Faith Gong: On thin ice

This Thanksgiving, I wondered whether Californians discuss their lawns the way that Vermonters discuss their heat.

When our family had recently moved to Vermont, my husband and I noticed that a certain topic never failed to arouse interest and strong opinions during gatherings with Vermonters. (This was back in the days when there were gatherings.) This topic was: How do you heat your house? 

It’s not surprising that Vermonters are fascinated by heating methods, given that some form of manmade warmth is required for comfort over half the year in Vermont. Options include fuel oil, gas, heat pumps, and wood. Discussions about heating with wood could monopolize an entire dinner party (back when there were dinner parties), with topics like: What type of woodstove do you use? Where do you get your wood? How do you stack your wood?

The topic of heating never came up in California, where we lived before moving to Vermont and where half of our extended family still lives. 

The subject of lawns arose during a virtual Thanksgiving visit over Zoom with our beloved California family members. Like many Californians, our relatives live in suburban neighborhoods in which homeowners’ associations have certain requirements about how one’s house and lawn should look. The challenge is that California has been in a drought for years, which makes it difficult to maintain a pristine green carpet in the front yard. Options include using copious amounts of water, making use of native plants, or ripping up the lawn entirely and replacing it with fake grass. (I’m not kidding about that last one.) 

Any other year, my husband and I would find it difficult to relate to a discussion of lawns. On our property, we don’t have a lawn so much as we have a yard. For much of spring and summer the yard looks green enough — except for the dead brown patches and clusters of yellow dandelions. During the growing season, my husband keeps the yard mowed, although you’ll get a better idea of what this involves when I say that he uses a brush mower to do so. And our yard resembles a relief map more than a carpet, as it’s worked over daily by chickens scratching with their feet, ducks digging with their bills, and children excavating with their shovels. 

But this year my husband has spent the past few weeks on his hands and knees, studying every dip and rise of our yard, so he has something to say about lawns. The reason for this sudden interest? My husband is building an ice rink.

Having lived almost a decade in New England, we’ve often driven past other people’s homemade front yard ice rinks in the winter and thought: Maybe someday! But for years our property’s wonky topography did the work for us: Water would pool and freeze in the lowest spots of our yard, creating icy surfaces where our children could slide around. And there was always the town rink, where we could meet up with friends (back when we could meet up with friends.) Building our own ice rink never seemed worth the effort. 

But last year we corrected our yard’s drainage issue, which wiped out our natural ice ponds. And 2020 wiped out the town rink option. My husband, who is now working from home, has taken up a second full-time job in the field of: keeping our family from going bonkers during a year of pandemic restrictions. Clearly, this was the year to build an ice rink. 

I was enthusiastic. How hard could it be? I thought to myself. We have a relatively flat front yard. We’ll make a rectangle with some boards, lay down a tarp, fill it with water, and wait for the cold. Easy!

It didn’t take me long to realize how deluded I’d been: Building an ice rink requires a graduate degree in engineering, serious carpentry experience, and hours of labor. Plus, a really good level. 

The level was crucial to selecting the site. Our front yard might appear flat, but my husband informs me that much of it isn’t flat enough for an ice rink. (The key is to find a spot in which maintaining a minimum water depth of 4 inches won’t cause an overflow on the opposite side.) Working with a level and whichever daughter he could enlist to help, my husband spent days crawling around the lawn until he’d staked out the perfect 25x40-foot perimeter. 

The next step was to erect the frame, which my husband and my father did one afternoon. 

The final product is larger than the vegetable garden that feeds our family all summer; it dominates our front yard. At this point, I assumed that the worst was over and all that was left was to add water. 

Again, I assumed wrong: It was necessary to secure the rink from potential assaults by our poultry. The rink’s wooden frame now lives in a sort of demilitarized zone, surrounded by yards of poultry fencing topped with barbed wire and guard towers. 

Then it was time to call the expert: My cousin’s husband in Massachusetts, who every year constructs a rink three times the size of ours, complete with lighting and a warming hut. That phone conversation lasted for an hour and was followed by a flurry of emailed photos and videos. 

By this point, it was clear that my husband’s project had become an obsession. Although it appears that there’s little to do except to await the arrival of cold weather, he continues to fiddle with the rink. Every other day a package arrives addressed to my husband. “Great!” he’ll say, grabbing the box and running outside, “Those are the new garden stakes for the rink!”

He tells me that we can begin filling the rink when there has been a streak of three days with below-freezing temperatures. He warns me that he’s going to be checking the outdoor thermometer compulsively all winter long. If my husband has been initiated into the fellowship of home ice rink builders, I’ve apparently joined the sisterhood of ice rink widows. 

Still, I’m grateful for a husband who works so hard to make life fun for our family in a pandemic year. I’m happy that the rink will exhaust our children with plenty of outdoor exercise during the colder months. And I’m hopeful that winter will be cold enough to justify the colossal effort invested in this rink — so, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check the 10-day forecast. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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