Fashions of the Cross

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

When I told my friend our family was taking a quick day trip to Milan, she clucked, “Ooooo, Milan! Shopping, right?”

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Milan is known throughout the world as one of the major fashion pulse centers. Over the last few decades, this northern Italian city has become a formidable haute couture-opolis, one that makes Parisians quake in their Louboutins, Londoners tip their Vivienne Westwood hats, and New Yorkers bend a Donna Karan knee or two.

But fashion was the last thing on my mind when I traveled there on Friday.

What was?

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You.

Well, you and Emily Dickinson.

Alright. You, Dickinson, and all of humanity.

Okay. You, Dickinson, all of humanity, and the cathedral of Milan.

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Il duomo, as this famous cathedral is known, put Milan on the map long before the Prada brothers Mario and Martino opened a leather goods shop in 1913 in the famous Galleria Vittoria Emanuel II, one of the world’s original shopping malls dating from the 1860’s.

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As a matter of fact, the cathedral’s unparalleled architectural phantasmagoria dates to the 1300’s, when its nearly six centuries of construction began.

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It’s true; while traveling to Milan, I was thinking of you and the recent discussion we’ve been having in this blog about types of grief. Dickinson called these variations on sorrow the “fashions of the cross” in her poem on grief I shared in a recent post.

It was these fashions, and not fashion-fashion that preoccupied my thoughts as Randall, Luc and I boarded our crack-of-dawn train and chugged from Switzerland into neighboring Italy.

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Along the way, and while anticipating visiting il duomo, I quizzed Randall on all we knew personally about various “fashions of the cross”. Specifically, we discussed varieties of suffering we’re acquainted with close-up, from within our two combined families, the Daltons and the Bradfords, and from our most intimate circle of friends.

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Because I’ve been writing about “sorrow that the eye can’t see”, we two were concentrating on those sorrows which, for whatever reasons, are grieved privately, sorrows no casual outside observer could necessarily identify or would even recognize without some guidance, sorrows which are sometimes intentionally shrouded in secrecy.

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By the time we reached Milan’s stazione centrale, we’d had a sobering conversation. We’d also compiled quite the list. What hidden or unspeakable sorrows have marked our two families and our closest circle of friends? What private crosses are being born within a community of responsible citizens, solid families, folks with access to education, running water, vitamin supplements, several pairs of shoes? People who stay out of the tabloids, off of the Most Wanted wall in the post office, well under any FBI radar?

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As I said, the list is sobering. Still, I’m convinced we’re what you’d call a normal bunch. Maybe your normal bunch is a little like ours.

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I mentally scrolled through this long list of sorrows as we made our pilgrimage all the way from the central train station to this, the city’s heart.

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Here, at the piazza del duomo, or the place of the cathedral, we came upon a kind of buzzing epicenter. The cathedral, which dominates and draws everyone to this open place is symbolic of paradise – entering its huge carved doors and crossing over its threshold into its cross-shaped floor plan is supposed to symbolize approaching God’s throne.

Now here it stands like so many cathedrals today, like the celestial city of God right in the core of the urban city of man. Three steps out its front door is a bustling commons where all of humanity seems to be sharing in one big party.

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It’s here where I, list in mind and camera at eye, watched this human pageant. I had one question in mind: who here might be bearing invisible sorrows like those from my list?

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Chronic unemployment

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Fraud, larceny, imprisonment

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Falsified credentials, falsified identity

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Abuse (sexual, emotional,verbal, physical) either as perpetrator or as victim

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Social humiliation

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Substance abuse or addiction

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Paranoid schizophrenia

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Borderline personality disorder

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Anxiety disorder

Debilitating phobias

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Cutting/scarring

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Eating disorders that flourish in secrecy like anorexia, bulimia

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Bipolar disorder, depression, manic depression

Suicidal tendencies

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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Aspergers Syndrome

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Sexual dysfunction

Uncertainty of sexual orientation

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Chronic and/or terminal illness

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Incontinence, bladder or bowel

A loved one with dementia

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A loved one with advanced Alzheimer’s

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Spiritual decline or apostasy

Unforgiveness, grudges, vengeance

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Estrangement from family or friends

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Abandonment

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Loneliness, hopelessness

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Isolation, prejudice

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Somewhere around my hundredth photo, all this sorrow I was imagining started pressing on me. I felt its cold weight. I stopped shooting and let my camera dangle on its strap around my neck. For a moment I stood still.

