I remember 1956. My youngest brother was born in February. Those were the days when pregnant women were put to sleep to give birth, and children weren’t allowed inside the hospital, except as patients. My dad held my hand as we stood in the thick snow outside the nursery window and a matron in a long-sleeved starched uniform held up the blue-swaddled bundle as if he was a ham on display. I remember that I wore a dark brown hand-me-down coat with a fake black Persian lamb collar. My rubber over-the-shoe boots zipped up from the toes halfway up my skinny calves. I remember that my fingers and toes always felt thick and stiff in winter, no matter how many pairs of hand-knitted mittens or socks I wore.
We were living in an old farmhouse on Green Lane in Beamsville. My father – always the dreamer – had spied the ‘for sale’ advertisement in a weekend newspaper in Montreal, and had decided that if he couldn’t be a coffee farmer in Liberia (thank you, Mom, for saying no to that insanity), he could be a fruit farmer in the Niagara Peninsula. Back then, the Queen Elizabeth highway was more like a two-lane suburban road, but he set out after his machinist job on a Friday night, drove the old Studebaker, walked the 16 acres and decided to buy it. Without consulting my mother, because she undoubtedly would have said that the idea was madness. We left behind all of the family we’d ever had – uncles, aunts, cousins, and our community – to start over in rural Ontario. We were dirt poor but stone rich on that blighted piece of property. There was a house – barely. Poorly insulated, a leviathan furnace in the basement complete with coal bin. Thin concrete floors over dirt. No running water – unless you’d call an indoor pump in the cellar, ‘running’. No indoor toilet, no central heating. An attic that turned into a sauna in the summer and grew icicles in the winter.
My mother was a city girl, convent school educated. She didn’t have a driver’s licence and was stuck at the farmhouse with four children under twelve. I was the eldest, but oblivious as only a bookworm on the cusp of puberty could be. She died before I could gather the courage to ask her what it was really like back then, and push for her to tell me the unvarnished truth.
Sometimes, after school, when I’d almost finished my chores and the baby was asleep, Mom would give me that special raised eyebrow and tell me to wash and dry my hands and face. She’d flip up the kitchen curtain to make sure my younger brothers were within earshot and hadn’t impaled themselves on a farm implement, then she’d turn off the stove and climb slowly up the narrow wooden stairs to the attic, wiping her fingers on her apron, her shoes squeaking on the rubber risers. She would stop about four steps from the top and wait for a minute, head bowed, her breath loud in the shadowy passage.
Beside her right shoulder was a door sunk into the dark wood paneling. There was a small brass handle in the middle, with pointy edges like a small bird’s beak. She’d turn the handle, then fold the door back so that it wouldn’t bang. I’d push by to stand a step higher up so I could see inside. She’d stretch her arm in – it was as if her fingers had eyes – and she’d tug the rusty cord that dangled from the rafters. The lemony light would cast her smooth brown features into sharp shadows. Dust swirled around the bare bulb, disappearing deep into the shadowy attic and reappearing in the beams of light from random gaps in the shingles. I remember shivering, wondering if we were disturbing someone who hid there and who’d only come out when the door wasn’t open.
One hip pressed against the wall, her palm warm on my shoulder to steady herself, she’d ease out a square brown leather case with silver fittings glittering at the corners. It had one of those swing-down catches with a little crooked tooth. The tooth snugged into a metal loop on the front. We’d sit down on the stairs, knees touching, the box between us. She’d nod and gesture ‘go ahead’ with two fingers. I’d wipe my hands on the lap of my skirt then gently brush time’s dust off the top with the hem of my blouse, swing up the silver hook and lift the lid.
She’d usually turn away for a while to stare over my head at something I couldn’t see. I’d guessed perhaps she was seeing ghosts, but when I looked, there was nothing there. “My mother was a dainty woman,” Mom would say softly, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron, not looking at me.
Somehow, my self-absorbed self understood that I should be reverent, that I shouldn’t rush. So we’d sit in the dusty quiet and stare into the shadows of the box, waiting. I shivered when I touched the flimsy wrappings, held loosely with thin ribbons or plain parcel string, knowing they held her memories. The rustling papers stirred up a confusion of scent – lavender, lemon, rose and then leather.
I lifted out the treasures, one by one. A thin Blessed Mary cradling baby Jesus between her ivory arms. Packs of brittle greeting cards with stained edges, red-striped airmail letters cramped with Dad’s blue-black writing. A carved wooden Sphinx the size of my hand, stamped ‘made in Egypt’. Three faded roses bound with lace to a slim silvery wrist-band. A dark brown baby shoe worn down at the heels. I picked up a photograph tucked against a corner. The date in the pinked margin read February 1938. The camera had caught her dark oval face, her unblinking gaze under a solemn brow. Grandmother’s thick wavy hair was pinned up under a fancy hat. Her fingers gripped the back of a velvet chair. Less than 12 months later, she would be dead after visiting the dentist to have a tooth pulled. My mother was 19 years old, with three young siblings to keep safe from the social service authorities who wanted them sent to an orphanage. She bore the weight of that death all of her life. In comparison, the box that lay in my damp hands was feather-light.
I’d peel back the layers of tissue and there they were – my grandmother’s shoes. They were tiny – size 4, I think – black, with 18 shiny leather buttons from the arch to the ankle. They were creased but hardly worn, just enough to give off that comforting used smell. The heels were the width of three of my fingers, about two inches high. I traced the seams and fancy threading along the tongues. I gleaned the cobbler’s name on the instep with my fingers, as if the words were Braille: Savage Shoes. There was no question of me putting them on – at age ten I was almost as tall as my mother and already my feet were bigger than hers.
Mom would sometimes pick up a packet of letters and fan through them like they were leaves, only with writing. I remember asking her what they were. She’d said, “Your father wrote such beautiful poetry to me when we first met,” with a sad profundity even I could comprehend. And I would look from her beautiful chapped hands that were almost never still, to the mute epistles in her lap, wishing I could know what she was thinking, what she was wishing.
We would rest there on the steps until my brothers banged through the screen door or the milkman came or the telephone rang – two long, two short. Too short. Then she would motion for me to put everything away. She’d push the box back into the shadows, snap off the light and close the door with a sigh. I would sigh too, my skinny shoulders rising and falling in time with hers. Leaning against the step, she would fold me to her chest, the smell of her body filling my nose, displacing the scent of our pasts.
Back then I thought it odd that she never wanted to hold my Grandmother’s ‘good’ shoes. But when my mother died fifteen years ago today, I began to understand the power of possessions so personal.