These are my Easter shoes.  Pretty spectacular, yes?  They tend to attract a lot of comments when I wear them, at least once every Easter season.  But these aren’t just fabulous footwear.  These are shoes with a story.

In early fall of 2012, our family faced news for which there is no preparation.  My beautiful younger sister, Jane, learned that fall that cancer had penetrated her brain.  More than four years into her fierce battle with the most aggressive form of breast cancer, the disease took a huge leap forward into the control center of her mind and life.

After we received the news together in the doctor’s office, Jane and I quietly parted ways outside and each turned homeward.  The diagnosis at that stage was not yet pronounced as terminal, but clearly, we were now in the most desperate of battles.  Cancer in her brain?  Cancer messing with the synapses that twinkled in a soul that was born to serve others, to spread love everywhere she went, to give all she had?  How was it even possible for a just universe to allow it?

I’ll never know what Jane did over those next couple of hours as the news began to sink in.  Shock and grief spur the most bizarre things.  I’m not proud of what I did, but here’s the truth:  I went to the mall.

I mean, really.  But I couldn’t go home alone.  I couldn’t go back to the office, couldn’t answer anyone’s questions, risk crying in front of someone.  Yet I was desperate to avoid isolation, to observe people going about daily lives, to stare hard at the ordinary and believe it would ever exist again.

To the Hallowed Halls of Excess I went, and I wandered through the entrance nearest the first parking place I spotted.  I staggered inside and aimlessly turned right, then ambled without aim into the first store where a smiling face invited my approach.  I won’t name the designer here, but let’s just say I would never, ever, at my age and on my budget, have set out to make the shop my destination.  Yet there I was.

And there were the shoes.

Like I said, shock can be the strangest dynamic of the soul.  I’m not sure why I thought the shoes might make me feel better.  Granted, retail therapy is one of the oldest jokes in our materialistic culture, but this ran much deeper.  Certainly, I had never seen a pair like them, never worn anything on my feet half that expensive.  Maybe I thought I would strike a blow at the pain by spitting the Budget in the Eye, like some perverted twist on the theory of the ring in the cow’s nose.  Or something.  Maybe I was too stunned to notice the price.  No doubt, I was too distracted to fit myself correctly, because they are half a size too small.  And so, the nonsense piled up on top of itself, while the shoes went into a bag and homeward with me.

I shocked everyone who knew me the first couple of times I wore them.  I can’t remember if I ever wore them for Jane before we lost her about 10 months later.

When I admitted this escapade to a friend many months later, the friend asked kindly if I would ever enjoy wearing the shoes again, or if the three-inch heels would tap out too many unbearable memories with every step.

Grief charts its own course, with no pilot to decide the direction or distance of the journey, and Mercy often blurs the details over time.  I can’t remember when I first knew to bring the shoes out for Easter.  Or when I realized that the answer to my friend’s question is actually the opposite of what she feared.

As I dust them off and admire them anew this Easter season, the shoes require me to remember that after unbearable pain gently alters over time, something beautiful may remain.  They are my colorfully absurd, ridiculous reminder about the eternal nature of love, even though love may walk together with agonizing sacrifice.  Acquired on one of the darkest days imaginable, they somehow make me accept yet again that Jane’s love, shared so freely with me and so many others, does, truly, endure forward, and forever, not to be diminished by time or space.

So, it’s time again to cram my complaining feet into an ironically high-fashion, shamefully secular tribute to a beloved soul who went ahead and yet remains.  Never given to impractical extravagance, a stunner who made any brand look stylish and expensive, my sister would laugh her head off at the very idea.  And I love her for that, still, as I know she loves me, and all of us.  Hallelujah.

The status of grandmother was bestowed on me six years ago last month.  Oddly, it didn’t come with a manual.  Though it is surely one of life’s richest blessings, I’m still trying to figure out how to do it.

There must be others out there who, like me, feel so different from grandmothers of earlier generations that it is ironic to even use the same title.

After all, look how the role of women has changed in our culture in the last few decades.  Neither of my grandmothers worked outside the home.  Their parents died younger, and I have no memories of any of my great-grandparents.  They had lifelong partners, enduring marriages of five decades or longer.

In 2017, it’s a different picture for many women whose kids have kids.  Having just entered my seventh decade, I’m still a working professional, with miles to go before retirement is visible on the horizon.  I’m a single woman, looking after myself and striving to maintain a social life at the same time.  My precious mother is, thank heavens, still with us at 86, so I strive to stretch my time across four generations of family.  And many of them are 200 miles away.

