In early July of my seventh year, I planted my feet on the green tile floor, pressed fists to waist, thrust out my elbows, stuck out my chest and declared to my mother’s back, “I’m a big girl now. I need a big bike. Tricycles are for babies”.
In matter of fact I was not a big girl. Oh, big in spirit and very big in imagination, but quite small in stature. On a chart recording the height and weight of every six-and-three-quarter-year-old in every part of the world, I would have landed in the bottom five percentile.
Mom turned from her task at the kitchen sink, eyed me from top to toe, then toe to top. At last, she directed her gaze into my eyes. She must have seen my tough-little-girl determination because she said, “All right”.
We went outside to the storage space under the big veranda, its treasures not-quite hidden by hundreds of crisscrossed slats of white lattice. Mom dragged out a bulky burgundy bicycle. As I was the youngest of four siblings, a new bike was an impossibility. This one had belonged to my seven-years-older sister. The best thing was, that in 1954, girls simply did not ride boys bikes—I couldn’t inherit one of my brothers’.
Worn white letters on dark metal proclaimed CCM—Canada Cycle and Motor Company. Fat steel cylinders formed the frame—the front tube was elegantly curved. Very lady-like. The handlebars extended straight out from the centre then, at the same height, turned toward the rider. A proper-sized person riding the bike could sit up straight and enjoy the scenery.
Mother scanned the bicycle. Scanned me. Looked back at the bike. Looked back at me then re-entered the house. Out she emerged with a large pillow and one of my brothers’ belts. I trusted my Mom’s wisdom and allowed her to secure the cushion to my backside by tightly clinching it with the leather strap. Satisfied, Mom returned to her work in the kitchen.
I leaned the bike against the trellis wall and tried to climb onto the seat. The bustle made it hopeless. It became clear that even if I could get onto the saddle, my short legs would never permit my feet to touch the pedals. Thank goodness there was no crossbar. Standing on the rubber footholds, I wedged myself against the hard line of the wide silver shaft just below the seat. The cushion helped here. It kept me forward enough that the saddle didn’t puncture my neck. In this fashion I managed to push myself off the wall and travel a few wobbly feet. Over and over I practised how to balance the bike and move at the same time. Days later, the few feet became more feet, then a lot of feet, then actual yards. For some time, I thought that another purpose of the bustle was to protect me when I fell. Several tumbles later, I realized that no one falls off a bike onto her bum. Knees, shoulders, hands, elbows, shins, scalps and faces could be scraped raw, but never one’s backside. Further, because I gripped the handlebars so fiercely when the bike began to totter beyond my control, the heavy machine, without fail, fell on top of me. The pillow was quite useless against that problem as well.
We lived in a neighbourhood of red brick bungalows. Giant maples shaded its narrow streets. When finally I was able to ride the bike a reasonable distance without mishap, Mom allowed me to leave the property. However, she warned me not to ride on the walkways. I might kill someone. No helmets in those days. And thankfully, little traffic. In the first hours of my new-found freedom, I weaved over most of my lane and into the opposite one as well. But, with resolute persistence, I did learn to control the bicycle.
A lecturer from my university days spoke of “The Concept of Competence”. In brief, he defined the term as “the satisfaction a child feels when [she] has successfully mastered a new skill”. I reveled in my bike-riding accomplishment. I was then so much bigger than my backyard or the short distances my little legs could carry me.
It is not possible that I outgrew the burgundy bike. I never got taller than five feet and five-eights of an inch. After I had ignored the bicycle for a few years, it disappeared. I imagine Mother did one of her regular, “donate stuff to charity” acts and the bike was part of the donation.
In my twenties I purchased a youth-sized Canadian Tire specimen. It was a boy’s bike and the crossbar sometimes caused me difficulties. Even so, I rode it for three decades. When my daughter moved to the big city she asked if she could have it. Apparently, old bikes were retro-smart. Besides, there was little likelihood of it being stolen. Although I had owned it longer, I never loved it as I had that first learn-to-ride bicycle. I let it go.
At the time I lived in a small hilly Ontario town on Georgian Bay. The steep slopes careened toward the shoreline where a smooth and level path circled the bay—an open invitation to cyclists. I missed having a bike. I paid a visit to a local cycle shop. A used bicycle had just been received. A Trek Navigator 2.0. Tubular steel, a gently curved front tube, burgundy in colour. I knew it had to be mine.
When we moved to Prince Edward Island five years ago, the second burgundy bike accompanied me. I ride it on the south shore road to collect eggs from a neighbour or deliver baked goods to the old school house. I avoid the hills. Even the gentle gradient that slopes upwards from the school corner to our house challenges my seventy-one year-old body. Once, riding home into a headwind, I considered dismounting and pushing the bike. Then, I remembered the six-year old me. I stood up on the pedals, leaned into the handlebars, pushed hard against the foot levers and rode on. Only when I reached the bottom of our driveway did I stop. Breathless and with pounding heart, I dismounted. Then, I stood still. I waited until breath and heart slowed. And in that pause, a smile began as a tickle in my belly, skipped to my heart, then burst into sunbeams over my face. I did it. I never gave up.