Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Red Shoes

My parents are a little older than my peers' parents; in fact, my folks were approximately the same age as Hopkins' grandparents when we were in high school. They were children of the Great Depression, whereas most of my friends' parents were Baby Boomers. It made for some weird discrepencies in values, although not as much as I realized when I reached college. For all our airs and graces, we were still in the rural South. Every once in a while, something strange would pop up to reinforce the fact that my folks were a bit old-fashioned and VERY strict.

My mother felt a high degree of guilt after circumstances (the size of the scholarship and the lack of parental funds) forced me to attend State Flagship U. instead of any of the smaller, more prestigious schools to which I'd been accepted. Because there was little else she could do to make it up to me, she suddenly gave me a $50 a week allowance- tenfold what I'd gotten in high school. Since I had no car and my other expenses were covered either by the scholarship or housing contract, the money kept accumulating in my checking account.

One day, a guy friend asked me to help him pick out a pair of slacks for his upcoming fraternity formal (I chose grey flannel, insisting that khaki was too light for winter). While we were shopping, I discovered that the big city department store had a Women's World, i.e., big girls' department full of expensive, beautiful plus-size clothes from the same designers whose fashions my thinner friends wore. My parents had always been of the opinion that clothes, for me, were a waste of money; up to that moment, my dorm closet was embarrassingly empty compared to every other girl I knew. With $50 a week in my pocket, access to good clothes in my size, and a couple of friends who'd take me to the mall, I became a clotheshorse overnight.

Because all of my college girlfriends were accustomed to buying a special dress for Christmas, I followed suit. Freshman year, I found a black velveteen number with an elaborate damask and lace collar. Sophomore year, I bought one with a huge platter collar and a little sweater patterned with festive red and green Tyrolean flowers. Since I wanted the whole thing to match, I also purchased a pair of cute little red grosgrain flats with bows on the toes. I wore it to an Honors dinner and a fraternity Christmas party and received a lot of compliments, particularly on the shoes. I thought nothing of it.

When I got home for the break, I was asked to be an acolyte for the community choir service in which I'd sung before I graduated. I put on my new dress and shoes and headed for the door only to hear my father roar, "STOP RIGHT THERE!"

I pivoted to find him pointing angrily at my feet. "What are those?" he demanded. I didn't want to make him angrier, so instead of replying, "Uh, shoes?", I stammered, "I don't know what you mean."

"You will march yourself upstairs and put on some decent shoes right this minute!" he snapped.

I remained frozen to the spot, not grasping the source of his fury.

Finally, he added, "Red shoes are for WHORES and CHILDREN! As you are neither, you will change those shoes immediately. I never want to see them again!"

My mind traveled back to a similar eruption a few years before, when my mother had inadvertently bought me a pair of high-heeled tap shoes with an ankle strap instead of an arch strap. My father banished those as well, because he said that they resembled shoes he'd seen on prostitutes near his army base in Germany.

I scurried upstairs and exchanged the red shoes for black ones, stuffing the red flats into the back of my closet where my father would be less likely to look. I was nineteen years old. In the intervening twenty-one years, I have owned a LOT of shoes. I have four pairs of boots that would probably put my father in his grave, but I have never owned another pair of bright red shoes.

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