It is a beautiful July evening on the coast of Maine. The sky over the small, largely deserted harbor is tinged a deep pink when we finish ordering our supper from a teenaged girl behind a mosquito-netted window and find a picnic table on the dock. My father, his wife, and I slide into our seats, and our combined six children (it’s a long story) race happily down to the beach to footle about until the food comes.
”Ah…” is pretty much the extent of the conversation for the moment, for the air is so gentle, the sunset so exquisitely mild, and the sight of the children down below so pleasant that chitchat seems superfluous. Around us, people in plastic bibs hit their food with rocks to break the meat out of the shell. Two diners have tied a dog to the railings and feed him bits of onion ring. Day sailors climb up from the boat landing to the mosquito-netted window and stroll away with bottles of beer.
Down on the sand, some of our children have joined others in ushering a small, scuttling creature towards the low-tide water. The older girls are bent over the wet sand, collecting bits of sea glass. Paris is laboriously rolling a seaweed- and barnacle-encrusted concrete block up an incline, and Violet is holding her skirts with one hand and with the other is delicately poking with a stick at something half-buried in the ooze.
“Children, five minutes!” I call to them. “Go wash your hands!”
Violet and Phoebe are the first to come up to the wooden deck. Their clothes are still immaculate but their shoes are wet, sandy, and stained greenish with sea muck.
“Ugh, girlies, take those off and put them together neatly under the table,” I tell them, thinking how unpleasant it would be for anyone to have one of these nasty objects rubbed along their trouser leg as they sat eating supper. The girls take off their shoes, put them under the table, and curl their clean pink toes beneath themselves on the picnic table seat.
“Hurrah, food!” Paris crows, arriving at the same time as a waitress carrying two giant trays of steaming clams, lobsters, and fish and chips. The other children have just joined us at the table when seven-year-old Tommy sits down, looks ruefully at his sodden shoes, and asks, “May I take these off?”
“Sure,” says his mother. “Fine with me,” I agree.
It is at this point that I become aware of a presence behind me.
“Why is he taking his shoes off?” comes a tense female voice.
I turn to see sitting at the table behind us a middle-aged, dark-haired tourist dressed in “nautical” clothes (blue capris, blue-and-white-striped bateau-necked top, brand-new navy raincoat with white topstitching knotted around her waist). It crosses my mind to explain about the seawater and the green ooze, but as our food has arrived I merely shrug in a friendly manner and say something along the lines of, “Oh, his shoes are wet.”
The woman makes no reply to me, but snorts and mutters something to herself.
I am, at this point, genuinely puzzled. “Why, is that a problem?”
She turns to face me and there is a tinge of outrage in her voice. “The kids will get splinters, walking around barefoot on these planks.”
Even apart from the fact that the children are all quiet, well-dressed, and not walking around anywhere, or that the planks in question are soft and weathered and no menace to anyone’s soles, it is obvious that this seething individual is not thinking of the children’s well-being. Nevertheless, I decide to take her at her word. “Well,” I say, with a little gesture towards the other adults, “we’re their parents. I guess
we’ll take that risk.”
“Fine. Good,” she fumes. “Let them get splinters. I don’t care.”
I turn back to her, amazed. “Obviously you do care.”
“Well, I’ve just never seen anything like it.”
“You’ve never seen children take their shoes off before? Outdoors? In the summer?”
At this moment, another tourist, bless her, walks past with her son and says lightly to my assailant, “Yep, it’s one of the best things about this place. We come every year. Kids can play barefoot, you can eat your lunch in your bathing suit. You can even bring your dog.”
Our entire table throws the woman a grateful look, but she has already gone. Still, it is enough to break the moment, and I turn away at last. Before me is a row of stricken faces.
“Unbelievable,” murmurs my father’s wife.
My father winces. “I’m all churned up,” he says quietly, and I know it is from the effort of keeping his temper.
Behind us, in a furious sotto voc, the shoe fetishist is ranting about us to her newly arrived husband. She hisses on and on and on. The husband doesn’t say anything.
“Mummy,” Molly says in a frightened whisper, “she just called us animals.”
I squeeze Molly’s arm reassuringly, but my blood is surging. Normally, in a fair fight, I wouldn’t hesitate to take on a dame like this one and trounce her. But we’ve driven for two days to get to Maine, another hour to get to this picturesque spot, it’s still a lovely evening, our food is cooling–and six pairs of young eyes are on me.
“Yum yum,” I say in a bright voice that shakes only a little. “Now, children, who would like to try a bit of lobster?”
In the car on the way back to our cottage, the children are still thrumming with indignation and incredulity.
“She was staring at us long before she said anything to you,” Molly tells me, “and at first I thought she was going to say something nice about the little girls, the way people do. But she wasn’t smiling.”
“Yeah,” says Paris, “and did you see her checking our license plate when we left? What was that about?”
“She wanted to know where we’re from,” I laugh. “Probably to confirm some regional prejudice. Or form
one. Honestly, what a cranky, ill-mannered old trout–
O qualms of conscientious parenthood! Even as I am airing my outrage, I know that I must, really, Do the Right Thing by the children and Set a Good Example of civility and magnanimity.
“–but I suppose we should be forgiving. Everyone is finicky about something. Some people can’t stand the sight of a milk carton on the breakfast table; milk has to be in a jug. Some adults find the very sight of young children provoking. And some people–”
“Should be called Ole Missus Shoe!” Violet says loudly.
Ole Missus Shoe was rude and aggressive–well, all the more reason, I explain, for us to behave politely and with consideration. And in any other restaurant, I go on, it would be grossly inappropriate to take off one’s shoes, and I wouldn’t allow it. But outside? On a dock? When one’s feet are under a picnic table (and when, in the case of the little girls, one’s shoes are a hygiene nightmare)? I cannot believe it is such a terrible crime.
“She called us animals,” Molly says, still horrified. “I bet if Daddy had been there she wouldn’t have called us that.”
She is right. “That reminds me,” I tell them. “Only three more days until Daddy comes to Maine.”
“Yay!” rejoices everyone. Including me.