by Laura Sillerman | bio

It was cold in Central Park the other day. The kind of day you walk the dogs with one hand and fish in your pocket for a tissue with another. You know the kind — one when an older woman might return home, look in the mirror and think, “Who is that?”

It wasn’t a day for bike riding, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, a very attractive man and his two children were out doing just that. They were about 20 yards behind me, cruising down the hill from the park drive to the boat pond. I didn’t find out how attractive he was until they passed, but while they were behind me I heard enough to learn how anxious he was.

“Use the brake, Bella,” the father shouted. “Use the brake. Brake, Bella. I can’t help you from here. Use the brake, Bella!”

He called this out at least four times, and the other folks on the hill and I understood that the incline just might be too much for a young rider and we better move aside. I held my breath till they passed, expecting to see a little girl with a terrified look on her face followed by a dad who was helpless to rescue her.

Instead what went by was a trio that looked like this: a young boy who was obviously Bella’s older brother, clutching his hand brakes, the dad close behind him, and Bella herself, about 6 years old, wearing a pink skirt over pants and pedaling with all her might.

As they passed, I heard the dad say, “You don’t need to pedal Bella, you should use the brake!”

I thought to myself, “You go, girl.  Pedal with all your might!”

I was the kind of kid who used my brakes at least four blocks before they were necessary. I slowed at green lights and stopped on amber. I worried that if I scared my dad, he’d perish. It took me lots of decades to learn to pedal on the downhill for the thrill of the ride.

So I’m rooting for every little girl who learns that early. We are all in this together. Repeat after me: Don’t use the brake, Bella. Don’t use the brake.

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  • Mare Contrare January 8, 2008 at 10:30 am

    I have been busy writing memoir for a literary magazine and resonated deeply with Laura’s, Bella. I had been such a girl, growing up brazen with three older brothers who cut me no slack. I always pedaled as fast as I could, jumped before I looked and believed I could do anything I wanted and become anyone I wanted. That is until I menstruated. Then the wise, advice giving adults surrounding me said, I could not be a chef, only a cook. I could not be a doctor, but I could be a nurse and I could not be the President of the United States, but one day I could vote.

  • Carolyn Hahn January 8, 2008 at 5:58 am

    Reading this essay and Dr Pat’s comments brings back such a mass of conflicting messages about independence from my father.
    “Here, go take the car apart” (hands me a Phillips head screw driver). “You can drive standard, stick shift isn’t hard — go drive around the block a few times” (I think I did this in a snow storm–it wasn’t that hard, however, when I was trying to go up a steep snowy hill in 4th gear it would have been nice to know about down-shifting).
    But when I thought of being a graphic designer, “I don’t think you have the confidence to be an artist” (ie, sell yourself — probably true when I was 17, but…yikes).
    I do think people grow. My father was raised by people who didn’t have a lot of confidence to give, and he did the best he could. One of my brothers has made it to the top of Mt Everest 9 times, so mixed messages and all, the Dr Pat Family Approach (just go drive that sucker into the pond) works. At a cost sometimes, but it can work.

  • Dr. Pat Allen January 7, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    I read this lovely essay with such conflicted emotions. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have a father who cared about me the way this father did. But, I also know that being forced to fend for myself fortified me early on with the determination and self-sufficiency that made me the tough girl I became. Got a problem? Fix it.
    I had no athletic skills or aptitude. I was never chosen for any team sport. Not chosen, you understand, as the “last one chosen,” but never chosen. The teachers could not make either team take me. I did not suffer from this since it allowed me to read; I got to hang out with a much more interesting group of friends in my world of books than the play yard bullies who tried to torture me.
    I was terrified of riding a bicycle. I had no sense of balance and I was certain that I would fall off and kill myself. Always a drama queen.
    No one taught me to ride a bike. It wasn’t important to anyone but me. I saved money by babysitting and bought a dilapidated second hand bicycle. There were no buses in the rural area where I lived, and I knew that I would never be independent until I had transportation. I was 9.
    I tried so many times to ride the bike across our small front yard and fell repeatedly. One day, I had to go to a 4-H meeting two miles away. There was no one who would take me.
    I took that bicycle to the open field behind the farmhouse. I dragged it weeping from anger and fear up to the top of a hill. There was a pond at the bottom of the hill.
    I mounted that sucker and flew down the hill ending up in the pond. I didn’t die. I wasn’t injured. I then rode in a wobbly fashion to my meeting. Life was never the same after I had wheels.