“Charli, take your shoes off”
- Yes, Auntie.
“Charli, did you take your shoes off?”
- Yes, Auntie
“Charli, don’t forget, you have to take your shoes off!”
- *Sigh….Yes, Auntie.
There are two worlds. People think it’s reality and fantasy, but really it’s people who leaves their shoes on after entering a building and those who pause a moment to remove and place them neatly side by side at the entrance, like the world’s worst watch dogs. I, Charli Lee Daniels, am a card-carrying member of the wear-your-shoes-wherever-you-damn-well-please-even-to-bed-if-that’s-what-floats-your-boat club. My Auntie, on the other hand, was always a staunch supporter of that other realm – the same one that thinks sending a kid to school with lunchables is a crime against the Gods and texting is akin to cursing your ancestors. Auntie JuJu kept the old ways and by old, I mean primordial. She believed wearing streets shoes into a building was a sign of disrespect to those you visited. I endured much teasing as a teenager for being the only one who came equipped with my own set of house slippers. Yet she insisted and it wasn’t difficult to please the old woman so I did it. She might have been the weird one of the bunch, but she made life memorable. We had full moon picnics and she read the initials of my future husband in my tea leaves: ML. We collected shells, seed pods and flower petals and made intricate mandalas in the woods that blew away before we even finished them. She taught me the most important lessons in life, but perhaps none as important as:
“Charli, always take your shoes off at the door. Always.”
I came home for Autumn break in my last year of college. Juju was ill. Mom said she wouldn’t make it to see the leaves fall again. I needed to be with her. When I entered my parents’ home, I heard a strangers’ reed-thin voice trickle in from the living room:
“Charli, did you remember?”
My Auntie had a voice like winter-slow honey and as resonant as the belly of a cello, but no one else would ask this question.
“Yes, JuJu. My shoes are off.”
Mom handed me a pair of house slippers. I put them on and shuffled around the corner to see Auntie JuJu. She looked much the same, except three times her usual size, bundled in layer after layer of hand crocheted blankets.
“Charli, I’m so happy you came home. I want to visit the cathedral tomorrow like we did when you were a little girl. Don’t forget to bring your good slippers, ok?”
My good slippers were my going out slippers. They were the ones that didn’t look too much like bedroom slippers. They were my incognito slippers so that other people wouldn’t look at me and wonder why I left the house without changing into actual shoes. I only wore them when I went out with Auntie JuJu. They were practically brand new. She hardly left the house very often anymore. This would be a special trip. I would bring my good slippers.
That evening I sat with JuJu and read to her till she fell asleep. I listened to the steady metronome of her old lady snores for a while. Her feet were propped up. In slippers of course. I studied their soles. They were smooth as glass. Auntie JuJu had a way of moving that was like gliding. She never strode into a room, she simply arrived. Her presence was much the same. It wasn’t a presence that announced itself, but one you felt like the breaking of the sun through the clouds. Everyone around would find themselves turning towards her unconsciously as flowers will track the brightest source of light. I reached for her hand and kissed the top of it before cradling it in mine briefly. She lived the old ways and it might seem funny to some people, but it had created this beautiful person. I prayed a piece of Auntie Juju showed up somewhere in me, Charli Lee, lunchable-eating, obsessive-texting, non-slipper wearing modern gal that I was.
The next day, JuJu and I navigated the front steps together. We sat down just inside the front entrance to remove our shoes. I helped Auntie take hers off and put her slippers on for her before I traded my own street shoes for slippers. Something inside my shoe caught my eye. At some point last night, Auntie had taken it upon herself to write my name and address on the inside bottom of my left shoe. Auntie caught me looking and laughed a little, shrugging.
“Old habits, you know?”
I shook my head. I was 19, not 9 and headed off to summer camp, but when had sense ever won the day when it came to arguing with Auntie? I let it go.
We made our way around the cathedral. Slowly. Juju shuffled. I hadn’t realized it, but she was old. Truly old. I put my arm around her protectively. She shook it off in irritation.
“What do I look like over here, an old lady? What’s next, are you going to start pre-chewing my food for me too?”
She looked at me crossly. I looked back at her with that expression that says I knew better than to disagree. Then the moment passed, the fierceness in her softened into humor and we laughed. Together. Of course she was old. Of course she didn’t want me to see it. And of course she definitely didn’t want to talk about it. We shuffled on.
