The snowball sailed past my sister and broke against the side of a blue minivan that was stopped on the snow-covered road.
Immediately, the driver’s window slid open. “Did you just hit my car?” a woman shouted to my brother, Jeff, who had released the chunk of white fluff. “I can’t believe you just hit my car.”
“I didn’t hit it hard,” he said. “It was just like a marshmallow falling—“
“Oh, grow up,” the woman shouted as she rolled up the window and picked her way down the road.
My five siblings and I were walking back from a restaurant in Park City, Utah, in a magical snowstorm, and had been in the middle of a goofy snowball fight. The night—fueled by wine and cocktails, live music, great company, and good stories—had already been full of laughs. But nothing made us laugh harder than the driver’s final slap down, delivered as if my brother were some sort of teenage hoodlum.
Jeff will turn 60 in March; he’s a retired chemical engineer and grandfather to two little girls. If the driver could have peeked under his hood and his black skullcap, she would have seen a shock of white hair.
“Grow up!!” we all hooted at the irony. Then a little farther down the road, in a lush patch of untouched snow, first I, then my little sister Judi, laid down and made snow angels.
“You know what you should have shouted back,” my oldest brother Jack said as we walked up to the condo. “`No, you get younger!’”
Growing up was the farthest thing from our minds that night—actually that whole week in Park City.
Learning to Ski
My father taught all six of us Ralston kids to ski. He developed a passion for sliding down steep mountainsides while he, my mom, and the first four of us lived in Switzerland for his work. When we returned to our hometown in Tennessee and two more kids rounded us out to a family of eight, we skied in North Carolina and, later, in the Rockies.
When we were little, my dad often took us down the mountain between his legs. Once we started skiing solo, he’d always wait for us at the bottom of difficult sections of slopes or at the top of a rise. If we fell and lost a ski, he was the one who side-stepped up the mountain to help us get our equipment back on. Looking back, I don’t know how my parents afforded to take us all skiing and how he had the patience to get us suited up every morning and onto the slopes. I know there was a lot of yelling and cursing before the car was loaded up. I think it was a testament to how much he loved skiing that nothing—not the expense, not the wild six of us—stopped him from getting strapped into his bindings.
As we each got older and more skilled on skis, we would pass Dad.
Some of the most fun we had as siblings was on the slopes. We’d compete to see who could get down the mountain faster. We kept count of everyone’s falls over the day. We played tag with our ski poles on straight runs. We played silly games on the chairlift, such as yelling out common names, “Bob!” “Mary!” to see if we could get someone who happened to have that name to look up. At lunch and the end of the day, we told and retold stories of great crashes we’d witnessed. Once, when I hit three big bumps in a row, I took a spectacular fall—called a “yard sale” when you leave skis and poles all over the slope—that my brother Jeff still loves to recount: The exact angle of my tumble, the horror on my face, and the juicy fact that it was right near a lift line, which meant a bigger audience.
Over the years, we measured time by our position on the slopes in relation to our dad. For many seasons, we could see him ahead of us in his distinctive stance—skis parallel but legs wide apart—and the way he wore his knit cap high on his head like the pope’s miter. But as we each got older and more skilled we would pass Dad. We’d be the ones waiting for him at the bottom of steep sections of slope.
Through his 70s he still skied—teaching his grandchildren, even taking them between his legs. After he had a hip replacement and two knee replacements, his doctors told him his skiing days were behind him. He was devastated. On one of my trips with my sons to a beloved mountain—Keystone, Colorado—I took GoPro movies of his favorite runs.
“You’ve made an old man happy,” he told me. “Anytime I’m blue I can just watch these clips and it makes me feel like I’m there again, skiing every rise and turn.”
When he was 84, two of my brothers—Jack and Jim—took him back skiing, against doctors’ orders. The altitude, his age, his heart made the skiing difficult for him, but he made it down the Wild Irishman at Keystone (one of the runs I’d filmed). He fell a few times, and then it was my brothers’ turn to sidestep up to him to help him get his skis on. He just did the one run. That was enough of a thrill for him.
All of his kids—my mother, too—were so glad he made the trip. Four years later, in 2017, he died.
The Big Trip
I can’t remember how the idea of all six of us meeting up again for a ski trip came about. But since my dad’s death, we have made more of an effort to get together, and I know that I’ve never had more fun skiing with anyone than with my siblings. The deal was sealed when our (very generous) mother said she would pay for our condo, even though she herself wouldn’t be there. “It’s what Daddy would have wanted,” she said. “He would have wanted you to still be together and have fun.”
The six of us gathered in Park City from different parts of the country—Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas. I was a bit nervous beforehand. What if we reverted back to our childhood roles? My oldest brother Jack was the wild one, always worrying my parents. My older sister Janyce was the second mother, the quintessential caretaker. Jeff was the golden child—though he will dispute it when he reads this. I was the typical middle child in that I always looked for attention—which sometimes meant being melodramatic and usually meant bucking convention at any chance I got. My younger brother Jim was the easy-going, happy child. And Judi was the baby, the one we all wanted to protect.
