Monday, November 07, 2005

Evangeline's Shoes

Evangeline. She is the personification of exodus and, although I know her history and the history of her people, my connection with her, what she represents for me, is exodus from childhood. My exodus was just as forced as hers.

The year I was 13, my familiy travelled to Nova Scotia, this time with the intent of really visiting, as we children were old enough to appreciate learning about the province. Just prior to our visit east, I had committed the great sin of using my own cash to purchase several new things, and particularly a pair of clogs that I loved but my mother detested. They were, to my 13 year old eyes, quite the fashion of the time. They were black with multicoloured polka-dots. I loved them for a variety of reasons, not he least of which was simply that I had bought them myself.

But the clogs were the source of unending friction from the moment I brought them home. My mother detested clogs in general, but worse, this pair were gaudy, in my mother’s perception, and not what ‘nice girls’ wore. She railed at me every time I put them on and loudly protested their inclusion on the trip.

Regardless that they were on my feet, they were somehow a reflection of her parenting abilities and that she was ‘just a farm kid’--I think they reminded her in some way of poverty and farm life: people wear them in the fields because the are durable--as she put it. And she wasn’t budging. It didn’t matter that I liked them or that they were in fashion. They were offensive to her and that was the end of the argument.In the end, the clogs made the trip with me and, perhaps to be perverse, I wore them everywhere.

On one of our day trips, we visited Grand Pré, the site of the ‘war’ against the Acadians. As we walked around Grand Pre that day, my mother explained parts of history and interest, placing particular emphasis on the statue of Evangeline, set in the forecourt of the church there. As one walks around the statue, Evangeline ages. She is a young woman on her ocean side and ancient away from the water.

Finally, my mother loosed us from the history lesson to gambol on the rocky beach. Not much of a beach if compared to the sandy coastlines of most travel brochures; it was strewn with large rocks, a few boulders that wash up from who knows where, broken shells, dead crabs wrapped in dry seaweed, all laid over a hidden, but probably lovely layer of sand. It bears noting too, that the waters of the Atlantic and Bay of Fundy rarely are warmer than 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Damn cold by any definition.

Undaunted, as children are by heat and cold and rocks, I headed off to the water after carefully placing my beloved clogs above the tide line. Clogs may be wonderful for fieldwork, but they are decidedly unsuited to walking on what passes for beaches in Nova Scotia.

I waded in the freezing water until my feet and legs were numb stumps, the upper parts of my body warmed by the brilliant sun that day. Eventually, child or not, I had to leave the water or risk temporary paralysis below the knees, regardless of the heat of the day. As my blue legs slowly warmed to pink, I scanned the beach where I had left my clogs. I was so looking forward to slipping my frozen toes over the warm wood.

Tidal shifts alter the beach, lengthening or shortening it, depending on time of day. The water had moved up and down the shoreline, and swept it into delicate new curves enhanced by filigrees of glistening kelp. My shoes were not where I had laid them but then I thought I was looking too near the water and headed towards the grassy edge of the beach. However, moving my search shoreward and then up and down the beach in every direction, produced no footwear. When my mother called ‘time’, I still had not found my shoes. I was devastated and confused. The water had never come high enough to swallow the shoes and, being midweek, the area was deserted except for my family; no one would have taken them, surely. My tears and yelps of upset had little effect on my mother, beyond frustrating her. No amount or volume of protest made an impact. She was on a timeline. Dinner would be on the table back at home. We had to leave. I could get another pair of shoes, wouldn’t I just grow up.

We left Grand Pré, me bawling and my mother steaming and my shoes, my wonderful, city girl fashion shoes, lost and now left behind leaving me treading over the hot pavement. Like Evangeline, I was young when I had first faced the water but was older and sadder, if not wiser, facing inland—leaving something precious behind. Every day for the remainder of our holiday, I begged my mother to take me back to the beach. It didn’t happen.

Many years later, and during the worst times of my relationship with my mother, I remembered this incident. I don’t know what thing provoked the memory – likely some frustrating unreasonableness of my mother’s (such unreasonableness became more and more pronounced as my mother aged and as the world changed). In a flash, a visceral, physical moment of shock, I discovered the long-lost clogs. Not literally, but by realization. A missing—or ignored—piece of the puzzle suddenly fell into place.

My mother had tossed my lovely clogs into the trash at the beach.

My memories rushed at me, running back in time, exposing such details and forgotten moments of that day that I had the desperate, childish wish to turn back the clock, as if wishing hard could make it so. I flashed back to that day at the beach, remembering the cold of the water and the warm day; the moment I placed my clogs securely between two large rocks, well away from the water; the hour spent in the frigid ocean and my mother’s then inexplicable, hushed conversations with my aunt. Suddenly, I understood the undertones and conspiratorial gestures. If I felt betrayed by the sea in my youth, I felt doubly sad to know I had mistrusted he innocent water and ignored, or maybe simply not noticed, my mother’s obvious guilt. Such is the trust of a child. Such is the end of childhood.

To this day, I have shoe issues. It takes me ages to find the ‘right’ pair, and once I find them, I either wear the shoes to death or leave them, untouched and pristine, in the back of my closet or a dark drawer somewhere, for years. I still fear losing my shoes. I make sure, if ever I must remove them, that they are in sight. A hallway crowded with footwear always provokes a small panic, especially if there are other shoes that look like mine, that I will lose my own in the chaos or that someone will take them, however inadvertently. And it raises the hairs on my neck when my mother, however innocently mentions my footwear for any reason.

Clogs of any colour or type, whether simple brown work shoes, elaborate Dutch not-to-be-worn souvenir shoes, department store versions or plastic garden clogs, always and immediately provoke the memory of that day at the beach, sometimes stopping my movement for a second as I contemplate that day. My memories are clear as photographs.

I have never spoken to my mother about those clogs. She is a much different person now. Although she is still rigid and dogmatic, she is old and she has finished raising her children. She still tells us what she thinks about every subject, any style of dress or speech or thought, but it is more opinion than direction now. And, she is much more prone to being embarrassed or saddened by memories of incidents in the past. So I remember and have a little private hurt but I keep it to myself. For now. Still, I think the real way to turn back time and really find those shoes—and to get back to a time before the storm of our relationship—will be to ask her about the clogs on the day I faced away from the water, like Evangeline, and walked inland.

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