I carry an old Coach Soho handbag in the winter. I love it and know I’ll never find another one I love as much. It is made of fine, thick leather, with two brass buckles and broad straps like belts. It reminds me of a saddle -- a really good saddle -- and of days in my childhood that we had to clean the tack before we could ride.
Polishing is a meditation for me. Polishing metal, especially silver, that has come down to me from near and distant ancestors is a holiday ritual that grounds me. As I work, I think about my mother, from whom I inherited my table set, and my grandmother, whose few family pieces were included in it. Some of them are even older, marked with my great-grandmother’s maiden name, as was the custom with wedding silver once. They’re not valuable pieces, just spoons and things, but as I smell the acrid polish and rub the tarnish from them, I remember the people who once owned them.
Yesterday, I got out the brass polish and the leather cream, but noticed that my old Soho bag had faded in the corners. So I bought some Kiwi shoe polish, too, which contains a little color. I took the lid off that tin of polish and was slammed back into my chair with the most intense scent memory I’ve ever had.
My father came of age just in time for the second World War. He was someone who followed his own path, a solo one, and his role in the war was the solo yet not solo work of a fighter pilot escorting bombers over Germany. He never talked about it much until Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” glamorized the lone-warrior WWII pilots, and then he would, some, to my younger cousins who were enraptured by all the supposed glory. But that talk always seemed a little forced to me. I had a pretty good idea what war was all about.
He returned from Europe, met and married my mother, and eventually left the Air Force for a defense job, as they were called in those days, at an aircraft manufacturing corporation. When I was five, he went to work there, in a suit, and every single day he would polish his shoes with Kiwi Shoe Polish. He smelled of it sometimes, as did their bedroom. Some people remember a particular after-shave or cologne their father wore. I remember Kiwi.
Smelling it now, the tin on my knee, I know that it’s simply the smell of carnuba wax, aromatic and a little sour. It’s dark as ink. I suppose it is similar to what was once called bootblack, made from wax and coal, from days when you had one pair of shoes, two if you were lucky, and you took care of them.
I wonder now what kind of work environment would require spitshined shoes. I never saw my father’s office. No one without a high security clearance ever did. I can visualize it though; open rooms, banks of gray metal government desks, florescent lights, ancient manual typewriters, carbon paper. He loved irony and disliked herds. I wonder how much of himself he had to bury to exist in an environment like that. But he didn’t complain. He had a family. He’d come home, watch the news, read the paper, have his scotch with water, and go to bed early. He’d get up early, too. It was the only time he ever got to be alone.
I know that there were many times my father was unhappy in what he called “The Plant.” Months would go by in which we weren’t allowed to make noise -- any noise -- for at least an hour after he got home. I guess you could say that we, even as children, were expected to have some self-discipline.
My father died eight years ago today. He was lucky; it was quick. I was surprised at how many people at his funeral mentioned the timing of his dying, on Pearl Harbor day. As though he was some living icon of an era. I don’t think he saw himself as any sort of icon. I think he saw that there was a job to be done, and he did it.
I wonder how many people even own a tin of shoe polish now. When something wears out, we just throw it away and buy a new one. We’re encouraged to do that. It keeps the economy humming.
I get out my old handbag and polish it each winter. I don’t ever want another one. I’ll fix it up and carry it until it falls apart, because I know that they’re not making them like this one any more.
The figure in the middle is my father. The photo was taken in Italy in 1945.