The Memory Keepers
February 4th, 2008 by

My husband had a shoe fetish. Phillip owned shoes for all occasions and athletic events—some were kept only for their sentimental value. To him, each pair either served a purpose or told a story, so there was no getting rid of them. This caused a serious storage issue. In addition to his side of the closet, he claimed the entire space under our bed. According to my husband, shoes could not be stacked, which meant the entire perimeter of the bed was lined with shoes. My shoes were piled in the closet in order to make more room for his.

When Phillip died, each pair of shoes became a reminder of something about him or about us that I missed. His favorite pair of trail shoes, still covered with dust from his last run, recalled the happy hours we shared running together on mountain trails. I missed the time we spent exercising together, and enjoying the beauty of the outdoors. Racing flats brought memories of him crossing one of many finish lines, sometimes with a smile of triumph, other times with a look of disbelief, always with the determination of a person who loved to run.

I missed his competitive spirit, and the surprising heights of physical endurance to which he regularly pushed me. A pair of vintage Nikes were a particular favorite of his—causing more than one heated discussion when he pulled them out with his party attire. The despised dress shoes always made me smile, because they required dusting before being worn. Still, they were a necessity, and they had their place in the line up under our bed.

How could I part with all those shoes? I knew it had to be done, but just moving them to a new location required baby steps. Each time I picked up a pair, I relived the story they told and put them right back where they were with tears in my eyes. This dilemma felt like an unsolvable puzzle: to not only let go of the shoes, but to do it in a way that would exemplify my husband’s love for them. How could I look into what was once our shared closet, and not see his beloved collection stored neatly in their assigned location?

The shoes became memory keepers and I feared that letting go of the shoes would also mean letting go of the memories. As the holidays approached, the answer to my problem finally became clear. Phillip’s parents were born in Mexico City. A few months before he died, he took a long awaited trip to visit relatives who still live there. He returned with a renewed sense of how fortunate we are here in the United States; speaking for weeks of the poverty and despair he witnessed in his parents’ homeland. Yet, he also noticed that blended with the despair was a generosity of spirit and an unwavering faith that he truly admired. As a result of his trip, we planned to join our church group in December, when they traveled to a small Mexican town to bring the people there much needed food and clothing.

After my husband’s death, my daughter and I decided to make the trip to Mexico in his memory. As we planned for the trip, it occurred to me that the people in the village could really use his shoes. They wouldn’t be someone’s extra pair—they might be their only pair. His large assortment of footwear could provide the opportunity for a group of people he deeply cared about to work and travel in well-covered feet, rather than completing the necessary tasks of daily life barefoot. This act of kindness would transform those shoes from memory-keepers back into shoes once again.

As I stood in the courtyard of the small Mexican Church on a sunny afternoon, I watched people evaluate his shoes. Each pair was measured not for sentimental value, but for their size and practicality, with the benefits of one being weighed against another. Some shoes were left on the tables as a possibility for the next person who came along—others were scooped up right away, like found treasure.

The shoes that didn’t make the cut that day were added to the church’s store for future use. As I watched the people of that town walk away with shoes in hand, I realized that it was never the shoes that held my beloved memories. My heart held those memories, and it always would. I felt a moment of peace as his shoes were carried away. I knew that somewhere he was smiling. I have to admit that there are still a few pairs I haven’t parted with, but I figure I’m entitled to hang onto some…just for sentimental reasons.

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