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Ritual adds polish to family relationships

| Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007

It is late at night. Everyone in the house is asleep in front of the TV. I am perched on the last step to the basement, my favorite place to carry out this habit.

The routine is a result of a childhood experience. It is something that is best done in private and if carried out in the light of day, by a man of my age, might even bring about some gasps. It is a practice that brings me pleasure, and one that I am powerless to stop. Tonight marks the end of my son's final college break. His next visit home will be packed with finalizing plans for his future. To be doing this at this hour, on this night, is probably not right, but I cannot resist my need to polish my son's boots.

I was not always this obsessive about shoe polishing. It is a habit I acquired while growing up. Saturday night, in my family's home, was shoe-polishing night. To go to church on Sunday with scuffed up shoes was the first sin of the weekend.

When I was too small to handle the polish and brush, my parents carried out the task. Somewhere around 7 or 8 years old, the task became my own.

When I was growing up, we did not have a big selection of shoes. Many kids had two pairs of shoes, play and dress up. Your play shoes were your worn-out dress-up shoes that cramped your toes and could not take one more trip to the shoe-repair store. Your dress shoes, on the other hand, always had that fresh-out-of-the-box look because of the weekly coating of Kiwi Parade Dress black polish.

As you can imagine, the weekly shoe-polishing task was the cause of many challenges of parental authority. The battles almost reached the levels of homework, bathes and bedtime curfews. Each week brought the return of shoe-polished fingers followed by inspections from my mother. My dad was the National Guard master sergeant, but it was mom who passed judgment on the home uniform.

One Christmas, maybe around age 12, I received, from my then-in-the-Navy sister, a shoe-shine kit. Not exactly what every kid found under the tree on Christmas morning. This gift gives you some idea of how important high-gloss shoes were in our family. I was clueless as to how little money my family really had at that time. Our polished shoes were always a way for my folks to walk with pride. Their children's shoes always looked new, regardless of the family circumstances.

As I grew into an adult, I took this pride and the routine of shoe polishing with me. After a four-year stint as a shoes salesman, one motorcycle, too many years of college and then marriage, parenthood arrived. This change in my life brought with it more shoes. In truth, more shoes than I ever bargained for, and this is not counting my wife's shoe-of-the-month collection.

The birth of our only child, a son, brought an introduction to booties, soft-soled pre-walkers, walkers, multiple pairs of sneakers and eventually his first dress shoes -- a pair of black-and-white spectators for his first Eaton suit. And you guessed it, the duty of cleaning and polishing those miniature shoes fell on me. Funny though, this was no longer a job or a compulsion, but a source of pride and a connection to my son. My son was not going to be seen in dirty or scuffed shoes, especially if his sergeant grandma was going to see him.

Now, as I sit on this step, on this night, I look back on my son's growth. Looking into that Kiwi shoeshine kit from a Christmas long ago, I see the past 22 years belonging to my son. For each year of his life, for every major event, I have sat on this step, reached into the kit and pulled out its magic potion for success. His baby shoes that were scuffed on the toes from scooting around the floors of our first home were painted with the liquid white polish. His grassed-stained walkers that took him outside in the yard to play required extra work. There were countless numbers of dress-up shoes required to keep him in uniform for the local Catholic school. Each pair of shoes prepared for his formal dances received a special coating of polish that made them glow. His cross-country running shoes brought with them mud from the ages and blood from his blisters.

Now, just as in the past, in my hands his shoes make me realize that I hold a part of him that is special to me and no one else. This sacred ritual of polishing his shoes links me to each of his various stages in life and joins him to the legacy of my family who believed in always making a good impression regardless of your circumstance.

Tonight will most likely be the last pair of shoes I polish and clean for him. The boots I am working on are scuffed and dirty from hard work and practice. These, too, will bring home stains from the grass, mud from running and blood from blisters, but they won't receive any special coats of lustrous polish for dances, only inspections.

My son is preparing for a life of service and duty in the military. As I polish these boots, I become part of them. I will be with him every step of the way, connected tonight, and always, in my own special way. Soon, he will be commanding men and women as a U.S. Navy officer and maybe this last coating of Parade Dress will give him the confidence he needs, no matter what the circumstance.

Brian W. Casey is a freelance writer from Connellsville.

To submit articles for First Person Singular, send an e-mail to focus@tribweb.com or mail to: Susan Jones, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, D.L. Clark Building, 503 Martindale St., Pittsburgh, PA 15212

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