I grew up living with a couple of pack rats; my mother collects fine porcelains and dolls, while my father looks forward to getting a new watch, every year. Without exaggeration, the man has a drawer full of every conceivable size, shape and style of time piece, pocket watch and a steam engine that whistles every hour, on the hour.
I know, because I was thrilled to have found it on a trip my husband and I took to North Carolina a couple of years ago and gave it to my father that Christmas.
My husband says I’m just like them and – after nearly 19 years of marriage – he’s pretty much used to me having him pull over and check out a piece of furniture or old lawn equipment that someone has left at the curb, or leaving out something that we don’t use anymore.
Because, you know, someone else might want it.
Every Saturday, when they weren’t working, my parents would wake my twin brother and me at the crack of dawn and we’d scour the local flea markets for baked goods (the Amish really do make the best bread) and the perfect sour pickle (we’re talking Hungarian breakfast, here) and then spend the rest of the day hunting for treasures buried deep among the hundreds of tables filled with homemade honey, herbal soaps, and rusted old keys.
For them, collecting other people’s castoffs wasn’t just a hobby, it was their mission and only now – upon further reflection – am I beginning to understand it as a liberating act of compassion born from having nothing or very little of anything they could call their own. Still, even today, they appreciate life itself as a gift and regret very little.
Except, giving up the chance of buying a new pair of shoes.
At first glance, it’s easy to understand how one would associate their behavior as more than obsessive, or the compulsive nature of their constant need to go shopping every day a bit strange, let alone an easy “A” in psychology class. However, there’s a story behind the psychosis.
It just so happens that shoes play a very major role, for the both of them.
For her, it was a pair of slippers my grandmother nearly lost in a hail of bullets and refused to leave behind on some farmer’s field somewhere. The man crawling next to her called her foolish, and rightfully so. Given the choice, between taking a bullet and escaping with your life, I’d leave the slipper, too. Still, my grandmother left her abusive husband, took only her children and damned if the woman was going to start a new life far away from home barefoot.
The man crawled ahead of her and, while my grandmother reached back for her slipper, he was shot straight through the head.
I cried when my grandmother told me that story and, quite frankly, it gave me wicked nightmares as kid. Still, as I grew older, I finally understood why my mother would give her a new pair of slippers for Mother’s Day.
For him, it was a pair of shoes and – though, both my father and grandfather studied to be tradesmen and, at the age of 16, already helping to support their families – neither of them could afford the extravagance of being able to eat, or sleep in more than one room, let alone buy a new pair of leather shoes. I guess that’s why my grandfather took it upon himself to arrange for an advance on his salary (nearly unheard of in the communist party days) so that his son (my father) could go out and buy himself a “decent” pair of shoes.
You have to know that my grandfather was a very hard man (as the rest of his family agrees) and I’d venture to guess it’s because his own father died very young and left my grandfather nothing more than a very large family of sisters and brothers to support. Unfortunately my father, as well as both his sisters, could taste my grandfather’s bitterness.
Soon after, revolution broke out in Hungary and my father escaped the city with three other teenaged friends to Austria, forgetting all about his new shoes.
I knew that my father lost the pair of shoes he was wearing at the time while running through the forest late one night and then came down with a fever. Still, his friend (Uncle Joe) refused to leave my father behind and carried him the rest of the way to the Austrian border.
However, I never heard the story about the new shoes that my grandfather bought him until a few weeks ago and, knowing my father, I can’t help but think that it was more than just a business transaction (as my father told it) and – upon further reflection – can only now imagine the full intensity of mixed feelings they both must have had at the time.
So, this Father’s Day, I’m returning the watch and buying my father a new pair of shoes, instead.