Black Velvet Shoes with Jewels

January 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

Writing is a solitary business; no other in the world requires the practitioner to be so absorbed in expressing her own thoughts and feelings as this. No surprise, then, that writers venture forth from their cubbyholes for excruciating critique sessions–even with the nicest and most trustworthy of colleagues–and yearly pilgrimages to conferences, workshops, and retreats.

Each fall I head for St. George Island, across the causeway from East Point, Florida, and not far from Apalachicola—Appalach to residents. This haven of gulf waters, sandy beaches and swaying palms and palmettos, is where others of my kind gather for the annual “Fiction Among Friends” Retreat for Women Writers. There I also find Adrian Fogelin—our author-in-residence—and her bag of shoes!

Sunrise at St. George Island

In our workshops over the last few years, I’ve chosen various pairs of shoes to inspire a new character study: old but carefully maintained wing-tips; down-at-the-heel work boots, brown cowboy boots. But I’ve never found the perfect memory to spark my imagination—black velvet shoes with jewels.

I don’t have to think hard to picture the girl who wore those shoes. She’s me, and the shoes were a present for my tenth birthday. Two days later, on Christmas, I got a scrapbook, a diary, and a pen—we’d made a pact, our family had, that we wouldn’t ask Santa for more, since his BIG present to us would be living and traveling in Europe while Daddy studied. But I had my black velvet shoes with jewels and I was happy!

Mary Lois sat on the bed and carefully brushed the velvet shoes, ridding the black softness of any bit of dust that might be clinging there. When the velvet passed inspection, she polished the glass jewels. No, not glass, surely, but rubies, emeralds, yellow diamonds.  

“You’re not going to wear those shoes on the ship?” her brother said, walking from his and their father’s hotel room into the ‘girl’s room’. His tone, as always—well, almost—was as dismissive of a sibling as an “older” could get.

“Yes I am. We’re supposed to dress up to go on board and these are my dressiest.”

“You’ll freeze! Don’t you know how cold it is out there? This isn’t Texas, for heaven’s sake. It’s New York City, and it’s January!”

“Of course I know that! I’m not dumb! Tomorrow we sail for Europe and I’m dressing up!”

HMS Queen Mary

At 8:00 AM the next morning the Summers clan took two taxis to Pier 54. They only carried their sailing luggage. The steamer trunks and new ’53 Chevy Four-Door Sedan had boarded two days earlier and their father assured them that all were safely stowed in the hold for the trip to England. Once at the pier the hours dragged by. First check-in—standing in line for hours! Next, passport checks—another LONG wait. Mary Lois began to feel the cold and she tried stamping her feet to keep them from going numb.

“Ha!” David said. “I told you not to wear those silly shoes! Your feet are going to freeze solid and then your toes will turn black and fall off!”


“Will to!”

Mary Lois tried to ignore him—not easy to do under the circumstances. After all, for the next nine months he and their younger sister would be the only playmates she had. She’d already resigned herself to try to get along!As soon as they boarded they found their state rooms: Mary Lois, David and Sarah would bunk with their mother, while their daddy would bunk with another single male passenger across the hall.

When the time came to go back on deck for the departure, her toes were still numb … but she wouldn’t admit it, not even to her mother, and off they went to find their way ‘topside’.

Mary Lois, in her favorite Sunday dress, black coat with the velvet collar, white gloves and black velvet shoes with jewels, soon wished she’d stayed inside. Her toes ached so she wanted to cry, but she would not give David that much “I told you so” room!

Slowly the tugboats pulled HMS Queen Mary from her mooring and down the Hudson toward the open Atlantic. And Mary Lois began to panic … she couldn’t even feel her feet anymore!

“Mommy, I’m cold!” Sarah cried at last.

Thank goodness! “I’ll take her to the cabin, Mother,” Mary Lois volunteered, giving her voice a most exasperated tone.

“I’d better go with you,” her mother said, quickly. “I wouldn’t want you to get lost!”

Once in their room, Mary Lois climbed up to her bunk, took off her black velvet shoes with jewels and rubbed her toes. As the feeling came back, so did intense pain. But she denied herself a good groan when David returned. Instead, she stretched out on her bunk, a pillow over her thawing feet, and watched out of the porthole with the others as the “green lady” passed.

When the dinner gong sounded, she put on her sturdy oxfords with a good pair of sox. As the others left for the dining room, she lingered a moment, looking longingly at her black velvet shoes with jewels. Then she hid them in her bag and never wore them again.


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