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Tom Gregory

Tom Gregory

Posted: March 21, 2010 03:36 AM

From Alzheimer's to Auschwitz at 32,000 Feet

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This week time spun me around. I traveled back to South Jersey to work against Alzheimer's undignified rip across my mother's golden years.

In the two months since my last visit mom has slid into a foggy haze where daily tasks have to be "cued" and even the simplest of motor skills slip away. It's a path filled with an irony that repels disillusionment. Mother and child are reversed. Caregiver's work gets more demanding until the final day. Memories fuel my compassion - I struggle between empathy and fear.

Leaving Philadelphia International on an unseasonably warm 75-degree day, I was amazed to find my connection through Chicago had been snowed away into never-neverland. I was rebooked on a USAirways nonstop. Somewhere over Colorado, the squawk of the PA system and/or the fuselage's rumble drove me into consciousness. I reached for the airline magazine.
Hidden there in the pages was this excerpt for Linda Grant's soon-to-be-released book ,THE THOUGHTFUL DRESSER. It could have been written about your own glamorous mother, sister, wife, or daughter. In any case, it is about all of us.

Twelve years ago I saw a red high-heeled shoe from an earlier era. Glorious, scarlet, insouciant, it blazed away amid the rubber soles and strong cotton shoelaces as if to say, "Take me dancing!"
At night, when I cannot get to sleep, I sometimes distract myself by inventing its imaginary owner. I see her waking one morning in a foreign city, and as she raises the blinds on a spring day, the sun striking the copper rooftops, she realizes that she must go out this very moment and buy a pair of red shoes. A wide-awake girl in a white nightgown parting the shutters on a Paris day, drinking a cup of coffee, lighting a cigarette, thoughtfully smoking it before she quickly eats a roll, puts on her lipstick, and leaves the house.
Or I wonder, instead, if she is somewhat older -- say, 38 -- in a gray wool coat and lines descending each side of her mouth, a small ruddy birthmark on the side of her right cheek, which she fruitlessly tries to cover up by curling her hair in waves below her ears, but the wind always catches it and exposes the strawberry stain. She is walking down a Prague street, a shopping basket over her arm, to the market to buy carrots, leeks, mackerel, and passes by chance a shoe shop, and there are the red shoes in the window -- all by themselves on a little plinth raised above the lesser footwear, the price tag coyly peeking out from the base -- and she has such a powerful urge to go in and try them on that that is what she does. Even though her husband, who is a little mean, would go mad if he saw how much they cost. He married her because of his jealousy and her birthmark: He could not stand another man to look at his wife.
The shoes fit. She empties the contents of her purse, counting out the coins and notes, and flees home with them tied up in a brown paper parcel, and hides them for several days at the back of the wardrobe. Not once does she think about her birthmark.
Or is she the Imelda Marcos of Central Europe, a rich, bored woman with countless pairs of shoes, a widow with a younger lover whom she will never allow to see her without a full face of powder, rouge, and lipstick? Or I think of a humble shopgirl or secretary who saved her wages for weeks circling past the shop, always fearing that by the time she had the money to pay for the shoes they would be gone.
I have tried to imagine the transaction in the shop in dozens of ways, and then the figure of a woman walking home (or driving, or taking a bus, a tram, a taxi), but whatever her station in life, her age, her figure, and her marital situation, the one thing I can be sure of is what she felt: that pleasurable frisson of excitement and delight when a woman makes a new purchase in the clothing department, and particularly an item as nonutilitarian as a pair of red high-heeled shoes.
Whatever her identity, I am certain she would have loved those shoes, or they would not have ended up where they did. She would have left them at home at the start of the journey if she couldn't stand in them.
The red high-heeled shoe exists. You can see it for yourself if you travel to Poland, drive a couple of hours west from Kraków, and visit the museum which is what remains of the main camp at Auschwitz (not Auschwitz-Birkenau, an extension, which is a couple of miles away, the site of the Final Solution against the Jews). Auschwitz was the administrative center of the death camp. It is a popular excursion for tourists and Polish schoolchildren who are taken there by their teachers to learn about history. I don't know if they do or not.
Behind one of the glass-fronted display cases lies a great mountain of footwear, found by the liberating army in a part of the camp known as Kanada, in January 1945. The goods collected from the deportees, when they arrived by train, were placed there to be sorted through and distributed to the civilian population of Germany. The pile of shoes is designed to be symbolic, representing the footwear of twenty-five thousand individuals from one day's activity at the camp, at the height of the gassings.
So someone arrived at Auschwitz wearing, or carrying in her luggage, red high-heeled shoes, and this shoe is all that is left of her. When I visited Auschwitz, I was transfixed by the shoe, for it reminded me that the victims were once people so lighthearted that they went into a shop and bought red high-heeled footwear, the least sensible kind of shoe you can wear. They were human, fallibly human, and like us; they took pleasure and delight in the trivial joys of fashion. This anonymous, murdered woman, who died before I was born, would surely have bought her shoes in the same spirit that I bought mine.
Apart from underwear, more fragile and temporal, shoes are the most intimate garments we wear. They are imprinted with the shape of our bodies. Looking at the shoes in the artfully arranged pile at Auschwitz, I saw not a monument, but fashion. The fashion in the late thirties for red high-heeled shoes. So you have genocide, and you have fashion, and genocide could not be more awful and serious, and fashion could not be more superficial. Yet the woman who bought the shoes was not only a statistic of the Final Solution. Once upon a time, she liked to shop for stylish footwear. Whenever I have bought expensive, painful, unnecessary shoes, I have thought about her, the now anonymous woman who arrived at the camp wearing the shoe (and its partner) or carrying it in her luggage. She was not anonymous then. She had a name, a life. Freedom, in its way, was the right to buy expensive luxuries, to own nice things. Fashion exists, whatever you think about it. It's everywhere, even in the gruesome relics of an extermination camp.
You can't have depths without surfaces. It's impossible. And sometimes surfaces are all we have to go by. In the case of the shoe in the camp, that's it, there's nothing else -- not whether she was a good mother or a dutiful daughter or a medical student or a keen reader or a skilled chess player. The shoe is all there is, and it has its own eloquent language and says a great deal.

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Mom and me