I’ve heard about women who hide new shoes from their husbands. A friend of mine makes it an ingenious habit and calls this behaviour her one little flaw. She shows off expensive designer products, bought by the uncontrollable desire of a whim. Pretty, impractical fashion choices, often regretted as soon as unwrapped back home and then kept out of sight in their box, tucked into a guilty corner until girlfriends visit and stand back in awe at the sunrise of glittery sparkle.
My story is not about flashy new shoes, but instead a celebration of something old, bashed and borrowed and not at all blue. It’s about the size of feet, the extent of a life and why it’s so easy to love generous imperfection. I suppose, it’s also about cupboards in the hallways. Take mine, for example.
There, in the deepest, darkest corner, behind the walking boots, the formal shoes, my wellingtons, even further back than my suspiciously crisp looking running shoes and the holiday flip flops, sits a pair of soft brown suede shoes that are not mine, hiding ever so discretely and without the slightest complaint. They don’t make a fuss, but as soon as I open the cupboard, I can smell them. Not in a bad way, there’s just that whiff of suede shoe cleaner, the faintest of perfumes.
The story of this pair of brown suede shoes begins many years ago, I don’t know when they were bought. I only know that in the July 2018, when I sat with my mum in her garden on a nice sunny day that smelled of peacock butterflies and warm drinks that had lost their fizz, she was wearing those shoes and they looked completely unremarkable. Slightly old and done.
‘They’ll see me out.’ Mum said and she was adamant. She would not buy any more new shoes. ‘It would be such a waste of money, pet.’
‘I’ll order you a new pair’, I replied. All of mum’s shoes came from the comfort shoe mail order catalogue. The same model, over and over again, the only type, she ever liked. No fuss lace ups, built to last.
‘I’d never get the mileage out of a new pair.’
‘Those shoes have clearly seen better days, mum.’
‘So have I, dear’, mum replied, ‘so have I. They stay and that’s that. I’ll not walk very far any more. I’m dying. They will do me just fine.’
I waited for her to say ‘only joking’, but she meant it. And as always, she was right.
Those brown suede shoes faithfully walked mum’s last miles with her, mainly to the taxi driving her to the hospital and back. They got her to chemotherapy appointments and to her letterbox to get the newspaper. Sometimes they even got her to the shops. Not the big supermarket in the other village, just down to the corner shop at the end of our street. The miles quickly became yards and the yards turned into token gestures, slow muffled shuffles, supported by a Zimmer frame until suddenly, the brown suede shoes were put in the cupboard in her hallway, where they stayed put for a while, even when mum’s body was taken away in a black plastic bag with a zip in September 2019. She didn’t need her shoes for that last journey.
When she died, I started to cling to the objects that had belonged to my mum. I stroked the face cloth I had wiped her forehead with during those endless final days and nights of dying, of listening to a breath that threatened to stop any moment. I clutched her handbag, jam-packed with the just in case items of more than seventy years of being prepared for every eventuality: broken fingernails, blisters on feet, snotty children and grandchildren, assorted throat sweeties from years long past, a sewing kit, pins, paper clips, pens and notepads. Mum’s assorted superpower had protected her and us from the nitty gritty upsets of life – bar the one big thing, cancer, as it turned out.
And then there were her shoes. I took them out of the cupboard again and put them on my feet. We share the same shoe size, mum and I, and I walked in mum’s shoes in the days after her death. It was the only way I could move forward, or move at all, to be honest. It was a start. The beginning of the rest of my life in new old shoes. I was literally moving on.
Now, I take them out every now and again. Not very often, but on special days. Some people celebrate family occasions like birthdays with cake and by dressing up in fancy frocks. I wear mum’s last pair of shoes to go to places mum liked. For her 77th birthday celebration, I’ve taken her brown suede shoes to the seaside and got them covered in the wet salty sand of the beach in Troon, like on the day a few years ago, when we went there as a family, all of us, that very last time, just before she got ill. It brought me closer to that one beautiful moment, when all was well forever. I went to the hospital in mum’s shoes to celebrate the arrival of our new grandchild, thus making sure she was there, when this latest addition to the family was welcomed by all. On the anniversary of her death I took a walk in her shoes down the canal, again full of memories of shared joyful days, shared lives. Even in the rather robust autumn breeze I could still smell the suede care and protection spray, that she used to dowse her shoes in. They have been impregnated for eternity, not even the Scottish rain can penetrate them.
Mum’s in my heart, of course, but from time to time it feels good to walk in her shoes as a very private celebration of the person she was. No nonsense, but soft and unfortunately breaking.
One day, I know, I’ll have to let go of the shoes. They looked slightly sad in the Summer of 2018 and they are clearly nearing the end of their terminal journey. Those brown suede shoes have done far more miles than they were ever expected to. When the day comes, I’ll be ready. Until then, I enjoy the company of this secret pair. My sneaky reminder, my personal ritual and a very private celebration. My husband knows about the shoes, by the way and he even says ‘hi’ to them, whenever I dig them out. They have personality. What can I say, my mum left her trace, her footprint in my life, my heart and my family.
*further writing can be found in one of Britta’s three blogs:
Britta’s Blog (brittasblog422041504.wordpress.com)
The Procrastinators (theprocrastinators58220236.wordpress.com)
Odds & Ends (oddsends707138946.wordpress.com)