The Wheel Deal

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By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, April 6, 2008

A SHOCKING-PINK 20-inch two-wheeler with plastic butterflies stuck to the spokes, or a purple bike with snazzy sparkle streamers and "Super Star!" written on the frame. I'm down to these two. The decision is tricky, because the bike is to be a surprise birthday present for my daughter -- and from my mother. This puts me squarely in the middle: trying to weigh what 7-year-old Sasha would most likely want to get (pink?), against what 84-year-old Grandmom would probably like to give (Super Star?). I am not even confident of these suppositions.

I am frozen in indecision or maybe just stuck in my own history. You can't stand in a bike store and buy a child her first two-wheeler without thinking of your own first two-wheeler. The thing is, I got a purple one, for my seventh birthday, and it was a gift from my grandmother. That bike was about the only real connection I had with my mom's mom -- a tall, skinny, always smiling, stately woman with bright white hair and little left to say, at least to me. She was very old and very fragile, and as far as I was concerned, the two of us only barely occupied space in the same world.

But the bike -- a Royce Union standard upright with a white seat and white handle grips. I rode it knowing she gave it to me; I rode it and thought of her, wondered about her, and even long after she succumbed to senility and became to me just a scary Sunday visit in a nursing home, I thought of her being with me, keeping me out of danger. I would want, mind you, to get into danger -- I would want to ride down the street and hang out with boys who were smoking and making firebombs out of aerosol cans. But the bike . . . my grandmother . . . She wouldn't approve. She didn't approve. When I was with the bike, I was with her, in that silent, unspoken way that only hazily but definitively gives notice.

One more thing: It was not the bike I would have picked. All the other kids had Sting-Rays with banana seats. I mean, everyone who was anyone. Look at "The Brady Bunch": Imagine Jan or Marcia on a geeky upright! Wouldn't happen. So, I had to learn to love that bike. I had to accept myself as a person who was not a Sting-Ray person. An outsider. Marginalized. There's an advantage to being forced to break with the pack early on.

Standing now in the bike shop weighing pink versus purple, I call my mother. I tell her about the choices. "Oh, you pick," she says. "You know better."

And then suddenly, I know better. "I get it now," I say. Only now do I see how gullible I was: While my grandmother supposedly got me my first bike, really my mom did. She went out and got it and said it was from my grandmother. It's okay, I tell my mother. I know how moms work, how moms are wont to force symbolism and sentimentality on the smallest acts -- and create memories, especially when it comes to grandparents. I tell my mom I really don't hold it against her. It is, after all, exactly my own plan with Sasha -- a gentle nudge to encourage her to always remember her grandmother. "It's just a small loss of innocence," I tell my mom.

She is listening. She is trying to understand. "Where are you getting this crap?" she says. "My mother begged your father to drive her to the bike store so she could get you that bike."

"She did?" My mother is so bad at lying that I know she is not spinning this.

"I didn't want you to have it," she says. "You were pretty clumsy. I didn't think you were even close to ready for a two-wheeler. She insisted."

She did. She took a stance. She believed in me, believed I was better than the rusty old tricycle that had, up until that point, been my crutch.

Well, this changes everything. Or, this validates so much. A phantom relationship with a woman I barely knew almost dissolved, but instead now deepens.

"Get the purple bike for Sasha," my mom says. "She's too smart to follow along on this awful bubblegum-pink fad for girls. Not that purple is much better. But you turned out okay."

I tell her thanks and do what she suggested. "Close your eyes!" I say, on the morning of Sasha's birthday. I tell her that a special package arrived overnight from her grandmother. She stands quietly while I wheel Super Star into the living room. "Okay, open!" I say.

She looks. Her eyes grow huge. She looks at me, then back at it, then at me. "It's a two-wheeler," she says. "I can't ride a two-wheeler."

"Grandmom thinks you're ready," I say. She squints at me, as if to say, Has that lady finally lost her marbles? I shrug, then motion toward the bike.

"It's big," Sasha says, going over to it and stroking the streamers, gently making acquaintance. "This is a very, very big-kid bike."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.


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