Father and son
I’m about to drive my son John up to the high school. We are both standing in our house’s small back entryway, which is barely large enough to hold us. John is between me and the back door. As I can’t get around him to get outside, I watch what he’s doing. He is putting on his shoes. He slips in his toes and pushes his heel down on the back of the shoe, flattening the leather; then he wiggles his foot a bit and the shoe is on.
I know the technique well, because it’s the same way I put on my own shoes. I’m not proud of it. I was taught better. I was taught to loosen the laces and slip my heel into a shoe carefully, using a shoehorn. But I don’t do that. I seldom untie the laces and I don’t even own a shoehorn anymore. As for my son, John only knows what a shoehorn is because he’s seen one at Grandma’s house.
I was taught the proper way to put on shoes by my father. He did so for a good reason, because shoes are expensive and it’s wasteful to shorten the life of a pair of shoes by destroying the leather.
My father died when I was eleven. He taught me so much — far beyond caring for my shoes — that I clearly remember, such as how to climb a ladder, clean a rain gutter, read a compass, plot a course, wire train track, swing a hammer, use a saw, whittle and whistle.
Many people are surprised by how much I remember of my father, because they can’t recall that kind of detail from when they were 8 or 9 or 10 years old. But after losing my father, I was determined to not lose any memories of him. I worked at that.
The last conversation my father and I ever had remains especially clear. It occurred in the kitchen the morning he died. He had just watched me walk the length of the hallway with my shoes half on my feet, my full weight pressing down on the flattened leather. And he was not pleased. He went on and on about how I needed to take better care of my things, how I needed to be more responsible.
Now my father was a gentle man. He rarely scolded me; and when he did, he did it gently. But still, I was being scolded, and who likes that? I’m sure I also felt guilty by what I had done. I was sullen. I walked to the bus stop with a storm cloud over my head.
How often would I think of that in the future, how I had spent the last few minutes I would ever have with my father acting like a brat.
I told this story to John as we drove to school that day. I told it for no particular reason, except that it had come to mind when I saw John slipping on his shoes. But as I was telling it, I began to worry that my son might sense that I had some motive. In particular, I worried that maybe John would think I was criticizing how he put on his own shoes, which I was not. (How could I criticize him, when I had never taught him differently, and when I myself had been putting my shoes on wrong all these years?)
So I kept the story moving, but diverted it slightly. I spoke with John about how my father had every right to scold me, because I had destroyed several pairs of shoes as a boy. But I also spoke about how I thought shoes were different today than back then, which I feel is true. I still destroy shoes, but never by hurting the leather. Now I blow out soles before the leather is barely worn. I blame that on cheap fabrication. We live in a throw-away time were so much is made fast and cheap: sadly, there is often no reason to treat things with care.
I stopped there with John, before I got too carried away. But my mind was reeling with other thoughts about my father. I thought back to the day he died.
By the afternoon of that day, the sun was shining brightly and the temperature rose to as high as it had been that spring. After school, all seemed right with the world. I wasn’t thinking about what had happened that morning. Instead, I was enjoying the glorious weather in our backyard. I was caught up in a solo game of baseball, where I played, in turn, both pitcher and fielder. I’d pitch the ball against the house, sometimes calling balls and strikes and sometimes fielding the grounders that bounced back to me. At other times I’d catch high fly balls I’d throw to myself. It was glorious.
As a boy, I loved three things above all others: baseball, chocolate ice cream and my father. On this particular afternoon — if pressed — I may have listed them in that order.
I remember wishing that this day would never end — oblivious, of course, to the fact that a twisted version of that wish was about to come true. The sunlight began to fade, a chill set in, and I realized I had been out here for hours. Why hadn’t Mommy or one of the girls called for me for supper? Why wasn’t Daddy home yet?
My life changed that day — 42 years ago today. But I don’t need an anniversary to trigger memories of my father. I think of him everyday — often multiple times a day — whenever I put on my shoes.
And all the memories are good.
John Piotti runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar & Pearl” appears every other week.