“When I was a kid, if someone gave you a pair of shoes you wore them even if they didn’t fit.”
My father was cryptic about his childhood, but he often repeated this phrase to me.
Normally people say, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” My dad’s saying had a different meaning.
My father talked a lot. He told stories, and even better, he enjoyed listening to other people’s stories. He liked people and life. But he rarely told stories about his own life. The details of his childhood and growing up in Jamaica without a dad came from my mother, who learned the stories from my grandmother.
His childhood was strict. My grandmother and her sisters raised him. He was smart. He worked hard. He was their joy. They weren’t rich, and they weren’t poor.
Eventually, he left Jamaica to attend Rutgers University in America.
I wonder about the hardships he faced in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. He went to school in New Jersey. In the summers, he worked in New York City. There must have been struggles and injustice, but my father was a glass half-full kind of man. He blamed no one for the things he lacked and was grateful for the people who helped him through life. It wasn’t until I was older and he was gone, that I realized the complexities of his life.
I should have asked my father more about his life. You never think to ask a talkative person to talk more.
I knew my dad for half of his life. When he died, I tried to imagine his life that I didn’t know. Being tormented for not having a father. Boarding a plane for America for the first time. Working hard when you had no idea how much more hard work was ahead.
After college, he returned to Jamaica where he met and married my mother. They had three children, my two sisters and me, the youngest. He brought us to the United States when I was almost 2.
We moved to Stone Mountain in the summer of 1981, and we buried my father there 33 years later.
A bitter wind
My father died in 2013. For a long time after, I wore my grief like a shawl. Grief was something that haunted me. Grief was something I did not know how to shed. I wrote. I cried. I tried to find peace. I wrote. I cried. I tried to accept the pain. I wrote and wrote about trying to find happiness after grief. Happiness would occasionally appear like a butterfly, land in the palm of my hand for an instant, and then fly away. But my grief shawl stayed with me.
I remember standing in the cemetery on that icy November day. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The beautiful blue sky felt ominous. The wind blew open doors at the funeral home. The same wind also held the doors shut. There were angry spirits everywhere. Small stinging bits of dust blew against our faces and into our eyes. The chill in the air froze our expressions and dried tears to our cheeks. Everything felt wrong and foreign. Our grief became a blustery pain.
It was the end of the year and his life, and the start of our favorite season. He would miss Christmas. Our New Year would begin without him. Thanksgiving still loomed over us, but we had nothing to be thankful for.
No jellies allowed
I had a happy childhood. We weren’t rich, and we weren’t poor. We were immigrants, yes, but also middle-class Americans. We did very American things like watch the Atlanta Braves on TBS and go to the mall.
Shopping, particularly back-to-school shopping, was a bit of an adventure in my family. Three girls to shop for. None of us wore the same size. My parents liked finding a good bargain, and they knew how to get a deal. We wore nice name-brand outfits, but usually on sale from a previous season.
When I was 12 years old, jelly shoes were in fashion. Sandals made of flexible plastic, jellies came in every color you could imagine and some were infused with glitter. I asked and asked for a pair of those shoes, but my parents refused.
I had no idea why. I thought price was the basis for our shopping choices.
“Please, Daddy. Jelly shoes are so cheap,” I pleaded with him.
“You can’t wear cheap shoes. They’ll ruin your feet,” he said. “When I was a kid, if someone gave you a pair of shoes you wore them even if they didn’t fit.”
Who cares about my feet! I thought. I wanted cute shoes.
But cheap shoes came with the threat of callouses and blisters, misshapen feet and toes. I was the only kid at school who knew the looming danger of corns and bunions.
Instead I got a pair of something sensible and more expensive. Nothing worth remembering. Nothing trendy.
My parents gave me everything I ever needed and many things I wanted. When my father died, it was hard to pick one way to remember him. In truth, he was a kaleidoscope of people, good and bad. But when I think back on my life as his child, the worst thing he ever did was deny me was a pair of jelly shoes when I was 12 years old.
A bag of shoes
Getting rid of my father’s things started with my mother. After 48 years of marriage, she needed to remove the reminders of my dad. He was a man who wore a suit six days a week. Always Monday through Friday. Always on Sunday. There were nice shoes and belts and ties and hats, too. In death, he became a ghost of empty clothes.
