Saturday, April 24, 2010

My Father's Shoes

When my father was in his early eighties, he and my stepmother, Mari, still packed up the VW camper and made the long drive from Queensland, Nova Scotia, down to Mobile, Alabama. I know that my father hated going because he could never appreciate this narrowly religious, very proper relative, cousin Hilda But they were committed because Mari had promised that if Hilda would let my father's aged mother live with her for a few years, they would take care of Hilda, later.

By the time they visited on this particular trip down the coast, it had been clear to me, to all their friends, that Mari's memory, which has always been scatty, was getting progressively worse. And it was probable that she was developing alzheimers, though my father patiently answered her questions as often as she repeated them, never hinting that anything might be wrong. His silence was hard to breach. So I was surprised when he brought this subject up.

Probably Mari was sweeping the stairs, or the front sidewalk, when he said something like, "I've been thinking, I wasn't sure what to do, but I've finally solved the problem. I decided that I will outlive Mari and, therefore, will be able to take care of her." He smiled happily. By then he resembled a Halloween pumpkin, with his front teeth blackened by his determination never to visit a dentist again.  

I naturally didn't remind him that he might, possibly, in spite of his will power, die before she did, because he was so pleased with himself for having come up with a solution to a problem he must have been mulling over for a couple of years.

Anyway, things continued on. They kept driving to Alabama every year until he was eighty-four and had an aneurysm soon after their return trip. They had continued visiting cousin Hilda because Mari had made that promise a year or two after they married in 1958 or so. My father's mother, by then very frail and confined mostly to her room, was living with them. Mari had a quite uncharacteristic bout of what she must have considered selfishness - the desire to establish her married life without the burden of caring for an elderly person. I can imagine how long it took her to realize this, to broach the subject with my father (who would have been just delighted to have his mother out of the house. He had related a dream about her that he had around that time, that she was a tiny doll, wrapped in a handkerchief, left on a straight chair downstairs, and he'd been worried that my half-brother (my mother's son) would sit on her.)

They were both in their mid-fifties. This was Mari's first marriage and her family had to agree to take on the responsibility of her invalid mother, a woman she'd cared for most of her life, starting in her childhood in a mining town in Iowa. Her parents were Slovakian immigrants, and Mari, the oldest child, raised all the younger kids, also. When she was old enough to start teaching school, she rode a horse to get to the village and then came back for weekends. 

Once the family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and all the others married and had families, Mari still lived at home. By then, she'd worked at General Electric as an executive secretary for many years and become inspired to get her Master's in something that I'm going to call secretarial courses for want of a better title and had begun teaching in that program at the University of Bridgeport. 

Then, she met my father. He would often tell of that day when she visited the International Statistical Bureau where he'd written probability reports for years (except during that dangerous time when he quit his job, sold the house my mother had cherished, married his second wife, started a business, failed utterly at everything except drinking large tumblers of scotch which caused him to be even more silent that he might have been). 

That day, while he sat in his office, the door closed, he heard footsteps in the hall and recognized them to be Mari's. 

Now, this has to be impossible because he'd only met her once years before, not that long after my mother died. I think he'd offered to take her to lunch then, but she had a date with someone to go to a baseball game. Oh, if only she hadn't, my teenage years would have been very different!

But here he was, six or seven years later, on the verge of divorcing that second wife, hearing footsteps that he knew were Mari's. This is the remarkable. My passive father had to open his door and go out into the hallway to greet her. 

She had only stopped by, briefly, to show the secretaries photographs of her sister's children, since Margaret had worked there some years earlier.

Anyway, it was fate. They did have lunch together. Who knows how many martinis he drank, but she hardly minded since her father drank a prodigious amount also. And so their courtship started. 

(Another story that amused my father was about the first time he met her father. Naturally he arrived for this important event with an unopened bottle in a paper bag. He and the 'old man' sat at a table in the kitchen with two empty glasses on it. My father reached down, took out his bottle, opened it,  and poured them a drink. 

After they finished that, her father got up, went to the cupboard, got out his bottle, walked to the table, poured them a drink, put the bottle back in the cupboard, sat down and they drank that. Then, of course, my father reached down to his bottle (I'm sure it was on the floor by his chair, because that seems more ceremonial) and poured them another. And then, as you will guess, his father got up from his chair, got his bottle, poured, put it back, etc. On and on, through the long evening. 

What he really liked about it all was the stubborn way the old man put his bottle back every time. And, of course, like many alcoholics, he loved any story about drinking foibles.

So, anyway, the sun rose and set on my father from Mari's point of view. From his, she was his best wife (who knows what life was like with my mother before she got cancer, but those four years were certainly hard.) And so they got married when I was eighteen or nineteen, the damage already done for me, but an extraordinary thirty years ahead for them.

They had nothing in common. She doted family, he was deeply suspicious of anyone who might be called a relative, though he learned, bless his hard heart, to appreciate hers. He read constantly and thought about mathematics and physics, and had no need to talk to her about his intellectual life. She told him everything about her day, and complained if the bus driver was impolite. "I'm going to write a letter to that company," and she did. He listened, though he would never have complained about anything. She cooked. He ate, though he liked cold left overs for breakfast and always took what was sitting on the front of the refrigerator shelf, not caring much to hunt around.

