Billie wore her wedding shoes to clean the house. She wore them to church, for the two-mile walk to the grocery store with babies in tow and at the hospital where she worked a nurse’s-aid. The white satin shoes with rounded tow-box and bow had two-inch block heels, just low enough for her to climb the step ladder to eradicate every speck of dust and cobweb from the tiny apartment.
When I got married decades later, Billie didn’t wear her wedding shoes. Instead she wore a lavender dress with a cheerful bow at her neck and a veil of suffocating grief that she never removed. Shoes aren’t visible in the photo of my grandparents at my wedding. Billie and Louis stand stoically in front of Saint Andrew’s church that stifling July day. I imagine she is wearing a pair of shiny gray patent leather that complements her silver hair.
At the nursing home, Grandmaman waits in her wheelchair. Smiling shyly, she greets me in her usual way. “Hello! You look good. Did you gain weight?” The miles between us make visits less frequent over the years, yet her obsession with weight is unrelenting. We talk and laugh. Through loose dentures and thick French accent, she weaves fantastic tales of evil curses, a boy born with pig’s hooves instead of hands and the morbidly obese.
One time I had to wash a man who weighed over five-hundred pounds. I didn’t know where to begin he was so big. I had to use scotch-tape so I would know where I had already washed.
The woman in the bed next to me shits her pants. It smells so bad I could vomit. When people walk past our room they can smell it. I hope they don’t think it’s me! Can you imagine!
Our last visit together is solemn. No longer able to wear dentures, her speech is garbled, more French than English. She drifts in and out of awareness, remembering her daughter, the one who swallowed countless pills and slipped away surrounded by family photos, just two months before my wedding. “I hear Justine above my bed at night. I don’t know what she is saying but she is laughing.”
When she arrived at the nursing home, we thought it would be temporary, just until she could get back on her feet, literally. Hip replacements, twisted toes, constant falls, her doctor told her that her feet were crippled from years of wearing high heeled shoes. He would cut tendons, insert pins in her toes to straighten them. She would be good as new.
“Will I be able to wear pretty shoes again?” she asked. “No Billie,” the doctor replied. Ten years pass. She never did get back on her feet.