Wily ghost that she is, she haunts me in odd ways. Improbably, the Moroccan slippers are one of the things that most often evoke memories of her. I had bought them in the Arab bazaar in Grenada, a city I first heard about decades earlier in her wistful accounts of the one trip to Europe she took with my father. My sisters and I were delighted when, after her death, we found her red leather travel diary from that trip. It was comprised of brief lists of each day’s conscientiously visited tourist sites followed by pages of lovingly thorough accounts of what they ate for dinner that night. Our favorite of her stories was the one about the waiter in Italy who, when my mother scarfed down roll after roll of what she described as the best bread she had ever eaten, gently slapped her hand and warned her not to get full before the actual meal arrived. Food was the only thing she enjoyed with uncharacteristic abandon. As a no-nonsense child of the Depression, she shunned excess or self-indulgence. Whether by inclination, habit or history, she was more dutiful than desiring. Or so I always thought. In her last decades, her hiatal hernia forced a reluctant self-restraint toward eating: the one activity she had reveled in unstintingly.
Longevity without pleasure was one of the many cruel ironies of living into her nineties. Like Tithonus, the prince of Troy to whom the gods granted eternal life but not eternal youth, she felt that she had outlived whatever joys she had known. Although my mother had been a professional musician, she no longer wanted to listen to music because she said it just made her sad. The only old song she still liked, no doubt because it was elegiac and therefore apt, was “September Song” which begins, “Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December/But the days grow short when you reach September.” But that song’s refrain – “And the days dwindle down to a precious few” – didn’t quite do it for her since “precious” was far from the first adjective that she would use to describe her dwindling days.
The conventional wisdom is that grief works in strange ways but I have nonetheless been caught off guard by the talismanic power of seemingly inconsequential things. It was only after I had gotten back from Spain and began wearing the tan leather slippers daily that I discovered there was a word for them: babouches. Although that sounds like the surname of a Groucho Marx character, the word is, reportedly, a French derivation of an Arabic rendition of a Persian term meaning “foot covering.” I discovered that not only did my slippers have an etymologically migrant name but they also had a history, detailed in several websites that described their provenance. “The traditional babouche hails from the Middle East, where Bedouins and monarchs have been shuffling around in them for centuries,” explains one. “They were fashionable amongst 17th-century French courtiers, possibly because their ultra-soft soles were suggestive of a devil-may-care attitude to dressing,” it continues. Although, being my mother’s daughter, I could never lay claim to a devil-may-care attitude toward anything, those ultra-soft soles were, indeed, the stand-out feature of my babouches. The simply designed slipper consists of three pieces of supple leather stitched together. No sole, to speak of: just that smooth leather bottom made for shuffling and a back folded down under the wearer’s heel to facilitate said shuffling. It was those smooth bottoms that led to the mysterious disappearance of my beloved babouches.
During her last years, she spent most of her time reading on her bed. She had lived with us for upwards of two decades by then: an arrangement that bemused my American friends but seemed familiar and right to those from cultures in which the distance travelled from one’s family in adulthood was not necessarily a point of pride. Mostly, our cohabitation worked although she did, on occasion, elicit a tetchy eye roll from me. That happened most often in response to her incessant worrying. Any sign from me of illness or sadness or disappointment would preoccupy her. Ever conscientious as a parent, she was an inveterate advice giver, notwithstanding my own by-then advanced age. So one day when, from her bed, she heard me lose my footing and fall on the stairs while wearing those evidently slippery slippers, she urged me to get rid of them.
As similar as we were, we parted ways on our opinion of the value of divesting oneself of belongings. She was a minimalist who knew few greater pleasures than throwing things out, whisking away half-finished glasses of water or winnowing down items in the refrigerator. I am a pack rat, saving things that I haven’t worn or used for years in the dim hope that I may want them again someday. If I couldn’t bear to part with pieces of clothing long since unworn or with books never again to be read, I certainly had no intention of relinquishing my cherished, if ever slicker-bottomed, babouches. Although she imbued in me her predilection for prudence, the peril of soft-soled shoes be damned!
When, some time later, I couldn’t find them, I went on an epic search, certain that I had shuffled out of them somewhere in our large house and would happen upon them in some unexpected place. It did not occur to me until well after her death that she had, out of an excess of concern and caution, taken them from my bedroom and thrown them out. It wasn’t the first time that she had taken it upon herself to toss out something that I held dear. When I came home from college one year, I went on a tear trying to find an old muumuu that someone had given me when I was in middle school. To me, it was a sacred, if tattered, object; to her, it was a rag that offended her sense of sartorial decorum and her self-appointed role as curator of the chest of drawers in my childhood bedroom.
A month after she died, and several months before it finally dawned on me what had happened to my babouches, I gave up the search and bought another pair on Etsy: bright red ones. Their vivid color makes me think of her with aching amusement. When my aging grandmother lived with our family, as my mother later would with mine, she had her heart set on a pair of red shoes. But my mother considered red shoes garish and unbefitting for an old lady, so she put the kibosh on their purchase. In her own old age, she told me that she regretted having done that, emblematic as it was of her lifelong penchant for saying no rather than yes to sybaritic pleasures. I suppose my choice of color, along with my insistence on reupping for another pair of what my mother considered death-defying footwear, could be understood as an emphatic blow against discretion and caution, or perhaps as my “yes” to living large on behalf of my sadly sensibly-shoed grandmother. My mother and I would have laughed together at the grandiosity of that claim. Still, I can’t help suspecting that, had she lived to see them, those red babouches might, like their predecessors, disappear one day without a trace.
Once she died, I felt instantly old. Until then, I permitted myself the illusion, viable only through the happenstance of good health, that I remained part of that catchall category of the middle-aged. I considered her endurance a sort of life assurance for me; while she was alive, I was out of reach of old age and death. But her passing made me admit, if not accept, that I had advanced one step forward in the queue of the mortal, with no parent up ahead of me to stave off that last footfall. And so I shuffle along toward my own senescence, babouche-shod but orphaned and dispossessed. Shambling onward, I hum my own September song under my breath because I am too wary of the walk to sing it out loud.
Julie Levinson is Professor of Film at Babson College. She is the author of The American Success Myth on Film, editor of Alexander Payne: Interviews and co-editor of Acting: Behind the Silver Screen. Her publications in journals and edited collections focus on a wide range of topics including cultural history, genre and gender, documentary film, and metafiction. She has been a film curator for museums, film festivals and other arts organizations.