We came to this cathedral a lot when I was a child. Auntie had been an art historian who specialized in the medieval period. She loved to lecture on about the architecture and tapestries here and I listened, mostly because she spoke with such passion and brought history to life with those kinds of stories they won’t tell you in school. We walked today mostly in silence, just observing everything we knew so well, all the places and objects that were such an intimate part of our history together.
As we strolled up the nave for a third go round, Auntie JuJu clutched at my arm with fingers that felt like the claws of a hawk and her body suddenly sagged towards the ground.
I made an attempt to catch her, but only managed to prevent her head from clunking against the marble floor.
I screamed for help and was almost immediately surrounded by a flurry of people, forming a ring around us, some on their cell phones calling emergency services, some simply standing in shock and gawking. My world shrank to a sea of shins and Auntie JuJu crumpled on the floor with a string of saliva glistening from the corner of her slack, open mouth.
A pair of masculine hands joined mine on Juju’s body. Someone was administering mouth to mouth and chest compressions. I knelt there by her side, her fingers interlaced through mine. Numb. Mute. I just looked on as if this were a show on tv happening to characters that would be effortlessly rewritten back into later episodes. An ambulance arrived shortly. They loaded her on a gurney, and we were wheeled off at top speed to the local hospital. In the ambulance I realized belatedly both of her slippers had been knocked off and left behind. Thank goodness she was unconscious. She never would have stood for such a thing.
Auntie never regained conscience.
Two weeks later, there was a small army of shoes lined up by our front door as everyone came to pay their last respects. There wasn’t enough slippers. Most people attended Aunties memorial in socks. I’m not sure she would have appreciated the thought. It was strangely quiet without the clip-clip of high heels against hardwood and the rough stomping of men’s shoes. We practically tiptoed around one another, nibbling on things Auntie would have approved of - miniature quiches and shish-ka-bobs.
The doorbell rang nearly two hours in. Everyone else had simply walked in, knowing the Daniels were a family who kept the door open. No, this had to be a stranger. I felt it was my duty to shoo the interloper away.
There was a man standing on our porch. I didn’t recognize him at all, but I recognized what he was holding. My shoes. From Juju and I’s last day at the cathedral. I had rushed off and left them and never thought about them since.
“Hi,” said the stranger holding my shoes.
“Hi,” I said back putting down my shish-ka-bob and uncertain of what was supposed to come next.
“I’m very sorry for your loss. You must be Charli, right?”
“Ummmm, yeah?” I looked at him suspiciously and considered picking my shish-ka-bob back up as the closest weapon that I had.
“Yeah, I figured. I mean, your shoe said so. Oh man,” he said, almost under his breath,” that did not come out at all the right way. Look, I just wanted to return these to you. I didn’t know today was the funeral. I was there that day. I was the one who was working on your Grandma till the paramedics arrived and I saw when you both entered and how you took such good care of her and I thought maybe you would want these back and I’m sorry if this all comes off so weird. This was probably a bad idea. So sorry. Anyway, here’s the shoes. Have a good day. I mean…, jesus, I probably shouldn’t tell you to have a good day when you’re burying your grandmother. Ok, yeah, I’m going now, bye” he said everything in one long sentence before putting my shoes down on the porch step and backing away like he was about to burst into a sprint down the street.
“She wasn’t my Grandma,” was all I could think of to respond.
“What?” he stopped backing up.
“I said she wasn’t my Grandma. She was my Auntie, and yes, I did want those shoes. Thank you for bringing them back.”
“Yeah, sure, no problem” he had stopped looking like he was going to race a bullet train and was regaining his composure. He turned to go and gave me a little cool guy wave like it was no big deal, he had just been in the neighborhood.
“Hey, what’s your name?” I called after him.
Hey, Murphy Lewis, want to hang out some time?” I asked
“Hell yeah,” he burst out before turning a violent shade of red for a moment. I pretended not to notice as I gave him my number.
Auntie Juju was right after all. If I hadn't left my shoes at the entrance that day, I wouldn't be getting married 6 months from now. Turns out, it really is pretty important. We booked the cathedral. I’ve already got my dress picked out, the cake paid for and the menu planned. All we’re really waiting on is one last shipment to arrive. One hundred and fifty pairs of slippers.