RITE OF PASSAGE
My mother and I made a ritual of shopping when I was a child. We’d take the city bus in Indianapolis and spend hours in stores, large and small, on the Circle in downtown Indianapolis. We were intelligent ladies who’d learned early-on the value of retail therapy. We’d enjoy a break at the L. S. Ayres Tea Room, then head to Kresge’s or Woolworth’s to make our purchases, gratified at the money we’d saved. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, she was teaching me the economics of life. Now, it was up to me to do the same for my son.
He turned 40 just a few days ago, which made me think back about all of the years I’ve enjoyed him, as my firstborn of three sons:
“Twenty-five, can you believe it?,” he groaned. “I’m getting old.” To the groan, he added a grunting noise as he got out of the car at the shopping mall.
“When I was your age, I found it difficult to get out of the car, too. That’s how old I was when you were born. Which means I’m twice as old as you are now. It doesn’t get any easier at fifty!”
Jesse’s shoulders drooped, carrying the burden of a quarter-century of time with nothing to show for it. He’d often lamented since high school graduation that he didn’t have a life. Now, his eyes seemed to plead with mine for some explanation as to where time had gone. I rolled my eyes and shook my head. My son would get no sympathy from me. I knew he would find a way to make his life happen. He’d moved out on his own a year earlier and was doing okay, so far.
He’d asked me to go shopping with him for a new pair of shoes and was determined to make the purchase a big project. He confessed that he had developed a fear of shopping alone, especially clothes. Hmmm, I thought. His father had the same phobia, and I suppose I had enabled them by always doing it for them, making their clothing purchases myself. An entire year had gone by and Jesse hadn’t bought himself a thing to wear. Apparently trying to locate the proper size gave him anxiety attacks.
Jesse looked down at his feet. “Do you know what these shoes have been through?”
Such a weird question, I thought. What did he think, that his shoes might have feelings of their own? I looked at them and saw the shabbiest pair of sneakers I’ve ever seen on a person who wasn’t homeless. I realized that I couldn’t recall a time when he hadn’t owned those shoes, and I replied that, no, I had no idea what stories his shoes could tell.
He elaborated. “I went to college in these shoes; I quit college in these shoes. I worked for Dad and quit working for him in them. I wrecked both my car and my truck while wearing these shoes. I spent the night in jail with them on.” He was looking right through me as though reading off a cue card. There was no stopping him.
Out of respect for his seriousness, I attempted to suppress a smile. When he finally concluded the story of his shoes’ history, he contemplated just a while longer and added, “When you think about it, whenever anything happens to me, it’s when I’m wearing shoes.”
Like someone in the audience of a stand-up comedy routine at the moment the punch line is delivered, I howled until my sides ached. But, was he really serious? I wondered.
Jesse offered a wry smile, both pleased and confused with his cleverness. After a pause, he asked me about Hush Puppies. I said it was a good name-brand and just too comfortable for words. He bought a pair that day and he was proud of himself, and proud of the shoes he’d selected.
He took me on a weekend vacation to the Smokey Mountains the following month. We drove my white convertible with the top down through the mountains and let our hair fly in the wind. We shopped like tourists do, and he treated himself (after much encouragement from a salesclerk) to an expensive German beer stein, the first of his collection. He also bought a new pipe and tobacco which he claims to be the smoothest he’s ever had. As the weekend neared its end, I caught a glimpse of him sitting on the balcony, his feet propped up on the railing. He alternated between sipping wheat beer from his new stein and puffing on the pipe; sipping and puffing, eyeing the view of the mountains (or maybe just looking at his new Hush Puppies). I stood by the patio door, drinking in the sight of my quiet firstborn son, someone so different from myself and yet the same in many ways.
“Mom,” Jesse sighed, “I’ve got my stein, my pipe, and my Hush Puppies. All I need now is a good woman to smack on the butt once in awhile.” Jesse grinned up at me and I knew not to take him too seriously. About the woman, that is.
Now that he has new shoes, his entire life has turned around. He goes shopping all by himself with no anxiety. He moved into a new apartment, bought his first vacuum cleaner and a blender. He has everything he needs: a TV, VCR, cookbooks and a Sony Play station. After work, he experiments with exotic recipes and occasionally calls me to tell me how they turned out. He walks to Kroger, the bank, or to K-Mart in his new shoes. Jesse lives a simple, peaceful life and he is happy. He might believe he owes it all to his new Hush Puppies.
A few days after our mountain trip, I heard from his brother that Jesse had spent the night with a woman he’d recently met. I figured his brother shared this bit of gossip with me since Jesse was not known to be a womanizer. I had a notion to call and ask him if he’d worn his shoes. I decided it wouldn’t be the appropriate thing for me to do, being his mother and all.
Besides, now that he’s all grown up, surely to heaven he has learned when to take his shoes off.