They might once have been the color of cream. They’re cracked wheat now. Not soft. Weak at the ankles. Crusty along the curve of the toes. When they were given to me, twenty-five years ago at my cousin’s house, it was a raining day in a season of floods, and they had been buttoned together—a pearlesque button of the right shoe slipped into a loosened buttonhole of the left, as if the shoes had recognized their peril, the risk of separation in a storm.
“You should have them,” my cousin said, and I abhor greed, and I took them, so that I tug at them now, I count the buttons, I wonder about the missing one, I wonder about the seams that stitch up the back and down the front in a most delicately unobtrusive way. There is no brand, there is no mark, just the gray fluff of accumulated dust in the slouching folds and I swab away the dust, and the dust falls—miniature thunderclouds—to the floor.
No evidence of wearing on the soles because my father never walked in these shoes. Once he was that young.
Just the other day my father was here, and I showed him his shoes and he shook his head as if he had never seen them before, had never noticed how proudly I have displayed them all these years on a wooden table that is so small I can’t call it a table—more like a wooden purse with a stiff arched handle and four unsteady feet. “Dad,” I said, “I love your shoes,” referring not just to the cream that had become wheat but to the second pair my cousin had entrusted to me, which is more caramel in its disposition, with proper eyelets and proper laces, more rugged, you could say. And, also: referring to him.
I love your shoes / I love you.
He shook his head. He is a man who comes from modest, and modestly preserved, shoes.
My mother did not save my baby shoes. In the months I spent beside my father sorting, packing, and relinquishing the family home, we did not find them. I felt something like shame that I’d lost my shoes, that they were not set aside for finding.
I have compensated for the absence of my baby shoes by buying the baby shoes of strangers. Twice I have done this—finding the shoes in flea-market stalls beside friable dolls with shattering eyes and mannequins wearing feathered hats and old LPs that are ten for a dollar. The first pair is five inches long, with three buttons per shoe, buttons that look like baby’s teeth, and a stylish band around the ankles. The second pair is a Civil War special, coal black and serious, shoes like mourning. Here they sit, beside my father’s baby shoes and also beside my son’s baby shoes, because I have preserved those, too, because I believe a collection signifies.
A collection tells the story of the collector. A collection is a shoring up against the things that have gone missing.
So much goes missing.
There was a photo album in the family house that my father and I found while we were cleaning. A photo album titled ALBUM. Two slabs of wood for a cover and a leather-string binding, black pages thick as construction pages and photos held by photo corners that are the shape but not the size of cat ears.
A clunky, beautiful, falling-apart thing.
A tangible thing.
A graphic memoir built of frozen time and my mother’s white-pencil writing:
It all began here.
Jeffie at nine months.
Mommy loves me.
And here’s Bethie. No comment!!
This belongs to you, my father said, when we found it. This is something we’ll treasure, my mother had written in a letter that floats loose among the bound pages, and I hope, add to, for it will become more precious as time goes by. I had fun doing it, and you may not think so, for it’s not very evident at times, but I did restrain myself from being too corny. Anyway, those dear faces need no help from me!
I have kept the album safe. I have shored it up. I abhor greed, but I’ve possessed it. Lately I’ve been studying it for proof of who I was—this middle child who grew up in a house of abundantly but incompletely preserved things. In the album I find my family before my family included me. I find my mother’s first words about me: And here’s Bethie, No comment!! I find my bare feet, I find my socked feet, I find no baby shoes for many pages, until, indeed, I am two-point-five years old, which is to say no longer a baby.
I am rugged in the photograph. I wear Dorothy Hamill hair before there was Dorothy Hamill hair and a smock and tights. I stand on a stool, a utilitarian kid wearing heavily utilitarian shoes. Dark shoes. Laced shoes. Scuffed shoes. Supremely unfashionable shoes. Shoes that would not have been worth saving.
It’s the child in the picture that my mother, all this time, was saving. It’s the child, me, whom she tucks away. The child, me, worth safekeeping.
This is something we’ll treasure.
Those dear faces.
I love your face / I love you.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 22 books in multiple genres, an adjunct teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-founder of Juncture Workshops. Her new essays appear in, or will soon appear in, Catapult, LitHub, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Brevity, and Ploughsharesblog. She is at work on a new memoir. More about Beth can be found here: bethkephartbooks.com
Onward to Mother-Woman.
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