Saying goodbye is never easy. I have a tradition of once I have walked holes in my tennis shoes, I leave them behind at my favorite place to commemorate the miles over which I have plodded. Santa Fe, Rome twice, Boulder, and now Chicago. It is my way of honoring the places I have trod where people have shaped history… kings, priests, popes, servants, slaves.
This pair had served me well, but lasted only as long as it took for me to earn my degree at the School at the Art Institute in Chicago where I had walked hundreds of miles from one work of public art to another and back again while collecting the data to complete my Master’s Thesis.
This pair had started in Boulder, pedaling me up McCaslin Road from the city where throughout the years I had given birth to my three children, strolled hours along the Boulder Creek Path, kissed my first love, watched sunrises gloriously paint the Flatirons while shuffling through French or Latin verbs with my two dearest friends.
When I first saw those dull, grey, distinctively erect maidens enshrouded in mist, rising out of the green carpet surrounding them, I felt as though I had come home. My last glimpse of them over my shoulder after I had conquered the hill that even the older model cars my ex husband and I drove while he attended law school struggled to climb remains as equally memorable.
After teaching art and literature for nine years in a dusty town in the middle of nowhere (yet oddly on the edge of paradise), my position had been eliminated because of budget cutbacks. Art and literature: always the first to go.
I had moved to my dusty city on the plains, calling it home for 20 years, raising my children, volunteering, teaching, editing, and even pushing carts for a few months at the local Wal Mart during my divorce to earn enough money to go with my daughter and her classmates to Europe, her first trip, my second. CSM was my official title, Customer Service Manager. Newspaper Graphic Artist by day, College Instructor by evening, Customer Service Manager by night. Three jobs, not much different than my mother following her divorce.
My favorite part of my night job had always been pulling the train of shopping carts throughout the store to deliver newly arrived merchandise. Reminded me of the shopping cart antics my brother and I had when we were children, running amok after our parents’ divorce.
And yes, when my son’s best friend (accompanied by my too-pale, fearful children) came through the line at Wal Mart with singed eyebrows and bloodshot eyes from an attempt to light the grill with gasoline, I knew they, too, had run slightly amok.
Every time I would set out with my blue vest and title-bearing nametag with the train of ten or twenty carts attached together with the child safety belts, I myself was a child again, recalling the rattle and rumble of the races not against each other but against time as we pushed one another, reaching speeds faster than Superman, tipping, tumbling, laughing at the newest stream of blood dripping down my skinned legs, knowing it would add yet another scar on my too-skinny shins…and not caring as I jumped excitedly back into the cart, ready for another round. The shopping carts then didn’t have safety belts, attorneys didn’t have high-stake torts claims, and our mother was too busy working three jobs as a single mother to try to make ends meet during the recession brought about by the first energy crisis.
Oh, kids, don’t try this at home…
My first trip to Europe had been in part a result of those wrestling matches with French verbs, as I embarked on my Honor’s Thesis study trip that took my ex husband and I trudging endlessly through the streets of Paris, Ravenna, Florence and Rome in search of the art world of Henry James, chasing ghosts of fictional expatriates living in European luxury their meager nineteenth fortunes would have never afforded them in America. Louvre, Notre Dame, Uffizi, Il Duomo, St. Apollinaire, Capitoline, St. Peter.
And we found them, the Master’s ghosts, all at once lying beside a single prostrate figure on a chaise in perfect Victorian symbolic subtlety, located in a fifteenth-century map room adjacent to the sixteenth century woman staring blankly into space bearing a pendant proclaiming the nature of true love while absentmindedly holding a prayer book threatening, at any moment, slip through her fingers.
That was when the tradition began. I had arrived in Paris wearing a hideously bright yellow fleece jacket with a buffalo stitched above my left breast, about where my fingertips would touch if I were to be saying the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America (no wonder I had been poorly received by the austere guards at Galleria Borghese). And I was wearing a new pair of very white tennis shoes, ones broken in enough to be comfortable, just like the guidebooks had instructed. We had walked the bridges, the cathedrals, the chapels, the museums, the cemeteries, the monasteries, the train stations (catching our train to Florence in romance-novel fashion, jumping onto the departing platform after a quick dash to snap a last-minute shot of the tunnel where Princes Di was killed…a gift for a friend who would later serve as my high school teaching mentor).
After the hills, the quays, the monuments, the gravestones, the milestones, the fountains, the sculptures, the canvases and the triumphal arches, at the end of my journey when I saw the mile-marked tennis shoes alongside the 18 rolls of film, I couldn’t quite bring myself to bear away the dust of the sacred ground I had traversed. I took them out of the bag, gently setting them into the hotel’s trashcan, an act I equated to throwing a coin in Trevi Fountain, a gesture guaranteeing I would someday return.