Then came a minuscule epiphany – an epiphanette – scratching on my spirit, gerbil-like.

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Or maybe it wasn’t a scratch as much as it was the itch that comes with the thaw of cold.

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Was I smiling? I know I was. I sensed warmth seeping from the cathedral out over the plaza, radiating in an astral pattern like the roads do from the piazza del duomo itself. The warmth moved in all directions over the milling human bodies spinning and toitering like asteroids in some inscrutably ordered chaos. Bumping. Fumbling. Stumbling across the square. The too-brief moment on this crowded mortal square.

It was there, a humming warmth, and it saturated all this jumbled humanness. From its darkest secret sorrows to its brightest hopes for relief, everything was accounted for, comprehended, absorbed.

With noontime clarity, I understood this is the nature of things. Holy presence. Human Plaza. The two indissoluble. Eternally one.

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The late afternoon crowd wasn’t transformed by what I was sensing in the moment. But my experience was. The hundreds remained hunched inward, backs close to but turned away from the cathedral entry. Every last one seated right on the verge. Less than a hair’s breadth from that blazing, light-gushing threshold.

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“Hey,” Luc hopped onto my train of thought, “You ever coming inside to see your cathedral? We’ve already done the whole tour.”

“Coming,” I said, replacing the lens cap and reentering reality. “Whew, sorry! I just got a little carried–”

“While you go check out the stained glass and the statue of that one Saint guy who was skinned alive, we’re going shopping, kay?”

He lifted his eyebrows and half-smiled while reaching over and removing the lens cap I’d just clicked into place. “You’ll want to take lots of pictures in there. Lots. Like for at least an hour, right?”

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Next post, I’ll take you on that tour.

Global Mom: Farm Wedding

Østfold lies southeast by an hour from Oslo’s talk show and television commercial studios.  In the middle of that county is the village of Ski, and in the middle of Ski is a tiny white stucco chapel.

credit: woophy

There, on one of those brilliantly blue-skied late spring days, Sigrid, the daughter of a prominent local farmer, is getting married, and I’ve been drafted to serenade the day-long traditional farm wedding. What will unfold before me, the only non-Norwegian on hand, is like a movie so enchanting I start to feel I’m unfit as the soundtrack.

I arrive early by car, ready to review the program one last time with the church organist who skids into the gravel parking place on his road bike, and who, with no more ceremony than the nod of his head (which he keeps wiping as he continues to sweat) launches us into a break-neck dash through our program, tearing through four Norwegian love songs at the same speed with which he arrived on his bike. “Well now,” he says, slapping the organ bench, “I think that’ll about do it,” and he’s running over a hill to squirt off at a nearby farm. I’m still catching my breath, leaning against a pillar in the choir loft, when I peer down to see a procession.

A thick, inching sea of rich bunad colors seeps into the chapel’s all-white interior. Figure upon figure, couple upon couple, family upon family file in gracefully, cautiously, as if someone had told them the floor was made of the thinnest sheet of glass.

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There are mostly heavy black wool skirts that swish almost to the floor, barely exposing the occasional edge of white stocking, which meets the black shoes. On the front of the shoes, ornate, pilgrim-like silver buckles.

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In some of the many regional versions of bunad, the skirt fronts, as the bodices, are gathered into the waistline with the smallest pleats—dozens of pin-tucked pleats—that make architecture out of wool. They’re encrusted with clusters of embroidered flowers, the sheen of which looks like jewels in the early afternoon light coming in through the high windows.

Everywhere there are balloons of starched white linen sleeves tapering to lace-trimmed cuffs and, on some women, wrist wreaths of silver coins which tinkle and glint, the sunlight flitting on their surface. There are brooches, some larger than your palm, clasped at the top of the bodice near the collar. Some women wear small hats, wool and embroidered too, without brims and close to the shape of the head and in the same color as their dress, tied under the chin with ample satin bows.

And there are small handbags made of matching wool with iridescent embroidery, affixed to a silver chain draped at the waistline.

There are dresses, a dozen among hundred, maybe, that aren’t black or deep red, but are bright cornflower blue.

The men look like they’ve arrived on the last commuter train from Brigadoon: velvet knickers, embroidered vests, white linen shirts, black leprechaun shoes. Some children, just a handful, are there, too.

