Good-bye white shoes

Labor Day is next week, so I’ve been wearing a lot of white these past few days. White skirts, white pants, with my endlessly roomy and indestructible Liz Claiborne white shoulder bag and most importantly, white shoes. White heels, white flats, white sandals. There are mere days left in the year when I can, if not legally, then at least morally, get away with wearing them, so I’m making it count. Every time I spy someone (who is not a nurse) wearing white shoes after Labor Day, I can my see my long deceased grandmother’s head shake with disgust, and hear her “tsk, tsk,” the only reasonable response to someone who would break such a hard and fast fashion rule.  White shoes after Labor Day? It’s just wrong.                                   

I was at KFC a few nights ago (I’m not without some vices and I had a lot of laundry to do) and while fighting with the debit machine that kept going offline, I muttered one of the many maxims about modern life that steeped my youth. The girl behind the counter—and she was definitely a girl, a cheery, friendly polite one at that—was quick to tell me that both her mother and grandmother had all kinds of funny sayings like that and how people just don’t talk like that now. Like they did in the old days. I weighed which I wanted more, my bargain bucket or to slug her. I went with the chicken. She seemed like a well-meaning kid and I am a person with self-control.

Thing is, she’s right. When we were children, people spoke to us in rhymes and witticisms. We learned to let sleeping dogs lie and not take any wooden nickels. We knew we’d see you later alligator or in a while crocodile. We weren’t fooled by the grass being greener on the other side, didn’t put all our eggs in one basket and got right back on the horse—but I have to admit I’ve found no evidence of the nine that were saved by that stitch in time.

It’s occurred to me that, homespun and hokey as these sayings are, I tend to use them almost constantly. When I take the dog out in the morning, I always glance at the heavens, knowing that a red sky at night is a sailor’s delight, but a red sky in the morning means sailors take warning and I take an umbrella. “Penny wise and pound foolish” rolls through my mind as I stroll through Costco. Despite the fact that I’m a trained editor, I have been known to quietly whisper “i before e except after c,” and while it feels dated and possibly racist, I know that if I ever need help to spell “arithmetic,” I can count on A Red Indian who Thought He Might Eat Tobacco In Church.

I also have to attribute reaching middle age relatively unscathed, healthy and with all appendages where they’re suppose to be to these bits of wisdom. I know that shoes on the table bring police to the door and that many of my generation are no longer with us because they either horsed around on stools, and fell and broke their necks, or failed to wear their jackets when it was chilly and died of pneumonia. Too, there are those suffered unspeakable injury as the result of sitting on the damp ground, or tragically lost an eye by running in the house near open kitchen cabinet doors or sharp-cornered coffee tables.

My grandfather said he had a million of these sayings. Now I realize it was more likely he had about 10, which he repeated hundreds of thousands of times. He was an incredibly intelligent man, who, like many born at the dawn of the 20th century, was denied a formal education in order to contribute financially to his family. He succeeded on wit and personality. He began work in a textile factory at the age of 12, and due to his youth, had to be hid in boxes when labor inspectors came around. When he retired from the same factory 53 years later, he was given a level of send-off usually reserved for astronauts and people who pull small children from wells.  While he passed away more than two decades ago, my memory of him is clear—particularly the one little ditty that he tattooed into my brain, the one that has got me through high school cliques and unpleasant work situations, nasty break-ups and the slings of mean book reviewers and arrogant clients. The rhyme that summarizes the highest level of self-protection to which we can all aspire in single line. The one that goes “those who like me, like me well, and those who don’t can go to….”




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