Pa polishes his shoes on Sundays. I'm five years old.
These are called three point shoes. He takes the surface layer of dusts off with an old sock and tells me. He squeezes a pea sized dot of polish on the tip, and dabs it with the other sock, still clean and thread bare in the toes. Then I fetch the stiff shoe polishing brush from the bucket under the bed, and hand it to him.
Now he knocks and spreads smears of polish with his brush until they cover the shoe like a thin film of grease. Now he brushes and polishes. I mimic his motions on his other shoe, he nods and smiles. We shine together.
Except the goo covering my shoe no matter how much I beat it with my brush or my rag. It stays stubborn like my older brother Joe, sometimes he won't do what Pa says even if he gets a few too many smacks on the bums.
Our tea kettle whistles on the old coal stove. I holler at Ma to fill the hot water canister. Ma never lets us go near the stove even when it is not lit because of the orange layer of rust covering it. The stove looks sick, I imagine it black, smooth and shiny one day in its youth, fresh out of the iron cast. Does it ever dream of those days? Of returning to its childhood home? I let Ma braid my hair, even though tears come when she pulls and tugs for hours. When I go out to play with Ying who lives next door, her older sister and her laugh and point at my hair and ask me who braided me.
It looks a right mess, they say.
I laugh with them, tears still rolling in my eyes, and tell them it's Joe who likes to make jokes out of me and my hair.
1940s, Pa is a child, running barefoot towards the Still Wave lake in the north most border town of PinAnn. He jumps in with his brother Le, splashing and plunking until they are both brown like the earth all around.
The earth is so rich here it oozes oil if you squeezed it between fingers, their Pa said.
But they don't mind that. The potatoes are good eating and rice plumb and that's all they know.
PinAnn means peace. This symbolism gets lost somehow in the minds of neighboring rulers. They won't stop invading the country this way or that through this peaceful little town, and ravage its people. Pa says it's because they covet the rich oil in the soil. They don't got enough soil in their land to shake out their fishing nets. Sometimes they get tired of eating fish so they covet our land.
The lake stays still, no waves. Pa's older brother Le joins an army to fight one of the wars and loses his life there. They don't find him, lost in the battle field forever so they bury his old uniform with a pair of new shoes next to the family farm. His Ma's hair turns white that day when those soldiers come by with Le's army uniform and new shoes. No one knows what or who he was saving his shoes for.
These country boys never got used to wearing new shoes they say.
Pa pictures the battlefield red, with smoke and gunfire and the life of his brother and his neighbor's brother and other brothers and sons from this side and the other. Tears of their mothers too, flowing without waves, still like the lake that won't churn. That means Peace.
Japanese, Russian, Korean, Chinese. Pa gets the parade of languages in his schools and counts himself lucky all he gets are soldiers standing with blazing swords atop their rifles in their classrooms making sure they learn their languages good.
Pa stacks his foot one on top of the other until the bottom one falls asleep then he switches, toes working while he peers out at the soldiers brown combat boots, shiny like the swords crowning their guns.
1960s Pa graduates from college and marries Ma in his first pair of shiny leather shoes. He saves them and polishes them every Sunday since, though he doesn't wear them again.
Pinches my toes he says.
But he smiles when he polishes them. Later we polish and smile together. He whistles strange foreign songs. Russian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese.
Years later he would listen to Beethoven on a used phonograph whose pin scratches. Even later during cabbage season while northern winds hollered outside windows Pa reads me Dickens by the fire while Ma peels and sections apples but all of us forget to eat them, caught in the folds of David Copperfield's stories.
Still more years later he leaves home for another land, his three point wedding shoes left under the bed. Unpolished.
Every Sunday I pass by their dusty faces looking up at me begging for attention, for the caress of old socks with holes, greasy polish and the beat of stiff bristle brush. But my hands fail to lift.
These days I wear traveling shoes to stay comfortable between constant journeys. Even my fancy shoes don't get polished. I don't know why but it seems to be the customs of another time, another world.
Occasionally I pass by airport stands where men sit high up in a lifted chair so someone can crouch below and polish their shoes with long rags dragged artfully back and forth.
I don't stop, lest I miss my flight, lest customs of new lands peg me crazy for ogling at strangers, lest memories flood, and tear ducts open.