One old pair of shoes

THE baggage I carry from childhood is always overweight. It includes too much worn-out guilt, a lot of discarded notions, plenty of Old Stuff, and a selection of Precious Memories. Most of these items travel separately, but occasionally they agree to unite, as in one old pair of shoes. They are simple black shoes, their leather worn soft and pliable with repeated polishing and constant wear. The style is timeless: oxford lace-ups, round toe, no adornments. These shoes belong to my father, even though they now rest under my dresser.

They were Air Force issue in Australia, 1940. ``Free,'' if you don't count his participation in the war as any kind of payment. When the war was over, they weren't recalled like other military equipment; they became my father's property and a part of his person. I wasn't born until the following decade, but by the time I began collecting memories, those shoes were part of the family.

One of my earliest impressions of my father was of a man who kept things, who would not discard something simply because he'd had it forever. He used things until they would be used no more.

Something of a bowerbird, he was, and is, but he also personifies that adult in all our young lives who admonishes us for our wasteful ways and seeks to demonstrate that life would be better if we would only take care of things.

His shoes were not worn out when I was born. Although he used them often, they were not worn out when I was a child, when something seven years old was clever, and something 10 years old was beyond imagining. While I grew older and squandered time and possessions with my wasteful siblings, he wore his shoes and still they did not wear out.

As an adolescent, mindful of fashion and the style of the in-crowd, I could be thankful that the style of those shoes was indeed timeless. Among my friends, it wasn't strictly au fait to have a father who wore 30-year-old shoes. I didn't share the knowledge with them and hoped they'd always keep their eyes on his when he was around.

Meanwhile the shoes were persistent models for us all of the way things ought to be, of the adages that there was no substitute for good workmanship and they don't make 'em like they used to.

Beyond adolescence, we grew bold and could wish aloud that we owned such a museum piece as a pair of thousand-year-old shoes. Dad would just smile and go on keeping ancient things about him.

In the middle of growing up some of us moved away, lived in other countries, thought fondly of home, but rarely of the shoes. We had the exciting present to think of, our futures to plan with all the trimmings, and the shoes and their uncomfortable example didn't fit.

But last fall my father came 10,000 miles to visit. He brought the shoes, 10 years older and apparently still going strong. I noticed with some surprise that he wore them now for such tasks as mending my garage roof, which seemed a little undignified, but perhaps I was overreacting. One of the tongues came loose, so he put it aside and said it was about time something went wrong with them. The lesson continues, I thought, and didn't mind at all.

The shock came as he was packing to go home. These won't fit in my suitcase, he said. I think I'll leave them here for you to throw away.

They are waiting yet, under my dresser, for me to ``throw away.'' Did it really seem to him I could abandon them to a foreign trash can? Perhaps he knew better, for he wrote the other day: ``I hope you are getting plenty of wear out of my old shoes. Don't be afraid to tell me you burnt them!''

But the shoes are not mine to discard; they are surely an inherited responsibility. Just as ancient cultures leave trappings that might teach us lessons, so the shoes are artifacts. They must be preserved.

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