Inside the right shoe is a scrap of paper from 1951 that says Carol Ann in my mother’s hand.
Most babies in the 1950s and maybe longer wore these traditional little white lace-up baby shoes. I love them–they remind me of purity and innocence. They are so not-stylish that they remind me of the time when children were concerned not with fashion or celebrity but with the things of childhood.
I wore those now bronzed baby shoes in the photograph. I may have even taken my first step in them, I don’t know. My mother had the shoes bronzed, which was the fashion back in the day, and they became bookends. I’m not sure moms do this anymore–do they bronze children’s mini-Louboutins? Maybe not. It just wouldn’t be the same, would it? There’s nothing that screams childhood LESS than the shoes today’s kids wear.
After my mother died and my father went into a home for the memory-impaired, we kids cleaned out their house to prepare it for sale. I took the bronze baby shoe bookends. If I hadn’t, they would have been discarded as just junk, when at one time they meant so much to my mother. And now, to me.
I love looking at them and imagining what my mother must have felt when my feet grew too large for baby shoes and she sent the pair out for bronzing. I was her first child. But I was important for another reason: my birth may well have marked the end of her disillusionment as a bride. That’s because she left my father when I was not yet two months old.
There is, of course, a back story. Dad’s mother was a cold fish, it seems, and there wasn’t a whole lot of affection to go around. Some of my uncles became demonstrative as adults, but my father and his sister did not. They were more reserved. He did love kids, but his kids? They were a responsibility. He had to raise them right. He had to be stern. Strict. Just like his father was with him. And once we could speak, he had a harder time with them. Never with his patients, of course.
When I was born, my father was flush with his degree in pediatrics and his new practice. He thought Dr. Spock was a communist. Well, not really, but close: Dad believed that sparing the rod spoiled the child. Of course, discipline when he was growing up involved a literal rod. And there’s a story there. One that maybe I don’t want to tell because it’s too painful.
Dad had his opinions.
One of them was that he believed babies who cried should not be picked up. That they would self-soothe and that letting them cry until they stopped on their own was far better than spoiling them by picking them up. Spoiling was a terrible sin.
My mother could not agree. After all, she was a brand-new mom. She wanted to pick me up and cuddle me and soothe me. Apparently, this was when my mother packed up me and her things and left my father. Which took guts in the summer of 1951. Think about it. Italian-Catholic wife, first-generation American, married not even three years. Left.
I’m told she was gone about six weeks, to her parents’ home, of course. Which she’d worked hard to buy for them. Although she just had a high school degree: couldn’t afford college. In the end, I understand that my father apologized, so Mom returned. I was way too young to remember it and the details are lost to history. Or to the tact of well-meaning relatives who don’t want to shed any negative light on the dead.
Mom had two more children, but I’m not certain she ever trusted my father again. She was always on guard. Always self-protective.
Later, there would be many times she disagreed with him. About corporal punishment, for one. But she never left again. She made her peace with his imperfections, no matter the cost.
We three children sometimes bore that cost. We still bear it in some ways.
I like these bookends because the shoes remind me that I was once a small girl of parents who loved me. They did their best. Many parents today would shudder if they knew exactly what that entailed, and it’s hard to even write about it.
“You have to be careful you don’t come off whiny,” my writing coach reminds me, when I write about my family.
If I were the whining sort, there would be plenty to whine about.
I’m working on something now that needs to hit a middle ground. Right and wrong may not be how an evolved consciousness sees things, but a writer can’t always see her life as just “the way it was.” The best writing connects emotionally and that requires some sort of judgment.
I’ve started that essay more times than my coach has seen it.
I guess you could say that I’m a work in progress and so is my essay about some of my family.
Yes. A work in progress.
Besides my coach, there’s a writer in my family I’ve talked to about this piece. The only other person I’ve discussed it with. I’m so grateful to have this sounding board in my writing life, someone who is familiar with the family situation and my need to write it. Someone I can be honest with. Who gets some of it, at least.
So really, in the end, I got lucky with family. Not in the way I wanted or even in the way others are lucky.
But in my way, our way, I got lucky.
Every day I look at those bookends. Some days, I work on the essay. Other days I just look at the bronzed baby shoes.
That piece may see the light of day, yet.
You never know.