13 May 2014

Little Shoes

For many years they sat in a cedar chest in the garage. I didn't even know of their existence. Later, my father, in a fit of nostalgia, placed them, along with a few other tchotchkes, on the kitchen shelves near the back door. Along with an old can of Prince Albert tobacco, my grandfather's coal miner helmet lamp, and a few other flea market finds, they sat. Wilted. Dry. Forlorn.

One day, teenage me finally asked where they came from and my father answered, "Those were your Aunt Gladys' shoes."

Aunt Gladys. Aunt Gladys. I wracked my brain for an Aunt Gladys. I knew about Aunts Clorine and Violet from the Scarbro side. And I knew about Aunts Joy, Elizabeth, Myrrel, Barbara, Lottie, and a plethora of others from the Berkley half. There was no Aunt Gladys.

"She was my older sister. She was born before your Uncle Curtis. 1917, I think. She died when she was little. Our mother was washing clothes and Gladys grabbed the edge of the tub to pull herself up and look inside and the tub tipped over and poured the scalding hot water all over her. She died."

My brain froze. At that age, I couldn't imagine being burned, all over my body, from head to toe, with scalding hot water. I thought about all the things that physically happen to you when you are burned. Sure, I had burned a few fingers by this age. "Don't touch that pan! It's hot!" my mother would yell. And I would ignore her and touch it with a finger. Or, in my haste to get ready for school, the curling iron would barely graze my scalp and I would yelp in pain. Those burns, I knew. I tried to imagine those burns all over and I couldn't. Couldn't grasp it. I focused on the injury itself and applied it to myself, as all teens do, and since I couldn't conceptualize it, I shrugged and moved on.

Those shoes stayed on the back shelf even after my father died. When my mother moved to Georgia, they disappeared and I had forgotten of their existence.

My first cousin Tom came to visit over this past Easter and we spend most of the weekend sifting through several boxes of old Scarbro photographs and there, in a white bakery bag, sat Aunt Gladys' shoes. And I remembered the event that caused her death. And I saw it from a different perspective. I watched it through the eyes of my grandmother Sally, a woman who was living a hardscrabble life in a little coal mining town, two decades after the turn of the 20th century, with minimal medical care and miles from the nearest hospital. A woman who watched her only daughter slowly die from a full-body scalding. And I knew her sorrow.

In the 1920s, when Aunt Gladys died, the norm was not what it is now. Now, when a child or baby dies, the parents are allowed to mourn. They are allowed to hold the body as long as they need, they are encouraged to keep their child's belongings for as long as they want. They are encouraged to fully mourn the loss of their child and do what they must to heal.

I don't think my grandmother had that luxury. Back then, society felt that discarding all the reminders of the child's existence was best. Forget and move on. But she didn't. My cousins tell of a tense woman who was extremely over-protective of her remaining three boys. She wouldn't let them eat sweets, she hovered. She was a 1920s/30s helicopter mom. The surviving pictures I have of Grandmother Sally show a tiny, thin woman who didn't smile. And I wonder if that sadness of watching her daughter die did that to her.

There are no pictures of Aunt Gladys. Just her little, worn, dried leather shoes. I know, without a doubt, that if the worst happened to any of my children, I would gather their belongings into a pile and protect them with my life, allowing no one to take them or discard them. And I wonder if these shoes are all my grandmother had. Maybe, after everyone convinced her to let go of the dresses, the toys, the ribbons, these shoes were the only connection she had to her sweet, overly-curious daughter.

Someday, when I am gone, my children will probably throw these little shoes away. And that's OK. But as a fellow mother, I just can't. My grandmother became a kindred spirit last month when I opened that white bag and I decided I would keep them for her, for every mother who has suffered the ultimate loss.

And I hug my children a bit more tightly and a bit more often.


NATUI said...

Such a poignant story, Heather. I am glad you kept them. It's amazing how such deep sorrow can slice through the generations and even after all this time leave such a mark. How becoming a parent forces that shift in perspective. Thank you for sharing this story.

Unknown said...

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