Bill Holland skiing across the top of Snow Dome.
Bill Holland skiing across the top of Snow Dome.

The Spindrift Diaries: The Memoir of a Climber’s Daughter, Part 1

This is the first in a three-part series excerpted from Laurel Holland's forthcoming book, Spindrift. Her father, Bill Holland, was killed while attempting an unroped descent of Slipstream, the 3,000-foot frozen waterfall in Alberta, Canada's Jasper National Park. His body was discovered 21 years later, a mile from the estimated site of his fall.

Bill Holland skiing across the top of Snow Dome.
Laurel Holland

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Saturday mornings on Harding Road were usually spent watching cartoons while Mom baked cookies and caught up on household chores. Daddy, when he wasn’t out climbing, lounged in his royal blue bathrobe, reading the paper and smoking his pipe. Mid-morning, Mom and I would run errands around town—to the dry cleaners, the grocery store, the gardening center. If I was good, she’d let me have a pack of bubble gum, or, on extra special occasions, take me shopping for a doll or a new dress.

But not today, not this Saturday. Today was my father’s service. Today would be spent in church.

It had been four days since we’d received news of the accident and the day before Daddy was supposed to come home. Family had been dispatched, friends had driven up. This was not the shape of the Saturdays I knew.

I’d slept fitfully the night before. In the weeks before he’d left for Canada, my father began reading The Call of the Wild to me at bedtime but hadn’t finished the story. The violent tale of Buck and the Alaskan sled dogs haunted me and had crept into my dreams. That night, I’d dreamt a pack of wolves had skulked through the cornfields and into the forest behind our house. In droves they came, surrounding the perimeter of our property and crouching in wait at the forest’s edge. They had come to take me away.

When I woke that morning, I went to my window and stood at the sill looking furtively from the edge of our driveway to the small cluster of trees that lined the adjacent property across the street. The nightmare felt so real, I was sure I’d catch a glimpse of a pair of green eyes glowing up at me from the shadows.

I was still peering out when I noticed a ray of sunlight catch hold of the tear-shaped crystal prism that hung by a pink satin ribbon from the lock of my window. It cast a small rainbow patch on the floor. I stepped on the patch, and the colors transferred to my skin. I felt the slight warmth of the sunshine on my foot and was comforted. There was magic, I knew, in rainbows.

After breakfast my mother helped me pick out what to wear. From my closet she pulled the three new dresses we’d purchased less than a week before, the dresses we’d bought in preparation for Daddy’s homecoming. She laid them out on my bed. I glanced at the one I’d planned to wear to the airport, the white one with the bright floral print and big sash.

“This one,” I said picking up a corduroy dress in red and purple paisley that lay furthest from it on the bed. “I want to wear this one.”

When we were loaded into the car and backing out of the driveway, Mommy looked over at me and tucked a blonde wisp behind my ear.

“Laurelee,” she said softly.

I slipped my hand into hers and turned toward the window. I was keeping an eye out for wolves.

DURING OUR FIRST WINTER on Harding Road, my uncle Tom, his wife Mary Onie, and their sons, Peter and Andrew, drove up from New Jersey to spend the weekend with us and go skiing. The boys, older than me by two and four years respectively, were the brothers I didn’t have. They were a source of endless fascination. They always had toys I’d never seen or heard of, showed me cool new tricks they’d learned at Boy Scouts, were fonts of information that I, as a girl and an only child, just wasn’t privy to. When the three of us came together, our collective energy could tear the house down.

On the day we’d planned to go skiing, we all rose early to breakfast and dress. Harding Road only had two full bathrooms and there were now seven people crowding the little cape-style house. If we hoped to beat the traffic and get a few good runs in before lunch, time was of the essence.

After we’d eaten, the adults dressed the kids first before pulling themselves together. In hopes we’d expel some of our excess morning energy, we were sent outside to play. A thick snow the night before had blanketed the yard. It was a perfect morning for making snowmen and forts.

Peter and I were in the mudroom slipping on our boots when Andrew tore in excitedly. “Why don’t we go into the forest?” he suggested. “I’m pretty sure there’s a frozen pond in there. Let’s go check it out!”

My heart sank. I wasn’t allowed to go past the edge of our property and into the woods behind our house without an adult. I also wasn’t eager to dissent, particularly given my current company. I wanted the boys to know I was brave. But I knew the rules.

“I’m not supposed to go in there,” I said, looking anxiously from one boy to the other.

“No, Mom said we could!” Andrew exclaimed. “I just went upstairs and asked!”

This changed everything. If Mary Onie had said yes to the boys, then I could go, too, I reasoned. But I figured it was best not to check with my own parents. They might say no, and then I’d get left behind. Besides, the boys knew plenty about nature. They knew how to follow breadcrumbs.

