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January 1, 2012

Marisa de los Santos on a Balance Beam

Posted by Katherine

An award-winning poet and bestselling author with a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing, Marisa de los Santos lives in Wilmington, Delaware, with her husband, the children’s book author David Teague, and their son and daughter. She’s the author of the bestsellers LOVE WALKED IN and BELONG TO ME. Here she talks about a balance beam she once received as a gift from her grandfather.


When I was ten, my grandfather made me a balance beam for Christmas.  It was a low beam, about a foot off the ground, maybe a foot and a half, wooden, covered with a thin layer of foam that was in turn covered with a thin piece of carpet.  It was the proper width (four inches), the proper depth, and was just the right balance of smooth and grippy, easy on the hands and feet without being slick.  On Christmas morning, there it was under the tree, squat and sturdy as a dachshund, a complete surprise.  It was the first inanimate object with which I ever truly fell --- instantly and headlong --- in love.  I missed it when I was away from it.  I fell asleep and dreamed about it.

It was the Christmas of 1976, which meant that, along with most of the world, I’d spent the previous summer getting bewitched by a fourteen year old Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comaneci.  By Christmas, Nadia looked out at me with her big, dark, serious eyes, from every wall of my room.  Her leotard was white; her high ponytail was a glossy brown comma; she was as perfect as any human being could ever hope to be. 

At ten, I was a pretty decent gymnast.  I spent hours and hours every week training, came home with ripped palms and covered in chalk.  I worked hard, but the truth was that I was never going to be that good.  I was a little too tall, a little too weak in the upper body, and even at ten, fear was starting to creep in:  what if my hands miss, what if I hit my head, what if I over-rotate or under-rotate or forget where I am in mid-air?  Occasionally, at practice, surrounded by the tiny, the iron-muscled, the brave and truly talented, my confidence would falter.  I would feel the limits of my potential.

But at home, on my grandfather-crafted balance beam, I was awesome.  Awesome and indescribably happy.  Happy in my bones.  On school mornings, I would come down before my parents and sister were awake to practice.  On sunny weekend days, I would drag the beam out the screen doors and into the yard and practice there. 

I loved that beam because my grandfather made it for me.  But I loved it for another reason that I probably could not have explained then:  on that beam, alone in my house, pretending with all my heart to be Nadia, I was Nadia.  I don’t mean that I was a great gymnast.  I mean that, not all the time, but now and then, in great, brief, trembling flashes, I felt something that I’d never --- in all of my shy, anxious, nerdy, bookwormy childhood --- felt before:  the possibility of being extraordinary. 

I know I thanked my grandfather for my balance beam.  But I know I didn’t tell him what it meant to me, how it lifted me and gave me hope.  Even if I had had the words, my brusque, moody, kind grandfather and I didn’t have that kind of conversation.  Too emotional.  Too sappy.  I wish I’d told him anyway.