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At the End of Her Rope, Mom Smiles and Swings

A thick, frayed rope still dangles from an elm tree beside a river-bank in New Hampshire. I know just where it is. I discovered it last year. It was only the second woodland dangler I had seen in my lifetime. A rope swing!

Inspecting the length and the takeoff position, I figured this one could give me a good ride clear across the Connecticut River and maybe into Vermont. Wasn't that what it was for? A swing across water and then a drop-splash?

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The only other swinging rope I'm acquainted with is in an unnamed township near Rangeley, Maine, where we summer. This lakeside rope hangs from a stately birch tree, rooted right by the water's edge. It has hung there for almost 30 years, I'm told by local swingers. And I've swung on it. But it wasn't until I had children that I knew much about ropes, for ropes were not part of my repertoire growing up.

My offspring took to them quickly. On summer vacations, they were swinging over the lake in Maine so often that, by fall, they were experts, showing their cousins and friends how to do it, too.

But at first, when they were learning, they'd ask me (like I was the expert), "How do you get a running start?" And "When do you let go?"

We inspected the course. I showed them the banking and then the knoll that would give them the best starting position - and the biggest splash. I advised from lack of experience. There are some things you never learn as a child that you teach your children anyway.

"And now for the taaakeoff!" I'd give them a solid push.

It wasn't until I tried it for myself that I could finally whisper (with some credibility), "Now you'll feel a rush of air whiz by as you move skyward. The feeling of being no longer grounded. Of utter dangling. Release and fall!"

Of course, sometimes they'd return to the bank, having forgotten to let go of the rope or not knowing where the point of departure was over water.

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Fortunately, all our swinging ropes were knotted at the bottom - a sure sign that they'd been used for skimming across lakes and rivers. A bulbous knot suited me just fine, too; a good foothold or seat made the rope easier to hang onto. I should know.

BACK in my grade-school days, ropes were suspended from the cafeteria ceiling. They were thick, hairy things that got in the way of the school lunch program and for years were my nemesis.

Rope-climbing in Connecticut was a springtime activity. It came just about the time the playing fields were covered with puddles and the monkey bars were slick with drips. Our hopscotch had virtually disappeared (this was before we figured out to paint the lines on the pavement).

Typically, when I heard it was climbing day, I'd linger in the back of the classroom, finishing a potato-print or polishing a limerick. I'd wait for my pal Jimmy Leary with the red freckles and red hair who was also hiding out. Together we'd head out to the locker rooms, usually talking about the weather and wondering why the teachers wouldn't let us outside if we had boots on, for goodness' sake.

Just about the time we finished complaining, we'd have reached the wide double doors of the cafeteria-now-gymnasium. The lunch tables would be stacked against the side of the room. A rubber floor mat would be below each rope for those who could not muster the strength or resolve to hold on for at least 15 seconds.

Meanwhile, as I was wondering how the custodians had tied the ropes up there so high in the first place, my classmates would be busy rubbing their hands, ready for the climb.

I was not a rope-climber.

After the first few feet my upper body would give out. "Nancy, come see me after school, and we'll try it again!" my gym teacher would offer enthusiastically. She was always hopeful.

As the school buses pulled out of the yard, I could still hear her: "Just loop the rope around your feet and make an 'S,' and look up, up, up!" Meanwhile, my hands were burning and three feet of height was about all I could handle. How I wished I could shinny up those ropes like my classmates!

But it was never to be. I had to wait for parenthood for new vistas.

With a rope swing and summer vacations and "teaching" my three children, I never had to think about burning hands and an unforgiving floor mat. I just aimed for the water beneath me, let go, and dropped in. Free flight and free fall! I never would have been allowed to run or leap with a gym rope.

Today, my kids shinny up a rope, any rope, in no time. And after 25 years of marriage, my husband finally confessed that he'd been one of those who could climb a rope to the top of a gym with no trouble at all. I pretended I didn't hear him. The good news for me is that there are two rope swings in my life now. In at least two states, I know that I can get a rush of carefree moments. These ropes let me soar above all troubles and cares and, if it were possible, above lunch tables everywhere.

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