Monday, December 7, 2009


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.


chayaruchama said...

That is truly powerful, O....

He was a handsome man; in the photo, I feel that he looked far less intimidating there, than he proved to be at home.

Yes, Kiwi.
It fits.

Many hugs to you, on this anniversary.

Olfacta said...

Thanks, C. This was a tough one. But I think that scent memory is so much of what we do.

Mals86 said...

Oh, those scent memories...

When I was a child, my father wore Old Spice aftershave and a fedora to work; he polished his shoes with Kiwi. I'm lucky to still have him around. (He no longer wears either aftershave or the fedora, which makes me a little sad.)

Thank you for sharing a little piece of your dad with us.

Rappleyea said...

As the oldest of six children, and Daddy's girl, this really resonated with me. But I lost it when I got to "The Plant". My Dad went to work for IBM a few years after leaving the Navy, and that's always what he called it. And like your Dad, I don't think he ever really enjoyed being corralled there, but like you said, they didn't complain or even think of it that way. That's just what they had to do to support their family.

The anniversary of my Dad's death will be Christmas day - men like him, and I'm sure your Dad as well - were larger than life and left a hole that won't ever be filled. Hugs to you, and thank you for sharing.

Olfacta said...

Hi M -- Thanks. I love the fedora image. People who still have their parents when they're old enough to be true adults themselves are lucky.

Olfacta said...

Hi D --

Thanks so much for your honest comment. I'll think of you on Christmas day.

Liisa Wennervirta said...

I have the shoe stuffs in tubes, I do like clean shoes although nobody requires it. I'll smell them someday.
My father would use Aqua by Hugo Boss but it was discontinued (I got two in the internetz for Christmas if they arrive in time), basically ran away from home when he was 17 and his army stories are basically about poaching and cooking wildlife. I'm young.
Nope, it ain't that bad. There are stories and histories. But not many people seem to want to hear about my growing up in the Commie crap and how much cooler the world is without it; way too many people seem to think that things were organized, you know, and it was generally neat, and then I get aggressive. Life in Italy brought the cafeteria Communists to my view and they were oh-so-silly, to put it nicely (use a handful olf expletives of your choice to emulate my general feelings about them)... and I think that one cannot really appreciate freedom if they always had it for granted. And not being able to afford this or that, of which so many of my fellow citizens complain, is not equal to not being allowed to do the things. If really one wants to, say, travel across the world, they can walk; if they are not let outside the country, no amount of money would help. Sometimes, I still get the acute feeling of freedom and it's big and overwhelming: When I started studying another thing, just for the liking of the subject - the Commies wouldn't let me because one school would be enough. Etc.

Aparatchick said...

Beautiful post. I'm afraid to say anything more for fear I won't stop talking about pipe tobacco and how it reminds me of the house where my wonderful grandparents lived. They taught me so much and worked so hard. And yes, learning self-discipline has been invaluable to me, and I thank them and my parents for it.