I think of the lucky people who might be in possession of my father’s clothes. He had some beautiful shirts. They are gone. Most of the belts and ties are gone. We each kept a few things.
My sister has his suits. My husband has a button-down shirt with my father’s initials embroidered into the cuff. We have his winter coat and wool Ivy cap. At times, I put his hat on my desk at work.
This summer, my sister found a bag of my father’s shoes in her basement. She didn’t know what to do with them.
“I’ll take them,” I told her.
At first it was a sentimental gesture, this keeping. The passing of the shoes seemed like a ritual, but it wasn’t. It was happenstance. I don’t know why we kept the shoes. Grief does not follow logic and the shoes were the one last piece of him that we could not give away.
I was glad to have them. As time passes, it’s harder to find my dad. He used to be a part of my life every day. Now he is gone from my life every day. Even now, I struggle to reconcile the memory of him and the loss of him. I want to keep the dead near me, but death at bay.
When my sister said she left the shoes at my house, I rushed home to get them. They were in a black garbage bag at my front door. The bag was dusty and covered in cobwebs. Inside the bag, the shoes were a jumbled mess. I feared seeing them would spike my grief, but the bag of shoes looked like a gift from my father, and I felt joy.
Filling his shoes
My son looks nothing like my father, but he has my father’s spirit. He is joyous and quiet. A few weeks shy of his 10th birthday, his shoe size is 8.5.
He didn’t think it morbid to dive into a bag of his grandfather’s shoes. I pulled out a single pair and put them on to the floor. They were black dress shoes, wingtip Oxfords. I’d forgotten how much detail went into men’s shoes. We traced the pattern of tiny holes with our fingers and flipped the shoe over to see the soles. They were tan and worn. The Florsheim logo was still embossed on the bottom. The shoes were beautiful.
My son and I smiled at each other. Then he slipped them on. The shoes fit. It was like magic — another kind of Cinderella. He was another kind of Pinocchio. When my son stood up, my chest filled with elation and pain as the shoes came to life on his feet.
Dress shoes have thin laces. Much thinner than anything a 10-year-old boy would be used to. I watched him lace the shoes and offered to help. He didn’t need it. My son noticed that the leather gave off a slight smudge as he touched it. I explained the act of polishing shoes, a lost art form, and looked in the bag for my father’s supply of brushes and polish. None of it was there.
“I have the polish and brushes,” my husband shouted from the other room. “Your mom gave them to me to use. She didn’t want them to go to waste.” It made sense. Some things you keep.
On Sunday night, after two rounds of church, morning and evening, my father would return home to shine his shoes for the week. To go with his shoes my father had polish, brushes, cloths, and cedar shoe trees.
As a child, I learned to apply polish, and then buff and shine, using the cloth to get the shine close to the stitching. My father could get the brush to make a soft percussive sound on the shoes. I tried to replicate that, but my strength and speed never matched his.
A million memories came flooding back. My grief was losing him. My happiness was remembering the small details about him. The polish. His shoes.
There were a dozen pairs of shoes in the bag. I explained the types to my son as I removed them from the bag.
“These are Oxfords. These are the dressiest shoes.”
“These are loafers. More casual, but still nice.”
“These are boat shoes. I think to wear on boats?” My son and I started laughing. Who knew a dead man’s shoes could make us so happy.
There was a good pair of hiking boots. A pair of running shoes. My son tried on every pair. Every pair fit.
“This one is a little too big,” he said.
“We’ll save them for you. You are still growing,” I said.
My son took turns running around the house in the shoes. He would stop occasionally and leap into a standing broad jump. Some of the shoes had smooth soles, others had more traction. He jumped up and down. I told him to stand close to me. I checked the fit. He inspected each pair. I could see his toes wiggling inside the shoes.
My eyes were full of tears that would not spill over, and I couldn’t control my smile. I love my father’s shoes. I loved seeing my son wearing them.
He reached inside the bag and pulled out a final pair.
“Mom, these look like shoes you would wear.”
