We all laughed at Bubbe’s shoes. Real grandma shoes, well-worn, overworn; a sturdy, slightly thick heel, a nondescript brownish beige, hardly a color at all, tied with a thin shoelace looped through maybe three holes, textured pattern on the sides in a weak design infusion into the functional clunk of footwear, and mostly stretched on the insole of Bubbe’s feet where her bunions could breathe, fraying slightly so that one, her left one I think, poked through.
There was a lot of resonance to those shoes. They were at once reminiscent of those dark Nazi years spent in the Kovno ghetto, Bubbe sadly told me one day, where she had no shoes. That fact was incomprehensible to me until my own shoeless day, 9/11, when barefoot in the silky ash of the WTC, I thought of Bubbe walking through the charred rubble of the ghetto with no shoes. And yet it couldn’t have been more different.
Bubbe’s shoes meant everything. She used them to carry laundry down two flights to the washing machine in her duplex; down the windy, dark stairs I would follow. And trudge up again a little while later with her heavy, wet load, to hang them with clothespins on the clothesline. She let me help her hang up the dripping clothing outside her tiny “balcony,” which had no room for anything but the two chairs she and my zayde, my grandfather, used so frequently, relishing and relaxing in each other’s company. You might have thought they overlooked a grand waterscape at the Hamptons; how they enjoyed that miniature terrace! To gain access to the clothesline, one had to move a chair and lean slightly over the right front side of the rickety, silvery banister. The terrace itself was rickety, with a steely mesh floor that allowed the viewing of the forbidding landlord’s own terrace below. Occasionally my bubbe would ask if I wanted to play in the backyard, which she and Zayde shared with that miserable elderly woman, that billy goat who lived beneath and who demanded perfect silence. I descended the circular staircase, holding tightly to the thin cold of the metal railing that even I, a fearless child, knew to be precarious. Up on the terrace, I loved our teamwork. I would pass Bubbe wet garments one by one; she would hang them one by one, reaching into her little pouch of clothespins, until the entire clothesline was filled, stretched over the yard below, and the basket was empty. I didn’t know it all back then, but I knew that I wanted to lighten Bubbe’s load if I could.
The funny thing was, Bubbe liked fancy things. A good pair of shoes, a nice pair, would be one of her rare splurges, which she would put on layaway without shame, and which she would pay out over a few months’ time with her meager income of her few Hebrew lessons and German reparations. My zayde’s similarly modest income was never touched; every penny was saved, and it was this savings, accumulated over fifty years, dollar by dollar, that was Bubbe’s only cushion when he no longer was.
But these shoes were her work shoes, her housecleaning shoes, and her house was spotless. My uncle joked sardonically that you could eat off Bubbe’s floor, and the home would be immaculate even if a donkey lived in it. I had wanted a donkey to live in it, I remember, but Bubbe said, “Shreklekh,” terrible, and just laughed. The compulsive cleaning, to erase every speck of dust from her tiny, dated home, was amusing then. But it cast a shadow over testimony I read later about the Kovno ghetto, any Nazi ghetto, with their lack of sanitation, emaciated, decayed bodies strewn on the streets, no running water or working toilets, garbage piled up, rot, filth, stench. Maybe Bubbe had a reason to want everything so clean. And so her shoes, comfortable as they were, lasted years and years and years—I wish I had saved them—and I see her with her old-fashioned vacuum cleaner, with its round base and twisty piped cord she dragged after her, cleaning, cleaning, pulling, and cleaning. Clunk, clunk, cleaning. We would ask her when she would throw those shoes out, but why should she?
I wish she had had those shoes on those days she snuck out of the ghetto, hiding her yellow star under her lapel, in search of food for her family, her husband and tiny daughter. Risking her life at the age of twenty-one, so many times, saving her family from almost certain starvation. And caught one day by the Gestapo, who held her and then released her; who knows what happened, she never said… And yet again going out, going door-to-door in hopes of anyone sympathetic who could spare a little and who might not turn her in to the Nazis, as Lithuanians often would. Lithuanians, who began the Jewish slaughter before the Nazis even arrived.
To someone who has experienced no shoes, shoes are everything. And not the precious, pinchy kind you have to take care of, the ones that take care of you, support you in what you do, comfortable, comfort, asking for nothing, no polish, no upkeep; those shoes you keep.
I have my own house shoes now. A similar, maybe coincidental, dirty hue, too much demanded of the seams, torn so that my pinky toe slips out. My children laugh that I should throw them out. There is no laundry to retrieve two flights down from a musty basement, no clothesline, no greenish vacuum pod to lug around, but I remember my bubbe in her faithful shoes, her laugh, her warmth—
And I am keeping them.
Gila Fortinsky has written articles for various banking law journals. She majored in psychology at Boston University, and obtained an MS from Georgetown University and a JD from Georgetown Law. She studied with Elie Wiesel. Her work has appeared in Entropy Magazine. Her interests include participating in Big Brothers, Big Sisters; practicing yoga; and playing piano.