Mom stirring applesauce June 2016

My mom taught us to make homemade applesauce.  I hope I get to pass that technique on.

My grandmothers occupy such large places of love and respect in my memories, but can I be to my grandchildren what they were to us?  Not likely.

 

My maternal grandmother often wore an apron, and could roast the most beautiful chicken any chef every claimed.  She came to visit for working trips, joining my mother in the kitchen for the all-day process of cooking country ham, and she patiently hemmed and mended hand-me-downs.  She was a crackerjack card player, demonstrating tactics that belied her gentle demeanor.  I liked attending her church, because its rituals were open to “all who believed” and not restricted to those who completed some class or ritual declaration.  That meant that a child could share in the communion celebration with the adults.

My paternal grandmother was a stunning, petite blonde who stayed beautiful as she aged.  She had elegant taste, a fine wardrobe, and the manners of an accomplished socialite.  That included certain standards that were not to be compromised, and when they were, hell might demand the settlement of accounts.  She hosted elegant parties that required dressing just so, and my mother prepared us carefully.   If my grandfather told raucous jokes at dinner and enjoying himself too much in his cups, she registered disapproval by threatening to leave the room—and when he didn’t behave, she vanished.  No shrinking violet, that one.

Is any of that a heritage I can pass on?

Elegant parties?  I like to set a nice table, and I have china and lovely dining treasures from both of them.  But my holiday dinners are more likely to be thrown together in the wee hours the night before, after a 50-hour work week.  By the time the guests arrive, I’m lucky if I remembered to shower and put on lipstick.  I would love to learn to cook a country ham myself.  But one has to weigh a whole day invested against the convenience of buying it cooked from one of the fine Kentucky purveyors, of which there are many.

Teach my kids how to maintain a home, how to get spots out, one of many of my mother’s great aptitudes? Don’t be silly.  Not long ago, I asked my extremely handy son-in-law to tighten the handle on a finicky kitchen faucet.  Got mildly irritated when I noticed him stockstill in the middle of the kitchen, staring intently at his phone.  Don’t they ever put the dang things down?  That was before I realized he was watching a You Tube video about repair of not just any faucet, but THAT faucet.  The next generation doesn’t need our knowledge.  They get it from strangers, on a tiny glass screen.

So what CAN we offer?  After six years, here are some intentions I have set (as the yoga teacher calls it).  The important things, it seems, are less about the hands and more about the mind and heart. They are not necessarily new to this generation, but perhaps take on a different hue in today’s times.

We can show up.  When they are older and look back on important days in their lives, I hope it means something if I was there.  So getting there is the goal.  Other things can wait.

We can listen.  The world is roaring with noise and distractions that defeat good conversation.  Yet communication defines our relationships.  If my grandkids have something to say, I want them to know I am interested in hearing it.

We can ask questions.  What happened at school today?  What’s that book about? I want Buddy and Sis to know I’m interested in their observations and ideas, their kiddie jokes, their fears.  Their parents are good talkers, wonderful at encouraging the kids to express themselves and talk through things.  But it takes a village.

We can show mercy.  A while back at a family meal, my daughter relayed a story about a particularly trying episode with Sis a few days before.  Absorbing the details of this transgression, I turned to notice Sis watching me intently, brow furrowed with anxiety as she awaited my reaction.  I support the parents in their excellent standards for discipline—but there was no need here to extend the sentence already rendered by the court.  Sis’ little map flooded with relief when I returned her gaze, winked at her, and changed the subject.

We can offer sanctuary.  It’s a tough world out there, getting tougher.  Buddy and Sis are lucky to be happy and safe in their home, but when they need another place to be encouraged, empathized with, or just to raid the cabinet for snacks, my door can be open.

At six, our Buddy is an intense thinker, progressing through reason and root cause and relevance at an astonishing clip.  Thoughts tumble out so quickly I struggle to keep pace, but I do my best.  He also seems to pick up particular turns of phrase that linger for a period in the Lexicon of Buddy.  He repeated one of those multiple times over dinner not long ago.  “Evie,” he kept asking, “Can I tell you something?”

Yes, Buddy.  You bet.  I might not get it, and it won’t be long before you are so much smarter than I will ever be.  But I am listening.  Tell me.