One mom indiscreetly yanks her Karl-Andreas or Anders-Håvard to attention, and directs him into the pew next to her as she tugs down the bottom of his red vest and re-tucks the bunched hem of his starched shirt.  He’s sullen. Thirteen. Has spent the morning bailing hay or milking his own goat, I fantasize.  Or skateboarding, my inner realist corrects me.

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Here is old Norway, but again contemporary, now-a-day Norway, History and The Present, in all its splendid finery and well-mannered neighborliness waiting reverently for a høy tid.

My organist has traded in smelly lycra bike shorts for full bunad regalia himself, and ashamed that I’m just in my best cream silk suit and heels, I slip behind a marble pillar.  At the same moment, the organ opens up all pipes announcing Sigrid’s arrival.  The groom, vigorous-looking with muscles everywhere, (even in his jaw, which he’s clenching, like his fists), waits at the altar.

Sigrid, also blonde, is fresh and freckled, poised in a simply-cut white satin gown.  She proceeds up the aisle: a cool, tall glass of milk. I’m staring at her while I take a deep breath and begin singing: “Kjaerlighet, varmeste ord på jord. . .”  Love, the warmest word on earth.

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When the ceremony ends, the new couple clambers up into a handsome horse-drawn carriage which, trailed by other horse-drawn carriages carrying parts of their bunad entourage, clops over the rolling hills of Østfold toward Sigrid’s family estate.  The parents who’ve invited me to sing, Solvor and Lars, lean down from their carriage to give me road directions, complicated automobile ones, I’m told. It’s much more direct over the fields.  I’m in a tailored suit with stiletto pumps, driving a motor vehicle with a CD player and automatic windows.  I’ve obviously missed a road sign and driven into the middle of the wrong century.

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This family farm’s got to have its own zip code. Lars escorts me up to a crest beyond the limits of the groomed property that radiates outward from the central manor house, and there points to a place on the horizon that I’m sure must be Sweden.

“It’s just the easternmost edge of the property,” he smiles softly.  Then he swings his arm in a full arc in the other direction and, those specks over there?  Those prominent mountains several kilometers away?  “Also the edge of the family domain.” It’s deep green the entire expanse of it, abruptly tree-rich in spots, deliciously farmable in general. Lars seems too soft-spoken to own a whole county.

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“It’s my husband’s family’s soil, too, you know,” I tell Lars. “Aamodt, Haakon. Thorkildsen, Christian. Farmers going way, way back. Do you know the names?”

“Then,” Lars reaches down and pokes his finger into the earth, drilling it softly, pinching and rolling its brownness in his fingertips like he’s testing its character, “Somewhere not more than a century or so ago, we were family, your husband and I.”

Back at the manor house people are starting to arrive, leaping down from buggies, off of single horses or out of Volvos. Solvor wants me to see the house, and doesn’t hesitate to escort me, room by room, through its every antique corner.  The place is a fortress with massive oak staircases flanked by oak banisters so big you’d need two hands to grab the circumference, leaded-pane windows dating back 300 years, lustrous floors of wide, worn planks bulleted in place by chocolate-colored dowels, hand-tufted carpets brought from Sweden and hand-woven linens from Denmark.  Huge family portraits with their oily sheen on pallid, stern visages line the walls above a stone fireplace that cuts a garage-sized hole in the front salon.  Everywhere I turn there are signs of The Hunt, and rounding a bend a bit too frivolously, I nearly lose an eye on a low-hanging reindeer antler.

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The men look ready for a barn raising, but tonight they’re only reinforcing the orchestra pavilion in the courtyard, and moving into rows the long, decorated banquette tables where wine, breads and dried meats are already being laid by a troop of diligent women. I’m handed a pewter platter of cured venison and a wooden trough of sculpted pickles and radishes to put on a table somewhere and make myself inconspicuous (in my twentieth century silk suit and patent leather stilettos) by being industrious like every last body around me.

Suddenly, the farm’s cutting loose. There’s the metallic commotion of cow bell ringing and wild whooping, everyone around me chanting something in unison, something that’s accelerating, something that has us all stamping our feet and clapping our hands at once.  I dive in full-throttle, although I end up almost falling over when I jab all 4-inches of my  stilettos into black-brown farm soil.

The bride and groom have arrived.