I was determined not to be the needy, conversation-hogging sibling.
On this trip, I was determined not to be the needy, conversation-hogging one, and I vowed that I wouldn’t let Janyce do the caretaking or treat Judi as if she were any less than a grown-ass woman. I wasn’t the only one who had thought about the group dynamics.
“I am going to try not to get my way this trip,” Jeff said to the rest of us, as he pulled the rented van out of the Salt Lake City airport. After grocery shopping and picking up our rental skis, we settled into the three-bedroom condo. We voted to give Janyce a room by herself since she still lives near our mother and has always been the one who helped out our parents whenever they needed it. I set a photo of Mom and Dad on the dining room table.
Hitting the Slopes
There was busy excitement—and plenty of nerves—the first morning before we got on the slopes. Judi hadn’t skied in almost 14 years. I had skied recently, but I hoped I could still measure up to my siblings. I don’t think any of us wanted to discover that we didn’t “have it” any longer.
And we need not have worried. Our ski sense came back to all of us. It was a joy to see my siblings with their distinctive skiing poses. Jack and Jim always were the most aggressive. Jeff was slower but focused on form. Janyce has always been a bomber, tearing down the mountain at great speed, but making it look effortless. I nicknamed her “Grand-bomba” on this trip (her seventh grandchild is on the way). We were all impressed by how well Judi skied. She was slower than the rest, but we didn’t mind waiting for her since it gave us a good excuse to catch our breath, something we hadn’t needed in the past.
Our mom had worried we’d get hurt racing each other down the slopes, but the potentially worst injury came at slow speed.
Yes, there were spills and lost skis—many more than I remembered. We used to pride ourselves on hardly ever falling. Janyce couldn’t be completely pushed out of the caretaker role and often skied behind Judi and was there to help her if she got into trouble.
Our mom had worried we’d get hurt racing each other down the slopes, but the potentially worst injury came at slow speed. I got caught up getting off the lift and whacked my head on hard-packed snow. Thankfully I was wearing a helmet, but I was very aware of what happened to Natasha Richardson after a ski accident and spent the rest of the day obsessing about an epidural hematoma in my brain. I realized I had become more of a hypochondriac with age, and I was really happy to wake up the next morning. Especially because Jeff was making breakfast—as he did every morning. Jim, a chef, cooked dinner for us the first night, so, thankfully, Janyce never got shouldered with the domestic duties.
Our off-the-slope time was usually spent reminiscing about our childhood: broken arms, concussions, favorite TV shows, the punishment techniques of the nuns at our Catholic school, the time Jeff pushed me out of the treehouse accidentally on purpose (because this has to be mentioned at every gathering), even some trouble with the law (not big trouble).
A Question of Stamina
Maybe our most regular topic of conversation were things that made us go “ouch” in the evening. Hurt backs, screaming IT bands, sore knees. We sure didn’t have the stamina we had before. Three siblings sat out the second day of skiing; two cried uncle after the third day. I never remember missing a single day of skiing growing up when our parents took us out West. And it was strange to be spending so much time comparing notes on health conditions—cholesterol levels, strange heart rhythms, vertigo, insomnia—that had never challenged us before.
But despite that, our ski time was spent in pure exuberance. Jack still swatted me with his pole if he passed me on a straight away and yelled, “You’re it!” Jeff and I once again sang the chorus from “Always Something There to Remind Me,” that we used to belt out when we were teenagers because it matched how we felt inside as we took the jumps. Not that we were taking jumps on this trip, but we hit plenty of dips or unexpected moguls that dropped our stomachs.
Our family was different, now. Not worse, just different.
“I feel like I’m 11 again,” Janyce shouted on the last day as we took off down a ridge, “following Jack down the mountain like I’ve done most of my life.”
I think at different times during the trip we all felt 11 again (or somewhere thereabouts). For me, it came on the night of our dinner during the heavy snowstorm. The room was warm, candles cast a glow across the table, a duo was playing bluegrass, which reminded us of our Tennessee childhood and prompted us to dance.
I looked at the faces around the table, as familiar to me as my own hands. I looked at the big snowflakes floating down outside and felt a swell of joy. I have always been the sentimental one, and I couldn’t help feeling our family was different, now. Not worse, just different. And I like the different it has become and the sameness, the continuity that still under-gird everything.
“I’m going to remember this night forever,” I blurted, teary-eyed.
Jeff grabbed my hand. “Oh Jeannie,” he said smilingly at me lovingly. I imagine everyone was thinking how melodramatic I am, but I swear I saw glassy eyes all around me.