We marched into the forest among the birch and spruce trees. Ravens perched on high out-of-reach branches cawed at us from above. I tossed snow in Peter’s face and squealed when he shoved a handful of it down my back. Even through my Gortex boots, I could feel my woolen socks absorbing the wet snow. But a little cold didn’t bother me. I was having too much fun. And I could still wiggle my toes.

Singing and laughing and getting wetter still, deeper in we trekked, following Andrew’s lead. Peter found a frozen stream and shuffle-skated over the ice, letting the bank’s slight incline catch him when he slipped. The three of us made a furious game of this, of getting up and falling down.

That morning we lost ourselves in play, the boys and I. We figured we’d hear the adults calling out to us when they finished packing sandwiches and loading the car with our skis. We had no idea how far into the forest we’d gone.

I had just plopped backwards into a drift to make a snow angel when I heard my father calling my name. As I propped up on my elbows, he appeared in the clearing followed by Tom, Mary Onie, and Mommy.

As it turned out, lines of communication had been crossed. Mary Onie had not, in fact, given Andrew—or any of us—the green light to go into the forest. Now, having found us covered in snow so far from home, the four of them were furious.

“God DAMMIT!” my father bellowed, the boom of his voice cutting through our laughter and freezing our play mid-air. “You know you’re not allowed back in here, Laurel!” he said as he angrily trudged toward us in the snow.

“B-but Andrew—” I sputtered to explain.

“Shuttup,” he snarled and tossed me over his shoulder like a lopsided sack of rice.

I was shocked. My father never said that to me. I looked to my mother for consolation but found none.

“I don’t want to hear another word from you,” he growled, turning to follow our snow tracks out of the woods as I fought in protest.

When we finally returned to the house, we were all sopping wet. The boys and I were instructed to remove our coats and sweaters and socks, then sit at the breakfast table and keep quiet until everything had tumble-dried.

For over an hour the three of us sat, a sullen, sorry lot. My father leaned against the Formica counter in his long underwear, arms crossed and eyes on fire, waiting while the drier completed its cycle.

As he glared at me from across the kitchen, I gnawed the inside of my cheek in guilt. I knew it wasn’t just that he was disappointed in me for breaking the rules. My father had been terrified that I’d gone missing.

AS MOURNERS GATHERED IN the pews of First Parish Church, the Hollands and Mommy and I prayed together with Reverend Shearman in the small vestibule at the front of the sanctuary. I recognized the room well. Several months before I had played an angel in the Christmas Eve pageant, and the vestibule had served as a makeshift holding room for the cast.

The pair of wings I’d been given to wear were lopsided from years of pageant use, and one wouldn’t stay up properly. Moments before the angels were to go on, my Sunday school teacher caught sight of the drooping wire and gauze trailing behind me and took me aside to hurriedly pin up my limp wing. But she couldn’t see in the dim backstage light. The cue came and the other angels made their entrance. Realizing how far behind them I was, she gave up and hustled me to the door. The wing fell off entirely.

“Well, one’ll have to do!” she said in a stage whisper, nudging me out before the parishioners. When I finally made my entrance, I could see my parents beaming from the front pew.

Now, as Reverend Shearman held open the vestibule door for us, I was more self-conscious than I’d felt without my wing. Knowing the congregation’s eyes were on me made me giggle nervously. I put a hand over my mouth to hide my strange laugh as we made our way to our seats.

There were bouquets of lilies arranged tastefully about the church. A single framed black and white photograph of my father was propped up on the piano near the altar. Peter sat next to me in the pew, crying like I’d never seen a boy cry before. My mother had given me a white linen hanky before the service. I pulled it from the pocket of my dress and handed it to him. I felt sick to my stomach, but there were no tears to cry.

I watched Bob Gerber, my father’s boss, climb the pulpit to deliver his eulogy. He spoke of Daddy as a loyal and devoted employee, as a sincere and honest man, as the right hand he felt he had lost forever. Then Bob turned and addressed me. He told me I was the most important person in the entire church, then explained he found a poem that Daddy had led him to, one that he felt was left to give to me. It was Robert Frost’s “The Last Word of a Bluebird, as told to a Child.”

As I went out, a Crow
In a low voice said, ‘Oh,
I was looking for you.
How do you do?
I just came to tell you
To tell Laurel (will you?)
That her little Bluebird
Wanted me to bring word
That the north wind last night
That made the northern lights bright
And made the ice on the trough
Almost made him cough
His tail feathers off.
He just had to fly!
But he sent her Good-bye,
And said to be good,
And wear her red hood,    
And look for skunk tracks
In the snow with her ax –
And do everything!
And perhaps in the spring
He would come back and sing.’

I liked the poem. It reminded me of the time Peter and Andrew and I had been lost in the forest. It gave me hope Daddy would come looking for me again one day, that my tracks would help him find his way his way home.

Excerpted from the forthcoming memoir, Spindrift, by Laurel Holland, a Brooklyn-based writer and former actor. Contribute to the project’s Kickstarter campaign (live until Thursday, July 12) or follow Holland’s progress on her blog, The Spindrift Diaries.