Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Shiny Shoes

Were these boots made for walking?

By Margaret Renkl

MARCH 6, 2000:  I am not a former boy. I am not even a former tomboy. My only brother, now an artist, did not engage in stereotypical little-boy behavior like cops-and-robbers or football, and he did not play with stereotypical little-boy toys like race cars and cowboy pistols. As for my father, he was the original enlightened husband--doing dishes and kissing boo-boos way back in the '60s, long before Alan Alda demonstrated that such behavior was actually possible for males.

So, in many ways, I was completely unprepared to be the mother of a bunch of garden-variety little boys. Like all children reared with love, my sons certainly have their tender side--their sweet, cheek-patting, "I love you all the way up to the moon" side. And they have their creative "Let's paint a beautiful picture to send Grandmother" side. And they have their quiet, cuddly "Will you lie down with me and read a story?" side. Those are the sides of my sons I understand, because those are the sides of my childhood self that I never outgrew.

It's the other sides of them--the "Hey, let's wrestle" side, the "Let's build a volcano in the sand pile and try to make it explode" side, the "Let's pretend the Beanie Babies are Stormtroopers and cut off their heads with our light sabers" side--that bewilder me. For the proper way to react to this kind of boy activity, I turn to my husband, the former boy, for guidance. If I ask, "Look, is this something we ought to civilize out of them?" and he says, "No," I take him at his word. He's a guy. More than that, he's a good guy.

The only problem with leaving matters of boyness to my husband is that he's not always clear about what to do when the question is reversed, when one of our boys wants to do something that's downright stereotypically girlish.

On the one hand, he wants to be a liberated Dad, a man equally at ease in changing diapers as in teaching a boy to throw a spiral. And this dear husband of mine, who actually tears up at long-distance telephone commercials, really does want to make sure his boys grow up resisting the fact that their options for self-expression are supposed to be limited because our culture still teaches them that big boys don't cry.

And yet there's a part of this gentle man I married that is seriously ill at ease when I threaten to dress his sons in the lovely hand-smocked John-Johns they inherited from an older cousin, a part that experiences a tiny hitch when our toddler rummages through my jewelry box and adorns himself with old Mardi Gras beads. It's kind of a gut-level reaction with him: Guys don't wear lace and beads.

Which is why he had a minor crisis on our last shoe-shopping trip. We were at an outlet store, and I was busy with our firstborn, who was pulling boxes off a clearance table and calling, "Hey, Mom, see if this one fits."

Consequently I wasn't paying attention to our middle son who was saying urgently to his father, "I want the red shoes. May I have the red shoes? I want these red shoes. Please can I have these red shoes?"

And I wasn't really watching as our smallest son began systematically opening all the boxes he could reach and tossing the box tops into the air. And I hadn't noticed yet that my husband had lost interest in the children's area of the store and had wandered several yards away to inspect a pair of Rockports in just his size.

The oldest boy was sitting in the middle of the aisle and attempting to tug on a much-too-small version of the shoe he had chosen, and saying, "How about these, Mom? Are these okay?" And box tops were flying hither and yon, and the middle boy kept saying, "I want the red shoes. May I have these shiny red shoes?" This is a child with exactly two wear-the-parents-down strategies, and when repetition does not yield the desired results, he shifts to volume: "Please may I have the red shoes?!"

From the back of the store, behind the stacks and stacks of boxes, a woman's disembodied voice muttered wearily, "I think that kid wants the red shoes."

Dimly, as through the sea, I heard my husband finally answer: "No, Scooter."

"But I want the red shoes. Please can I have the red shoes? I want the red shoes."

I turned to inspect the shoes our middle son wanted with all his passionate 3-year-old heart. For a clearance price of $7.50, he ought to have them, it seemed to me. Whatever they were.

They were shiny red hiking boots with black soles and a black cuff around the ankle.

"Please can I have these red shoes? Please?"

"No," my highly evolved, English-teaching, Dylan-loving, liberal husband told his earnestly pleading son. "Those shoes are for girls."

"They're not girl shoes," our logical son explained patiently. "They will be my shoes, and I'm not a girl."

A box top hit my husband in the ear.

Our older son took up his brother's cause. "Ah, let him have them, Dad. They're hiking boots. They have treads in the shape of backhoes and dump trucks."

Ganged up on, my husband turned to me for support. "They're shiny. What do you call that slick stuff anyway?"

"Patent leather."

"Patent leather is little-girl-tap-shoe-Sunday-school stuff. And what's that around the ankle? Isn't that velvet?"

I had to admit it was velvet. But I still thought my sweet, pleading son should have them.

"Now, honey," said my husband, seeing that look on my face and attempting to preempt a speech, "it might not be fair, but a guy doesn't wear black velvet or patent-leather. The other guys will laugh at him."

I took a deep breath, but before I could deliver my he's-not-a-"guy"-he's-a-very-little-boy-and-I-think-you're-devolving-right-before-my-very-eyes rebuttal, another box top hit my husband on the nose. The baby and his oldest brother collapsed together to the floor in a fit of giggles. The middle boy stood firm, holding those red shoes close to his chest and gazing imploringly at his father.

Then, as my husband stooped to capture the baby, he got a close-up look at his hopeful little boy, clutching those shiny red shoes in earnest desire and looking for all the world like the disco version of a feed-the-children advertisement.

"I love these red shoes," he said. Then, looking straight into his father's eyes, he added one more word: "Please?"

And just like the Grinch, whose heart grew three sizes at the sound of the little Whos' Christmas sing-along, my husband heard that one word, "Please?"--a clear, ringing, uncomplicated word delivered by a beautiful child too young yet to understand that if the world has its way he is going to spend his entire life dressed in khaki and gray, afraid of what it might signify if he wears anything made of patent-leather--and suddenly the loving father won out over the get-'em-ready-for-the-real-world pragmatist. "Okay," he said. "If you love these shoes, Sport, then by God you should have them."

It was a moment of triumph, as significant a liberating event in our family as the first chink in the Berlin Wall, and the oldest boy cheered, and the baby crowed, "Yay!" As the middle boy gave his father a big hug, he said, "Thank you, Daddy; thank you for my beautiful red shoes." My husband smiled back, "You're welcome, Sparky."

I was writing the check, when he muttered, "But these red shoes are as close as you get to pink."


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