By Gina Gareri-Watkins
I’m still sorting the clothes in my closet when Selena decides to tackle my shoes.
Preoccupied with my clothing discards, I fail to notice that Selena has methodically rounded up my footwear for review and is barely concealing her impatience as she waits for me to join her. I drag myself over as she admires their new positions on the wire shelf that spans the bottom of my closet. Bless her anal heart — my shoes are now grouped according to color and heel height, their backs standing at military attention with their toes nudging the scuffed wall.
They have no idea we’re arguing over their fate.
“This pair has got to go,” Lynda insists.
“No way. You tossed my fav clothes, and now these? No. Besides, they match my leather-trimmed denim mini-skirt perfectly, and they always earn me compliments.”
Selena squints and searches my face for any fashion wisdom, and I immediately regret the mini-skirt reference.
The first pair in question are moccasin clogs (it’s possible) with heels decorated in waves of suede and leather piping, and uppers lined with steel eyelets and two inches of fringe. Selena pushes a stray hair off her face as she lifts the shoes to eye level and crinkles her nose.
“Just exactly how do these make you feel when you wear them?” she asks. “A little slutty, perhaps? Who was the last person that actually complimented you on these shoes?”
“An airport maintenance worker,” I answer firmly, “and quit with the eyebrows.”
Selena points down to her own elegantly shod feet.
“Take these Cole Haan clogs I’m wearing, for example. Now how do you think they make me feel when I wear them?”
“I don’t know. Rich? Superior? Ridiculously tall?”
“Sweetie, are we done with this lesson?” she asks gently.
I can’t help but think…uh, NO…for each pair of shoes carries a personal history, a treasured purchase, a special occasion worn, and it’s absolutely killing me to consider tossing even one.
Distracting Selena with a different set, I quickly sweep aside a pair of suede sling-back pumps. They’re vintage cocktail party shoes from a bygone era, with a history of their own recorded on the surfaces. Safely cradling them from view I notice a ghost-like shadow of the owner’s toes on the forward portion, while the back still bears the imprint of her broad heel. I also detect the Italian name Donatello embossed on the left sole and a faint trace of the manufacturer’s name just below it. The leather is worn nearly smooth, but by tilting the shoe I discover the curious combination of Irish and Jewish surnames, O’Connor & Goldberg. It’s then that I recall their purchase over 40 years ago in a small shoe store in Dayton, Ohio. I was perched on the salesman’s stool, swinging my loafers beneath me, as I watched her try them on.
None of the stitching has pulled loose during the intervening years, and the shape of the gold foil connecting the toe to its sling still mimics the shape of a woman’s torso. The springs are taut, the rubber cushions firm, and the heels stable. Only the soles and tips are threadbare, hinting at the countless miles and moments recorded in both leather and fabric. These shoes strutted at cocktail parties and staff lectures, high school plays and parent meetings, military promotions and family functions. They patrolled hallways and cafeterias, concert halls and auditoriums, and attended funerals as well as weddings.
Shielding them from Selena I recall not only purchase and place but sound, as the sling-backs always made a loud, slapping noise that announced their owner’s arrival. As a little girl I would often turn my head to trace the meaning of their notes: they could tell me if she was relaxed or hurried, happy or distracted, lingering or on the warpath. The sounds were revelatory to both owner and bystander, a comforting cadence that disclosed mission and mood.
When their owner retired, these shoes were lovingly wrapped in tissue and stored in a box placed high on a closet shelf. After she died I felt a rising panic as I searched for them among the discards on her closet floor. It was the shoe’s winking gold foil that finally caught my eye and hands.
People often say scent is the strongest memory but, for me, it remains sound. When I wear these shoes and hear their familiar music, I return to walk beside the woman who wore them first. But because I am slighter in build and lighter in weight than my mother, the sounds are mere whispers of our life together.
No way will Selena get her hands on these shoes.