Every time I look down at my feet when I’m wearing my “new” black Converse sneakers my thirteen-year-old granddaughter gave me when she outgrew them, I have to laugh. I look like I’m wearing clown shoes, but I don’t care. They make me happy, almost as happy as the new pair of white Keds I would get each summer. Remember getting new white sneakers? The ones that made you run faster and jump higher. The ones you had to keep away from your brother so he wouldn’t stomp on them. The ones you got the first day of summer vacation and had to make last until the first snowfall or until your toe poked a hole in the top edge, whichever came first. The ones that all your friends noticed because their eyes were focused on the here and now and the only future was “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow because I want to go to the beach.” I mean those white sneakers.
I remember a white-sneakered summer in the small coastal Connecticut town where I grew up. My mother took me to the dry goods store in the center of town. We walked up the steps to the second floor, me tingling with anticipation, my mother clutching her red pocketbook. It was the first day of summer vacation and I knew exactly what I wanted, walking right past the Buster Brown oxfords with the little dog Tighe smiling up from his place on the inside of the heel, and marching to the display on the back wall. I could have chosen the red ones or the navy blue, but only the clean, bright white Keds would do.
After Mother bought them, I was obsessed with avoiding every puddle, every patch of dirt, every freshly mown lawn that might yield grass stains, even developing a stiff-footed, awkward way of walking by leaning back on my heels to avoid making creases, and generally drove myself crazy for a week in order to keep those Keds in pristine condition. Then one day my brother asked me if I wanted to go with him to pick berries to surprise our mother in the hopes she’d make us a pie. And in my exuberance to spend time with my brother, whom I adored, all thought about my sneakers flew out of my head.
I grabbed a bucket and ran to keep up with him. We cut through the back of a neighbor’s yard, walked along a path through the woods, and came to the edge of a clearing lined with mulberry trees sagging with the weight of their abundant crop. We picked two bucketfuls in no time, but as we headed back, I glanced at my feet and remembered too late that I hadn’t changed my shoes. My once white sneakers were infused with blood red juice stains. My brother was stunned when I started bawling. When the source of my distress turned out to be my mortification at the destruction of my shoes, he was even more perplexed. If you saw how my brother dressed, you’d understand how little fashion mattered to him. But, sensing that this was a girl thing, he put his arm around my shoulders.
I trudged home, dreading the inevitable tongue-lashing I was sure to get. Even my brother’s arm around my shoulders didn’t help to assuage my melancholy. As we approached the house, I saw my mother standing in the front yard, arms akimbo, wearing her favorite red apron with the white rickrack. My brother was the first to speak as he lifted the bucket high for her to see. “Hey, Mom, Susan and I picked these berries for you so you could make a pie,” he said. Then he added, “You’re the best pie baker in the world!” I held my bucket up for inspection, and my mom said, “My, oh my, those berries look good!” And then she looked at my feet. I hung my head and waited for it to come. My mother put her hand under my chin and tilted my face towards her smile and said, “Let’s go in the kitchen and wash these berries, and you can help me make the pie crust.” Then she ushered me inside with a gentle swat.
When I woke up the next morning, at the foot of my bed were my sneakers. Yes, there is something about new white sneakers with pale puce splotches, smelling strongly of bleach. And that was the best mulberry pie ever!