I was preparing a post about thread-drawings when @SoniaBoue, @katemurdochart and I had a little twitter-shoe exchange and I promised to photograph a special pair of booties which, as you will see, in the end, in the beginning, set me on today’s trail. Re-reading and editing older texts for this post I realise that many of the issues explored are still/again mine, and that, in a way, my engagement with Edith’s shoes opened up writing for me.
Seventeen years ago I bought an old pair of children’s shoes stuffed with yellowing newsprint from 1941 on a flea-market in Berlin. They looked like two of a pair: same make, same leather, similar degree of wear and tear. But the left shoe was remarkably bigger than the right one, extending the length of my hand, while the smaller one covered about two thirds of it. Still I never stopped thinking of them as a pair.
The shoes led me backwards and forward in time. All the pathways that slowly unfolded and opened up to me are entangled, make up a dense web of history, of experience, of stories told and untold. Stories of mine and stories of others.
There are many reasons why the shoes continue to move me. They have obviously been worn extensively and repaired and repaired, with tears and cracks in the leather and lots of tiny nails hand-hammered in their soles. The way their confident asymmetry is so perfectly wed with two-of-a-kindness, without making a ‘proper’ pair, and thus the impossibility of restoring them to an owner, even an imaginary one, pierces me. But what derails me is their link to war-time, fascism in Germany.
Looking at this uneven pair I thought of my cousin Edith for the first time in decades. Edith was five years older than I and died when I was 12. We only met a few times when I was small as our fathers became estranged, but I found her again in a photograph, tiny against the mass of happy relatives: Whitsuntide 1956, my mother’s and father’s engagement, the whole family photographed standing in the park. Everybody smiles, my mother’s face is lit up like I have never seen it. Edith is four years old. She stands there, her little body so tense, pressing her hands to her middle as if about to fold in onto herself. While some of the women in the photograph wear sleeveless dresses she is dressed as if for winter. The coat with its little round collar is cut like a dress, only that the material is heavier. She wears a sweater or blouse underneath, the edges of which are just visible under the coat sleeves, and a pair of dark trousers, which in the photograph have congealed into a heavy black pedestal for a legless girl. I read pain into the hands clutched over her stomach and into her little serious face that is the only one in the photograph that doesn’t show at least a trace of a smile. She looks straight into the camera: a girl with a hunchback and one foot in a shoe with a high-raised sole.
I thought I remembered another photograph of her, standing under a tree on a summer’s day. I saw her like this: motionless, still, peering into the eye of the camera with a small smile. When I found the photograph I realised memory had played a trick on me: the smile is mine, I stand where I thought she stood, limbs intact. It made me wonder what need her image touched in me.
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