de(tales): red mary janes
Kristin and I met during an event at the Festival of Faith and Writing. But we became friends because we both wanted to go to a panel discussion on writing about sex. Kristin is a friend for the journey, and has encouraged me through the distance and the internet in the time since we met. She's also an amazing writer, and one of the founders of the phenomenal blog You Are Here, which explores stories about place from a lot of different angles. Today she's sharing a story close to my heart (I also have a pair of red Mary Janes).
The first pair of red suede Mary Jane shoes were purchased for my youngest daughter simply because I couldn’t resist them. As far as I’m concerned, there’s just something about red shoes anyway, but on my daughter’s sturdy little feet they were so cute it hurt my mama heart.
At four, S wasn’t yet demanding full autonomy when it came to her wardrobe, so I could easily get away with purchasing and presenting a new item to her. And besides, with an older sister paving the way through life, S wore mostly hand-me-downs—a colorful and somewhat random collection of pieces, many which had once been part of coordinated outfits but had since been separated from their original pairings. Somehow, the red suede shoes went perfectly with everything, in an eclectic, haphazard way. This was good, because S LOVED those red shoes, and reached for them each morning before heading to preschool.
I loved them too—even more than I had when I first spotted them on the Internet. Now those once-inanimate shoes were animated by feet I loved, kicking leaves on the sidewalk as S held my hand on walks home from school. I burned the image in my mind, while my heart said a small, silly prayer: Don’t let these moments of hand-holding and leaf-kicking ever change.
The next fall, when it was time to put sundresses and sandals away and to start trying on last year’s jeans and jackets to see if anything still fit, S spotted her red shoes, which had been in hibernation for the summer. She hugged them with glee, as if reuniting with a friend after a summer away. Releasing the hug, S strapped the Mary Janes on her feet and took them for a skip around the bedroom. Quickly, she came back to me, puzzled and hurt, like someone she loved and trusted had just pinched her.
“They don’t feel good,” she complained.
“That’s because you’re growing up,” I said brightly, “and your feet are growing, too!” My firstborn had always been excited to be growing. Sure, it might mean she had to say farewell to a beloved winter coat (which she would later see on her sister), but in her mind that was a small price to pay for getting bigger. Bigger was her goal!
For S, however, this was not good news. As soon as the words had left my mouth, I understood that S saw getting bigger as more scary than exciting. Getting bigger meant growing up in lots of ways—moving on to different toys (and feeling sad about the ones she now neglected), and heading to different schools (she was starting kindergarten). It meant that her sister was growing up, too, and acting grown up in ways S didn’t care for (second-graders thought they were SO great).
In short, growing up meant change, and S liked things just the way they were.
I spent some time consoling her before turning to a parent’s favorite trick: distraction.
“Guess what? You can help me pick out your new shoes!” I said. Who can resist new shoes, I thought, leading the reluctant S to the computer where I pulled up my favorite children’s apparel website, where the red shoes had been purchased.
“Look!” I said. “The Mary Janes! Look at the pretty colors they come in!” I liked variety. After all, the fun of getting something new is that it’s different, right? I clicked on a dusty blue pair, then the purple ones. Purple was, after all, S’s favorite color.
But S spotted a tiny square of red near the palette of color options. “I want red,” she stated, firmly.
So I bought red suede Mary Janes again…and then again the following fall…and then the fall after that, too. The red shoes became the foundation of S’s signature look, along with her very long hair, which she insisted she’d never cut.
A small part of me worried—is she too cautious, too afraid of change? Will she always cling to the safe and the known—to the things that others expect of her?
I watched those pairs of Mary Janes grow, year-by-year. Often, the shoes looked cautious—holding back, heels to the edge of a room as S observed the dynamics at a birthday party before diving in, or hesitating to climb any higher on the play structure at the park. But as the red shoes got bigger, I also saw them doing new things, like dangling from a piano bench as S confidently played at her first piano recital, pedaling a two-wheeler fast enough for Grandpa to let go of the seat, and auditioning for the lead role in a play. Her devotion to the red shoes was not holding her back.
One fall, when we went to order the new installment of red shoes, we realized that S’s feet had grown out of the kids’ sizes. I watched her face and saw a flash of sadness, followed by a look of brave determination. “We can find something else,” she said. This time, I was the one feeling a sense of loss—an emptiness that comes with watching something lovely and dear pass on, out of your control, before you’re ready.
Looking at S’s face again, I knew the bravery I saw there wasn’t about the shoes. Letting go of the red suede Mary Janes didn’t require bravery, but growing up did. And while she seemed to know that she didn’t have to like the inevitability of growing up—to embrace the forward-march of time and follow her older sister toward the scary land of adolescence—she also seemed to know she couldn’t fight it. There might even be some new treasures awaiting her down that road…like black patent leather Doc Martens boots and an electric guitar.
Kristin Tennant lives in Urbana, Illinois, where she and her husband parent three teenage daughters and cook meals designed to lure many friends to their table. Kristin (@kt_writes on Twitter) has been working as a freelance writer since 2002, helped found the collaborative blog You Are Here, and is also in the process of writing a memoir. Her youngest daughter, now 14, has not only fallen in love with other shoes (like the patent leather Docs), but she has definitely cut her hair—it’s bobbed, and shaved on one side.
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.