One of her grandest achievements was getting him to write a book about probabilities, how she did this is quite beyond me, after she got him to teach a course at the same university where she worked. This lead to his being offered a position at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He was already past retirement age when they moved up there and became landed immigrants and he started teaching in the Master's Program. 

It would probably have been better for Mari, a serious extrovert who loved company, if they'd lived in the city, but he chose an isolated house overlooking St. Margaret's Bay about a forty-five minutes drive from his work. They purchased the place, built as a summer retreat for a large family, with everything in tact -- the fake Persian rugs, the old couch and three living room chairs, single beds for the two downstairs guest rooms and all the cots upstairs in the open dormitory. The plates, cups and saucers remained just where the previous family had put them, in an ungainly glass incased contraption in the living room. 

My parents possessions, paintings that my father and mother had bought, an etching of a whale that my brother had made, a perfectly hideous plaster nude self-portrait I did in college, overlaid it all, as did the double bed, a platform with a thin mattress, in their bedroom (so very different from the dark, cumbersome dresser draws from the other family.)

They had a nice life, even after he had the aneurysm, until he had a stroke when he was eighty-seven. This presented problems because when he was in the hospital, Social Services noticed that the nurses had pinned a notice to Mari's dress, "Return to third floor" because she couldn't find her way back from the bathroom. And they refused to let him go home after rehab unless he had daily help, someone to cook and clean. For a man who never expressed anger, he had quite a tussle with his rage that an agency had control over his life, that he couldn't manage by himself. 

But, that passed and a cheerful housekeeper came in everyday, he even got to like her and lend her books, Mari learned her name and liked chatting, and life rolled along for almost three years

until he had another stroke (too long a story) and Mari was left, not knowing where the old man who sat in the chair across from her in the living room had gone

and her sister, Margaret, put Mari in the nursing home near her

and I had to clean out the house which is what this blog is all about.

For years, my daughter, Krissy, had been urging her grandpa to get grandma to clean out the dormitory that had gradually become filled with piles of old newspapers tied with string that Mari just couldn't part with, plastic bags of old clothes and sheets so worn that they were unusable, electric coffee pots that didn't work. But he wasn't about to have a fuss trying to get her to do it.

It took five or six people, working all day and well into the evening, for a week, and a dumpster in the driveway, to undo the debris she'd left. 

And then we looked at the basement, his domain, and were shocked to find so many old chairs that he'd been planning to cane, all those bottles left from the attempts to make wine, almost as much clutter as she'd collected.

It took a long time to look through everything, to haul and drag, push and shove, clean and sweep. But out things went. 

Until I came to my father's shoes. 

For many years he'd bought all his clothes second hand from Frenchie's, a dealer down the road who had piles of old clothes, probably some donated down in the States. He liked the cardigans he bought, thought the second hand pants were perfectly fine. Maybe he bought his shoes there, too, a pair of sneakers that for some incomprensible reason embodied him to me. 

They were him, molded, worn, tired. And I wanted to take them along with the boxes of books that had been my mother's, the family Bibles that belonged to my grandmother and revealed to me, for the first time, the exact date that my mother had died, May 31, 1951, the cups that grandma had promised to Krissy. But I didn't.

The shoes I wore when I was working at the track early mornings last summer began to remind me of my father's shoes, molded by all the water I spilled on them, by the dust and dirt ground in. 

But they aren't my father's shoes.


  1. How I missed your stories whilst I was away! Memories of one's family is a welcome snippet for those of us, curious and avid readers, who want to delve into the intricacies of other people's lives. Yours has been eventful, to say the least. Many thanks for sharing your memories.

    Greetings from London.

  2. They've all come back to life. Your tone is wise and forgiving, which helps us see them so clearly. It seems a miracle that your father and Mari found each other and made a life. His second wife must have been a pip. Did I get that right? Mari was the third wife?

    As for me, I never want to clean out the house of a dead person again!

    You've done them justice.

  3. This is a poignant reminder of how we live our lives alongside our of our loved ones.

    My mother remarried when I was around thirty. I resented her remarriage much as a young child might for a time and then I began to feel pleased about my mother's good fortune.

    The marriage began for my mother when she was 65 and lasted for 16 years. Although I sometimes feel peeved that she seems at times to feel a closer bond with her step children and their children and their children's children, than with her own, like you I do not begrudge my mother these several years of happiness.

    I love the image of your father's shoes. The thought of them stays with me even now.

    To me this piece in its essence is about memory, which I suppose is like a pair of shoes. It wears out.

  4. Nice Post~!!!. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

  5. Wonderful telling of the twists and turns of promises and fate that conspires to break them. I love the image of your father resembling a Halloween pumpkin. How would your teenage years have been different if Mari had gone to lunch with your father instead of the baseball game?

  6. Looked in here and found myself captured by this post. Extraordinary that he recognised her footsteps -