And refitting the skates could take more time than watching the Academy Awards.
My mother, the generous soul who bought the beasts, lasted all of about two days. Then she fobbed this off on me. I protested, but Mom pointed out that her housekeeping kept her plenty busy. Unless I wanted to take over the laundry, I’d better not complain. Not an appealing option, so, I took it like the big-brother I was.
I hid from my sister.
Our home offered many places, including both a den, living room, large closet under the stairs, a tree house, and even a mother-in-law unit. I tried to position myself so I could read or watch TV and still see the front door. When Pat entered, roller-skates in hand, I bolted.
But she always found me.
I changed my tactics, and hung out with my best-friend, Chris’s house, two blocks away. This worked until Mom gave my sister permission to walk down there to find me.
But I couldn’t just tie her skates and send her home. She wasn’t allowed in the streets. Wonderful, now I had to walk her home and then tie her skates.
Running away from home? Not a solution.
Finally, in an act of desperation, I decided it was time that someone taught my kid sister to tie her shoes. So, Pat and I sat down, side-by-side, on the porch steps, and we began the lesson.
“OK. I said. You start by crisscrossing. You can do that?”
Pat nodded, and proceeded to thread the laces.
Then came the heavy lifting. I had to explain something I’d learned all of seven years before, in kindergarten. But it had become so automatic, I wasn’t sure I could explain it to a five-year-old. I had to break it down and try to remember just how it had been explained to me.
“OK, now you make a bunny ear,” I took the loose ends of a lace, and made a loop.
Pat watched intently.
“Now, you pinch the ear.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Why do you squeeze the bunny?”
“To keep it from moving. Now, don’t interrupt.”
Then you chase around the ear,” I wrapped the lace around the loop.
“Why?” she asked. “How can you chase it if you’re already holding it down.”
I looked at my sister, wanting to apply the shoelace to her neck, but I resisted.
Then, I was struck by genius.
“You’re trying to catch the other bunny.”
“There’s more than one?” Pat asked.
“Yes. Now watch.”
I formed another loop.
“Make a snare, and put it down the hole.”
Pat watched intently.
“Then you pull both the ears.” I said, finishing in triumph. “See?”
Pat studied this for a moment.”
“But if you caught two bunnies, why are there only two ears?”
I looked at her, annoyed.
“Never mind. This is how you do it. OK?”
“Did one of the bunnies get away?” Pat persisted.
“No. These are one-eared bunnies.” I said, feeling clever.
Then her eyes teared up.
“That’s really sad,” she said, and pulled loose the loop I’d just tied. “I don’t want to skate right now.”
She went off to mourn, and that was the end of the lesson for that day.
But soon enough she was back, and I had her doing the bunny loops and going round with a snare stuffed down into the hole. Over several days, Little Sis mastered tying her shoes, and even now she says that she recalls the many, many hours I spent reminding her that “you begin first by making a bunny ear.”
Over fifty years later, we laugh at this shared experience, a brother-sister memory. It’s our catch-phrase, because, really, it’s a life-lesson.
You have to start somewhere, even with a goofy explanation, but as long as it works. It’s all good. Eventually, Pat learned, that no actual bunnies, one-eared or otherwise, were harmed. And that’s a good thing, too.
And so is Velcro.