A tale of my childhood, retold in celebration of Mother’s Day.
When I was in first grade, my mother became annoyed that she kept finding my shoes in the middle of the floor in various public rooms of the house.
At first, she dealt with this the way most parents–trying to teach orderly living skills and respect for others–would:
“Come put away your shoes!” Once I had been successfully summoned to the scene, she firmly but kindly reminded me of the rule: “Your shoes belong in your closet.” I would put away the shoes without much fuss…but the next day, she’d find them in the middle of the floor again. Her approach was not working.
You might think that the next step was to establish some sort of consequence related to shoe storage: punishing me each time I failed to put away my shoes, or having me paste a star on a chart each time I put away my shoes and giving me a reward for filling a row of stars, or withholding my after-school snack until I put away my shoes. My mother did none of these things.
She set up a meeting.
She arranged a time free of little-brother interruptions and told me that we were going to have a meeting. She had a clipboard of paper and a pen. It looked very official. We sat on the couch.
First, she stated the problem: She kept finding my shoes in the middle of the floor. They were a hazard for her because of her back trouble–she was supposed to walk with her head up, which kept her from seeing the shoes, and if she tripped over them she often hurt her back. She also was annoyed that I often could not find my shoes when it was time to leave the house because I couldn’t recall where I had left them.
Then, she asked me why I was leaving my shoes in these places. I explained that when I got home from school, my brother usually was doing something interesting, and I wanted to join in right away. While playing, I would find my shoes uncomfortable and remove them and put them nearby, because getting up to carry the shoes down the long hallway to my bedroom seemed too difficult and time-consuming. Then, when I moved on to another room, I would forget about my shoes. I also mentioned that sometimes the cat was sleeping stretched across the hallway so that I could not get to my room without stepping over him, and if I did that he would grab my foot in his claws, so I was afraid.
My mother and I each had learned something! I had known she was annoyed about the shoes, but I hadn’t realized they were hurting her back. She hadn’t thought about the distraction inherent in my coming home from school later than the previous year and finding my brother playing rather than napping. She had known I was afraid to step over the cat but hadn’t connected that with the shoe issue.
Next, she said we were going to make a list of all the possible ways to solve this problem. She would write them all on the clipboard without thinking about whether or not they would really work. Later, we would read the whole list and decide which was the best solution. We had a lot of fun with this, listing many silly ideas: “I could hang my shoes on my ears!” “I could lie in bed all afternoon instead of walking around, so I wouldn’t trip on your shoes!” At some point, I made a suggestion my mother did not understand:
“I could keep my shoes under the cabana bench.”
“What? What is the cabana bench?”
“You know, that bench.” I pointed to the wooden bench in the entry hall.
“Why do you call it the cabana bench?”
“Because you call it that!”
“No, I…oh, sometimes I call it the pianna bench.”
“What? You mean piano bench? That’s not a piano bench! It doesn’t have a piano with it.”
“Well, it used to go with a piano.”
“Well, I didn’t know that! I thought you said cabana bench.” [My grandparents had a beach cabana.]
After much amusement, we agreed not only that the bench would henceforth be called “the cabana bench” by the whole family but also that it was the ideal home for my shoes. It was about two feet from the front door. As soon as I got home, I would sit down on the cabana bench, remove my shoes, and put them under the bench where nobody would trip on them. I also would put my bookbag on the bench. I would always be able to find my shoes and bookbag, and I wouldn’t have to traipse all the way to my bedroom or wrestle with my closet’s pinchy door. Another advantage to taking off my shoes near the door was that I wouldn’t track dirt around the house. Soon my brother was using the cabana bench too.
These days, I routinely see home-improvement articles touting the virtues of a “staging area” where family members place things that need to go with them to school or work. I’ve had a spot like that in every place I’ve lived, and although I may call it “the landing” or “the coat rack” or “next to my purse” when I speak aloud, in my mind it’s always labeled “the cabana bench.”