This week, amidst a chaos of broken computer, deadlines to reach and appointments to schedule, I have been taking quiet office moments to look through some very old records recently unearthed in a dark and dusty corner. Very dusty, in fact. My fingers feel gritty after handling them.
So when things get a little too much, I take a breath, scoop up 20 or so of these cards, and spend the next half hour transcribing what’s written on them. The script is in beautiful italics, ink, where f’s look like s’s and g’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It took a good few minutes to realise that what I was looking at was ‘Longhorn Plough’ rather than ‘Fructating Implement’.
However some of these cards raise questions that threaten to break your heart:
Who was that child? The complete card includes a baby’s shawl, the gloves, a lace cap and just that one shoe. Was it the donor’s, items carefully saved in cardboard boxes and wrapped in tissue paper from their own babyhood? Or did they belong to someone else in his family? A sister, brother, daughter, son? I think its the one shoe that makes me pause. Why only the one? There’s an old tradition of baby shoes being placed in the structure of a house as a good luck or anti-witch charm, perhaps that’s where the other one is. Propping up a hearth or a lintel, providing protection for the inhabitants.
And in the end, I can’t know. I’ll never know. I pause for a moment in my work, wonder and worry about the child that wore the shoe, its fate. Think about the first pair of shoes my own daughter wore, how tiny they were, fitting into the palm of my hand, transforming her butterfly feet into things of substance, grounding her. I think about how she now borrows mine. And I wonder, for a moment, if that child grew up to borrow it’s mother’s or father’s.
And then the phone rings, or the door rattles and the questions go unanswered.