A large woman, Inger, red-headed and white-toothed, clinches her fleshy arm around my shoulder and shoves a glass of wine in my hand, hollering and stamping still.  Since I don’t drink, I wrap my arm around the shoulder of the next guy, Ingemar, white-haired and red-cheeked, do a little holler and a light stamp, and shove the glass into his hand.  He downs it in one hearty swig like water, establishing the drinking blueprint for the rest of the night.

People stay primarily sober for at least the first two hours of the four-hour dinner for two-hundred guests, a spread of gelled vegetable aspic, smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and sour cream with dill, crab and coriander salad, cucumber salad in a light vinaigrette, lamb, and tender little new potatoes, all served in a grand hall downstairs in the central house. I sit on the middle table, not far from Lars and Solvor, who are poised under an enormous stuffed black bear head that looks like it’s belting a high note.

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After dinner and under a sky of polished cobalt, we all dance and sing like barefoot children.  Really like barefoot children, because somewhere between the hired band’s Johann Strauss and Bee Gees, I’ve kicked off my shoes like everyone one else.  Has grass ever felt so cool?  Has the moon ever been so close? Have I ever not lived here, not loved these people, not wanted to sing at every single one of their weddings?

Around four in the morning I watch the delicate, black shadows of horse-drawn carriages tiptoe over the far ridges, disappearing in a rising sun: spiders crawling into a flame.  Motors cough and hum, the trumpet player Hermann is packing it in, the lead singer Nils drops another empty Aquavit bottle onto a pile of many other empty Aquavit bottles.  Its “cli-shink” makes the mottled cat dart under a cleared banquette table.  Solvor comes at me from behind and, putting one arm around my waist, strokes my hair, and draws my head to her shoulder.  A mother’s touch. A new sisters’ pact.

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: La Mode

Clotilde, Clémence, and Clara were not only as lovely as their names, but as fashionable.

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They also happened to conveniently be in Dalton’s preschool class at la Maternelle Richard Mique. So I enlisted them, without their knowledge, as my fashion coaches.  When they arrived in their flared skirts and lace stockings and with coiffed bobs and velvet hair bands in their little aubergine or ruby or emerald wool felt coats in late October, I wanted to line them up for a photo shoot.

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And I wanted to dig out all my own childhood photos, the ones where my hair’s greasy or tied with yellow yarn or both, and my clothing fits like a cheap barbeque grill cover and is about the same color. I wanted to hunt down all those school portraits taken always on a Friday after I’d gotten grimy playing dodge ball on the asphalt, those 20-second photo booth snap shots with their splotchy heavenly blue background. Wanted to find them and make a bonfire with them in my bathtub.

I did not always hold my shorts together with a clothes pin. This was an off day.

See? And we sisters even all matched. No clothes pins. No hair yarn. Nice anklets.

But you’re saying; it’s not the girls with the high style I.Q. but their parents, the crazed ones who were dressing their children up like puppets.  Not so.  I watched these girls greet each other every morning at the doorway with their four-year-old assessments of each others’ ensembles;  “Oh, your hair bow is just the right shade of red”, “A beautiful barret, so classic!”, “Ah, your boots and gloves, so pretty,” and,  “Why not a pop of neon with all that brown?”

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They also knew somehow instinctively, it seemed to me, what was not beautiful; “This box of tissues (this felt tipped pen, this silver glitter, this sheet of construction paper) is not beautiful at all.”  And all the little girls, pursing their lips, releasing a sigh, bobbing their bobbed heads with confidence, would concur: “No, it is not beautiful at all.”

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I trusted them.  And was back to crawling on all fours again like I’d done in Norway while figuring out how to dress children in ekte vintertøy, eavesdropping now on French conversations, not only to learn some slick colloquial turns, but to catch the latest fashion trend. And if you think it’s just the girls who dressed stylishly, think again.  The boys showed up in their pea coats and corduroy knickers, their pressed button-down shirts and cardigans, their hair cuts that showed no sign of Mom’s kitchen sheers fiasco.  They lived up to what their teachers called them as they shook hands one by one at their schoolroom door: les jeunes hommes.

Young men.

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Against this backdrop of pleats and Peter Pan collars, monogrammed shirtsleeves and wait, are those cufflinks? a boy in rubber purple overalls or even his fanciest bunad, was going to stand out.  I took a look at Dalton and decided he looked mildly dilapidated. He needed a wardrobe overhaul. On second thought, the whole family, I declared that night at dinner, needed a wardrobe overhaul.

