Not long after My Loved One and I “came out” as an item (not that anyone was surprised) he arrived one day at my family home to find me in the kitchen busy with the Tuxan and a couple of bushes, energetically cleaning my shoes.
“I’ll do that” he said, aged 22, taking them gently from me and picking up the brush. “And I’ll go on cleaning your shoes until we have a son who can do it for you.”
Sexist? Well, yes I suppose so by 2019 standards. Back in 1967 I thought it was one of the nicest, most romantic things I’d ever heard. And I’ve always been a pragmatic feminist. If smiling sweetly and exploiting femininity can get a dirty job (changing wheel on the car is another case in point) done by someone other than me, then I’ll go for it, thanks very much.
The incident reminded me of Gommy, my lovely grandfather, too. He was an enthusiastic, patriarchal shoe cleaner and regarded it as every inch a male job although he failed to pass that ethos on to his son, my father which is why I was cleaning my own shoes that day. Throughout my childhood and teens when I arrived at the grandparental home my grandmother would say, in her usual veiled, mildly critical way: “Oh look at your shoes, Dear. Pop them off and Gommy will clean them for you”.
MLO kept his promise. Once we were married and sharing a home, it was a very long time before I ever had to get out the shoe polish. And he always made my shoes (and his own) look lovely, happily attacking them in the traditional, old fashioned way until they gleamed. For the record, though, we went on to have two marvellous sons, both of them caring, supportive and practical especially these days when we need it most. I don’t, however, remember either of them ever cleaning my shoes – or their own very often for that matter. Their father must have neglected to educate them in this specific form of gallantry/chauvinism. Delete as applicable. I must remember to ask them whether they clean their wives’ shoes today. Somehow I doubt it.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. Ms Alzheimer’s knocks out the ability to do simple tasks at the rate of at least one a week. Shoe cleaning went long ago along with bed making, loading the dishwasher, making toast, writing messages and getting washed in the shower – among many other things.
So shoe cleaning rather neatly symbolises our marriage and where we are now. I keep the shoe cleaning box in the coat cupboard in the hall. MLO has no idea even where to find it. If I go for a walk in the park and my shoes get muddy then cleaning them is entirely down to me. I clean his occasionally too – unthinkable until a couple of years ago. Now he sits in a different kitchen, in a sort of quiet vacancy, and watches me applying polish and buffing if off exactly as if the clock were wound back 52 years and we were back in my family home except that he can’t now offer to take over. Back then we were eagerly looking forward to the future we were planning together. Now we’re unravelling. There is no future. Just a great deal of past – and many pairs of fondly remembered shiny shoes.