Family Secrets

SUSAN MOWER

March 07, 1992|By SUSAN MOWER

I love going into a real shoe-repair shop and catching that first whiff of polish, glue and leather. For me it's like coming home.

In Frederick, during the Forties and Fifties, my father had such a shop. First he owned it, then he lost it and had to run it for someone else.

The details of my father's money troubles were not important to a 6-year-old daughter, but since my hearing and understanding were both acute, I could follow the basic plot of my parents' problems.

Usually my mother yelled, but there was one word which caused her to drop her voice. That word was ''debt.'' Her low tone conveyed a horror too great to be spoken aloud.

Otherwise, my mother would shout in anguish, ''And you closed the store on Thursday to go to the races, didn't you? You just put up the 'Closed' sign and took off.''

I don't remember that my father ever could answer her much.

The words painted on the store window which I could read myself said, ''Robert Mower -- Champion Shoe Repair.'' The letters were in curly gold script, highlighted in black. They looked elegant.

Men on the street greeted my father. ''Hey Champ!'' they called. When he and I walked together, he held my hand in one of his and waved to the callers with his other.

Inside, the walls were dressed in Cat's Paw rubber advertisements and calendars with blonde ladies drinking Coca-Cola. The shop was filled with huge, dangerous, oily and fragrant machines for sewing leather, cutting heels and soles, for buffing and polishing.

My father could work all those things with deft hands that never could be cleaned completely from the stuff of his trade. One or more fingernails were always split with a line of black tracing the rents and continuing on to outline all the nails of his hands.

On a special, prearranged occasion, I walked at mid-day from first grade at Parkway Elementary School to my father's shop where I ate my baloney sandwich as he sewed.

On the preceding evening, my mother had given him his instructions. ''And don't let her drink any Coca-Cola. It has dope in it.'' What exactly dope was I wasn't sure, except that it was another word in the same category as debt.

My father had just gotten a brand new, red Coca-Cola machine which disgorged green fluted bottles that I could drink from directly.

''But, Ma,'' I said, hoping to shore up support, ''Daddy can get the Cokes for free. Other people have to put in a nickel, but Daddy doesn't have to. They come out for free.''

I found amazing this bypassing of paying for what you get, but my mother did not seem impressed.

Next day at the store, I drank from a green bottle of my favorite brew. ''Only one,'' my father told me, and then he confided something.

''I went to the track yesterday. Don't say anything to your mother.''

I took a swig from the Coke bottle. ''I won't.''

His secret was safe with me.

Susan Mower writes from Towson.

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