He held up a pair of casual athletic shoes. Black leather Skechers with white trim. I had forgotten that my dad had small feet. I’d forgotten that I’d once borrowed my dad’s sneakers when he was alive. I’d forgotten that I was still crying.
I put the shoes on my feet. They were a little big, but I could wear them. There would be no holding on to these shoes until I grow into them. I am done growing, I think. My feet settled into the soles. I laced them up. They were stylish. I could wear them. I would wear them. I started to try on all the other pairs of shoes.
I’d never worn a pair of Oxfords before. They had slippery soles. They made me feel like dancing. The leather wrapped around the top of my feet in a strange way. Dress shoes for women offer no security. Women’s feet in dress shoes are basically naked and on stilts. It isn’t the same for men. I was cradled in the leather that used to cradle my father’s feet. It felt nice.
I put on a pair of hiking shoes, brand new Timberlands. I tried on the loafers and boat shoes. I could feel the imprint of my father’s feet in the shoes. They had been worn to suit him. They all felt funny on my feet and happy and strange.
I can wear my father’s shoes. Not many women can say that.
There is a strange twist of fate about this. I am the age my father was when I was born. At this moment my dead father, my 10-year-old son, and I all wear exactly the same shoe size.
It’s normally a son that takes the place of his father, but my father had no sons. I am the last of three daughters, and I am the one to fill his shoes.
If the shoe fits
When I was a kid, if someone gave you a pair of shoes you wore them even if they didn’t fit.
In the shoe department at Northlake Mall in Tucker, my father would crouch on the ground in front of me to check the fit. He measured our feet every time we bought shoes just to be sure our size hadn’t changed. He liked to thread the laces in my sneakers and tell me to stand up and walk around. With his thumb, he would find my toes and see how much wiggle room they had. The process was very serious. He wanted us to pay attention when we tried on shoes.
“You don’t want to ruin your feet,” he would say when I tried to squeeze into a half-size too small to get the shoes I wanted.
After my father’s funeral, friends filled our houses with food and flowers and sympathy cards. But my friend Anna sent me something unusual. She’d written a message in a card and included a gift card to a shoe store.
“Your father would want you to do something nice for yourself,” she wrote.
I hadn’t been shoe shopping with my dad since I was in high school, but the thought of going shoe shopping now without him made me cry. Still, in the midst of my grief, I went to the store.
You can’t wear cheap shoes.
I bought a pair of boots. High quality, sturdy construction, solid heel. The leather covered the length of my calf almost to my knee. They were warm and comfortable. I sat in the shoe store looking down at my feet imagining my dad there, questioning the quality and fit.
If someone gave you a pair of shoes, you wore them.
I suddenly imagined him as a child in shoes that were too small. I imagined the pain of him walking to church in cheap shoes that hurt his feet. I imagined the relief his feet would feel when he took off the shoes that rubbed the skin off his heel until he bled. He never said any of these things to me. Suddenly I knew why he worried over our shoes.
The voice repeating that phrase over and over again was no longer my father’s, but a voice he must have heard as a child. I never thought much about my dad as a kid or how shoes would impact the kind of parent he would become. But there must have been a moment when he decided that if he ever had kids, they would wear nice shoes.
The shoes I wear are always sensible. They are good quality and well made. I’ve never worn shoes that were too small or too cheap, and I’ve lived a life free of bunions and blisters. I have beautiful feet.
On days when the world feels bleak, I put on my father’s shoes and I think of all the good shoes in my life. I want to thank my father for this one final gift. Then and now. That was the way he took care of us.
ABOUT THE STORY
Grief is a highly personal experience that can manifest itself in many different ways. Perhaps the same could be said about comfort. For Atlanta writer Nicki Salcedo, who was been grieving the loss of her father since he died in 2013, comfort was found in a bag of his shoes. This is a story of love and loss and the healing power of memory.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Nicki Salcedo is the author of “All Beautiful Things,” a novel set in Atlanta, and two books of essays, “Intersections” and “Echoes of the Same.” She ponders life in the South, grief and happiness. By day, she works in the corporate world and is the mother of four kids. At night, she writes. Salcedo is a regular contributor to the AtlantaLoop.com and Decaturish.com. She grew up in Stone Mountain and now calls Decatur home. For information go to nickisalcedo.com.