Monday, November 30, 2009

December Birthday Post

December is birthday time for so many of my dear friends, relations and for yours truly. December is a time when all of us tend to take stock, to make amends, to look ahead with hope and back in gratitude. Right now as I approach my middle fifties, I’m thinking about legacy. What have we received from those who have come before us and what will we leave behind in our wake? My mother left a trail of shoes. Here’s why…

My mother hated her feet. They were size ten, widened and flattened by four pregnancies, with toes curved around each other, enlarged at the joints. In the sixties, when everyone wore sandals, she searched for a style that hid her toes. At the beach or by the pool, she wore plastic bathing slippers.
“Bubbe bought secondhand shoes from a pushcart for my older sisters and me,” she’d remark during every frequent trip to the shoe store when I was a child. “By the time I got them, they were hand-me-down, hand-me-downs. Our shoes gave us bunions and ruined our toes. I swore if nothing else my kids would have new shoes and pretty toes, just like yours.”
In the beginning of her dementia, when we thought she was “just depressed,” I took her shopping at the wide shoe store. “Nothing’s right, nothing’s right...,” she muttered over and over, her head oscillating in despair. We squandered half a day until finally settling on a mauve, leather, flat-shoe with Velcro strap. Laces and buckles were no longer an option. They were too confusing. With these shoes we trudged through the mud of depression,
and tiptoed the quick sand at its demented foundation. Her shoes fell through the cracks when she did. They were always getting lost. But on the days when her mind returned, so did her shoes. She demanded the help she needed to put them on. Shoes were her dignity.
When she moved into an assisted-living facility, I packed up her beloved home of 52 years. I counted 37 pairs of shoes in her bedroom closet and assorted singles. There were shoes that looked cozy and comfortable, just like her house. I found the shoes she’d worn to my wedding and the muddied shoes she’d worn to visit her mother’s grave, her running shoes and her swimming shoes, and her Sunday morning slippers. Right up front, sat the black patent pumps she’d worn the previous fall at grandson Joey’s wedding. Those shoes looked ready and waiting for their next dance. For a few minutes I basked in her presence, captured in shoes.
Toward the back of her closet, I discovered shoes that smelled new. Purchased on a whim, with rigid straps and narrow toes, they were unrealistic for the shape of her feet, but classy and adored anyway. I’m sure she couldn’t bear to wear, or discard them. These shoes were life’s disappointments, with gaping holes between what was desired, and what was delivered. Like a disintegrating brain in the middle of an exuberant and well-deserved retirement, they betrayed a painful discontent. I threw these shoes out.
So when it was time to give the funeral director some clothes for her service, I found the blue dress with white trim around the ‘Nehru’ collar; the dress she’d bought for her third son, my brother Myles’s Bar Mitzvah thirty years previous. The neckline would look nice in a half-body open casket, and Myles would be pleased. Since the top half of her body was all that would show, I figured that was all she would need. I was wrong.
A few weeks after her death, she visited my dreams as she had been in her prime: energetic, high-spirited, bursting with love and gratitude. She came back to thank me for taking care of her when she could no longer take care of herself. I was grateful for this gift from her spirit.
A few months after her funeral, she visited again. This time she came back steeped in demented hysteria. She came back demanding her shoes. In the dream, I searched the house for her shoes, every string in my body’s fiber tight with the familiar angst, trying to make things right by her. She waited in the car, fraught with anxiety that never let up. I knew it well. For two sick years, I took up the slack when it seemed as if she’d explode. In the dream, I never found the shoes. I woke up and realized that I had buried her without them. I knew the ones she wanted. The black patent pumps she had danced in at Joey’s wedding. Just before she got sick, she danced with her second son, my brother Lanse at his son Joey’s wedding.
What a glorious day that had been for her. She was already concerned about the state of her mind. She confided to me weeks before the wedding, “I wish it was here already.” She knew she was just holding on. She knew what was coming. She held on long enough to make a speech, dance with her son in her new black patent shoes and be the elegant grandmother she wanted to be.
Those shoes, boxed in the attic, complete with shoe stretchers to keep them wide, still wait for their next affair. But this never occurred to me on the day before her funeral, and there are some things you can’t do over again. So, she went out barefoot the way she came in, but worn from living. A pebble of guilt remains in my shoe, although it diminishes as the years pass and the stain of her dementia wears off. My mother’s black patent shoes remain in my attic, a testament to a life in full. And, “if nothing else,” my daughter will have new shoes and pretty toes, just like mine.


Lori said...

Yes! Your voice is strong, clear and bright! Thank you for sharing your stories, your self. You are and always will be an amazing daughter, friend, wife, mother, author! Happy Birthday 15 days early!


Tracy Kauffman Wood said...

I'll love you always, Lori!Thanks for your read.

catzactz said...

Tracy, again you've said so much with your words.