–Made you look! Made you look! Made you eat your underwear!–
(Caleb-3 to Dad)
As a four-year-old, Caleb loved cowboy boots, though he didn’t have any of his own. Somewhere he found some hand-me-down boots, one brown and one black, different sizes, both for the left foot. He wore them everywhere, without socks, running in shorts and a t-shirt around the yard, whooping and hollering, digging in the garden, shooting his stick rifle, tromping in the pig pen.
My dress shoes hold their shine quite well for several months. But eventually the time comes when I need to polish them. Shining my shoes quickly becomes a family affair. It seems that the moment I open the can of polish, the strong smell runs throughout the house, as if summoning the children, and they in turn come running, each with at least one pair of their own shoes. They watch me patiently for a minute or two.
“Can I help you shine your shoes, Dad?” they each ask. Next, “will you help me shine my shoes?” Then, “Can I shine my own shoes?”
In the 1970s, before I can remember him doing it, my father made himself a wooden shoeshine box. He made one for me at the same time, with my initials carved artistically in one end: REB. The ends of the shoe box are shaped like broad spades; the sides slant inward and down to form a narrow bottom. The wide lid is hinged, and a cross bar connects the tops of the two spade handles. The box is stained a rich walnut. Inside the box sit various cans of polish: dark brown, light brown, tan, cordovan, ox blood, white, and two cans of black. The black polish gets used up the quickest, because I use it on every shoe to dress up the sole and heel edges. Mixed in with the cans are various old gym socks and toothbrushes. My favorite item is the wood-handled horse-hair brush made in Israel. Over more than 30 years of polishing shoes, the horse hairs have slowly shortened to about half their original length. But the hairs remain just soft enough and just course enough to give a perfect shine.
I formerly used the old gym socks, wrapped around my fingers, to apply the polish. But I grew tired of dark stains on my fingertips where the polish seeped through the socks. Now I use old toothbrushes to wipe the thick polish out of the can and work it into the leather. When I’m done, the toothbrushes go into the socks to keep the box clean. The polish dries and flakes inside the toothbrush bristles, so I vigorously work the bristles back and forth against the inside of the sock, both when putting the brushes away and when retrieving them for the next job, so that I don’t scatter specks of dried polish that stain my clothing and the carpet the next time I pull them out to polish.
I usually have enough patience to polish three pairs of shoes. The number reduces to two if the children are clamoring to help. Allowing a child to participate in shining shoes complicates the process significantly. I place the can carefully on a rag so that the helping child doesn’t smear polish on the carpet or furniture. I make sure he doesn’t scrape too much polish onto the brush to prevent globs from falling onto the carpet. I see that she doesn’t fill the crevices and holes in the leather with polish, like putty. I double check that every bit of leather has a film of fresh polish. I let them help with the polish for a little while. What works best is for me to apply the polish and to let them shine the shoes with the horse-hair brush. Nothing can go wrong with shining. Shining works best by placing one hand inside the shoe and passing the brush over the shoe with even, swinging strokes with the brush hand. The in-shoe hand turns and angles the shoe to allow the brush to shine every part of the shoe. I show the children how, then hand them the shoe and the brush. Their little hands don’t fill the shoe like mine, making it harder to hold the shoe steady in the face of the swinging brush. But when their hands grow, they will know how to hold the shoe steady for the best shine. Their feet will grow, too, and their hearts and their minds, and will fill larger shoes than mine.
Many times after church and our mid-day meal we take a family walk on Rabbit Lane. I sometimes forget (or am too lazy) to change out of my newly-polished shoes. Back from our walk, I see that fine dust from the dirt road has settled upon my shoes, covering the polish. A few strokes with the horse-hair brush usually restore the shine.
I find myself shining my shoes less and less over time. As my shoes age, I feel less motivated to keep them looking nice. I wear them scuffed, unpolished, and old. Some lawyers I work with never seem to shine their shoes. If the polish gets significantly scuffed, they simply buy new shoes. I wear mine until they are worn out, polishing them (or not) for years. Even an old shoe assumes new respectability with a fresh coat of polish.
I like the pungent odor of shoe polish: it reminds me of my childhood home and the aroma of my father’s regular shoe polishing. He kept his wooden shoe shine box in his walk-in closet, with his initials carved in the side: ONB. But not everyone enjoys the strong odor. I fret that if I polish my shoes in my closet, it will smell up my wife’s clothing. Maybe I should polish my shoes on the porch, or in the tool shed, or in the chicken coop, where the smell won’t bother anyone.
I have always loved the smell of polish for the same reason. It’s a happy, comfortable smell.
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Like my children followed the aroma to find me in my closet shining my shoes, I enjoyed watching Dad shine his shoes and, of course, learned by watching him.