So we began at the feet.  I learned from Rita and other Mique mothers that my son needed to be bien chaussé—well-shoed, literally, or well-heeled, as anglophones tend to say.  Being bien chaussé ruled out both the clunky functional rubber boots of barnepark as well as the self-lighting neon-soled tennies of New Jersey.

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Dalton and I arrived at a little local shoe store in Rue de la Paroisse, Versailles’ main shopping drag, ready to slip into whatever was on sale.  I thought of Synnøve at Sportshuset and wrestling my way into a killion kroner worth of ekte vintertøy, and was sure this was going to be much easier.  However, I learned in no time that shoeing my child, like parkdressing my child, was going to be a science.  Shoes were the very foundation of being bien formé. Shoes — like penmanship, like coloring apples, like buying baguettes — were serious.

The shoe saleswoman/erstwhile podiatrist/cum child psychologist instructed me while placing Dalton in front of a mirror, circling him while judging his form.

“He is assez costaud (fairly stocky), your son,” she declared in French, “and has slightly rolled arches.”

By French standards, this is a stocky boy. And these are rolled arches.

Dalton stood in the middle of the little shop, eyes darting, like a stiff troll with shocks of blonde hair. Stocking-feet and, yes, dense.  A bright Scandinavian delight.  Dimples you could lose a silver dollar in.

“This would mean that for his morphologie you might consider this shoe, this shoe, this shoe and. . . that one. You know? In order to equilibré his appearance,” she said, touching her eyeglasses which hung around her neck on a thin, golden chain.

Neatly on the floor was a line: one navy with red trim, one navy with white trim, one navy with green trim, and one navy with navy trim shoe.

“But I don’t like navy blue,” Dalton muttered in English while the woman laced tight the first (navy) shoe.

“What does he say, the young man?” She tilted up her head to me and slipped the eyeglasses up on her nose, as if to see the situation more clearly.

“He does not like navy blue,” I said. And raised my eyebrows in a searching smile.

“Ah, but bleu marine is a good color, a classic color, young man,” she said, patting his bottom and scooting him toward the mirror.

Dalton could understand just enough French at this point, but like a troll, he preferred grunting to strangers over speaking to them.

“I do not like bleu marine,” he whispered to me in English, his face as unemotive as a tepid crêpe.

“What do you say, young man?” The woman put her hand to her ear as if cupping it would amplify this young man’s voice.

“He says, Madame, he finds the other shoe the most handsome. This brown one.”

I picked up a solid-looking brown leather shoe with a high-top, its sturdy Vibrim sole and Velcro tabs great, I thought, for easy access.

“Very good, Madame,” her tone flattened. “Let us try the brown one.  Perhaps not as classic as the bleu marine.  And not such a beautiful cut.  But if the young man wants to consider it. . .”

I could see the effort she was making, unwrapping the tissue paper, lifting out the brown hulking bootlet, pulling open those Velcro tabs whose noisy scratch sound grated against the shop’s total silence and her nerves.  Not classic at all. Ragtime jazz, actually.

Dalton stood stalk still in his one brown shoe. “I want it,” his half-smile said, making  a dent in just one of his dimples.

I put my hand on Dalton’s shoulder.

“He wants it, Madame, “ I sang to her.

“Although it is not. . .not as classic as the bleu marine, young man? Although it is not cut to make his foot look. . . a bit more elegant, Madame?”

“Although it is not as classic, yes. Although it is not as elegant. Yes.”

“Yes, well, very well then,” the woman sighed, clearly disappointed.

I had obviously selected precisely the shoe that would not flatter my three-year-old’s morphologie, and would therefore mark him for life.

“One must decide, I suppose Madame,” the saleswoman said, putting her glasses back on her nose, ”if one wants to teach one’s child that mere comfort is more important than one’s classic, elegant appearance.”

She rang up the total with a briskness that meant this transaction was final-final, then, handing me the bag, added, “In the end, though, one never regrets an elegant appearance.”

One had to decide. What one will regret. And this one decided for comfort, Velcro and brown.

Dalton ended up being the only boy in his entire maternelle with brown high-top shoes with Velcro tab closures. His new little friends (all in lace-up or buckle shoes in a classic bleu marine),called his shoes les chaussures Américains.  Even if they were made in France.

And later, after some conditioning, Dalton also wore navy blue shoes. Uh-oh, he’s rolling an arch, I see.

But he always preferred brown. Dad putting on the final touches before Dalton heads off to school.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.