The Ruby Slipper Project

Foreword:

This is the home of the Ruby Slipper Project, an investigative photoessay memoir project I began in late 2015 which aims to explore the stories told in my family from one generation to the next. Until I feel it is finished, I will be traveling across the world, seeking out an immersive experience of my family’s most poignant, funny, heartbreaking, weird, and beautiful stories with the hope of inspiring others to do the same. The more frequently we do so with eyes open, rooted in an emotionally-sound connection, the more prone we are as individuals and as a society to cultural acceptance — something which cannot be undervalued in the current politico-social climate. And the shoes? Well… there’s a story for that, too.

Links are provided in the title of each ‘chapter’ below to the original blog post for each installment in this series. This page serves as a cohesively flowing home for the project in its entirety. If you would like to follow my journey and my other work, please follow my blog. Learn more about me or drop me a line here.


I. “It’s Not About the Shoes”:
The Ruby Slipper Project

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Turn it off”, she said, almost in a whisper. It was one of the bad days nearing the end, and the frustration was bearing down on her in ways her cancer had robbed her the ability to express. I could hear the tears gathering in her eyes, but she ensured I could not see them as she turned away in the bed which took up most of the available floor space in the already-cramped living room.

My mother made her swift and decisive way toward her, weaving through furniture and boxes and plastic cups, books, and folded napkins balanced precariously on footstools, through the living room in which my maternal Grandmother, Phyllis Granata Evans, was living her last.

The colours and light levity of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ had burst through the barriers of fate onto our living room television screen – a screen blacker and less dramatic than the silver one upon which she would have first seen those dancing, vivid depictions of lovable characters and yellow brick roads reminiscent of the gold-paved streets her family had sought in coming to America from Italy so many years before. It was one of her favourite movies, and something she and I had shared for years.

Something about it all had long captivated both of us for as long as I could remember, and more times than I could remember, I on her knee in her coincidentally ruby red velvet armchair, I kicked together the heels of those shoes three times, and as promised, I was home. The vibrant colours, the vivid imagery, the powerful, understated simplicity – it was beautiful.

We would delight for hours on end in Judy Garland’s character – and as we watched together, so she became a silver-screen embodiment of Gram. That same strength and the class of its delivery, the bravery in standing up humbly with what knowledge she had, acknowledging fear, and those big, brown doe eyes. Judy Garland had been every little girl’s idol in my Grandmother’s day, surely – but only I was lucky enough to know a real-life version. We knew the lines by heart, though after the first or second time, I was really only watching her. Her undying, enduring fascination with the film reflected a great reverence for life and a joy besides which she retained to her last.

As soon as I was old enough to ask, I received and cherished my own “ruby slippers” – a plain pair of red leather Mary Jane shoes bows on the toes which I wore at every available opportunity. Gram was always the first to remind me to click my heels together and say the magic words which would get me home.

            Cancer had also robbed part of her ability to communicate in her trademark, descriptive way, and the resulting directness was always a bare, minimalist version of what she really wanted to say and a reminder of the way things were ‘before’. But in her typical grace, she drove the disparity between communications past and present with great competence and careful consideration, crafting her responses thoughtfully but quickly in order to make the most of the changes like an artist working with a new medium.

Like a dance, my Mother’s agility and competency under pressure were among the only things she could give to ease her dying mother’s finals days, and she gave them freely with that singular goal in mind. Mom turned the television off at the end of an abrupt series of motions and with it, my childhood entered its final phase. “You want it off, Mom? Okay, she wants it off; Caroline, where’s the remote?” The screen went black, and then there was silence.

In my own attempts to ease our communal, hovering state of dread, I had been the one to surreptitiously stumble across those slippers, and like Dorothy, had found an unwanted assignment as my Glinda departed. Like my Mother, it was all I could do – flipping through channels, contributing to day to day goings on – all I could offer to our dying matriarch whose self-educated grace had held our family’s seams together even at their most vulnerable. And especially then. I was incapacitated by my inability to help, or to control the rapid passage of time like so much sand through some wicked witch’s poison hourglass.

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At the time, I was newly seventeen with plenty of the less endearing characteristics that brings, a petulant teenager prone to frustration and misdirection thereof. But she, of course, ever tolerant in her aged wisdom in her mid-eighties and having lost none of her astuteness to the disease which had rendered her housebound and living with us in our already-cramped house, had not lost her ability to recognise that petulance.

Once, as my Mother and I concluded an explosive, nonsensical argument concerning the criminal misplacement of my high-top Chuck Taylor shoes – too close to the radius of the front door’s inward swing – she consoled my overworked mother, saying with wisdom and understated humour; “Sandra… It’s not about the shoes”. For the years of her absence to come, both of ‘her girls’ – my Mother and I – would cite that line like a ruling from the Geneva convention, mandatorily preceding the apology for each regrettable argument of similar calibre. She was “Mom”, she was “Gram”, and she had our number until the last.

This time, it was too great on the compressed emotions of a moody high school senior – we would not watch our movie. We could not watch our movie, and that meant that things were not normal. I didn’t press the issue because I saw her pain, and so I saw her pain as it became ours. She did not want to show the sadness she would otherwise have been incapable of hiding, she wanted to hide her sadness to remain strong. She couldn’t bear to see us see the effect it would have on her, to see her in the pain her brain tumour never delivered due to its merciful placement. I did understand. It would – and had – become a sad thing. We would never watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ together again.

Perhaps she remembered the last time we watched it together where I had forgotten it without realising its value. Perhaps she wished to keep it in her memory for its pleasantness or more frivolous circumstance. Perhaps the memory of me on her knee was too valuable to replace with these unhappy circumstances.

For years, I couldn’t grasp the emotional magnitude of her request to simply turn it off, her concession to privately experience her emotions where I denied myself the same experience. I noted my Mother’s swift follow-through and tight-lipped silence. I reeled in shocked silence, I grasped at the absence of experience, thoughts swimming in a sea of vacant space bereft of the familiar comforting songs and joyful imagery, a shock like the missed step of a staircase. I walked myself through it a thousand times.

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In true Italian style, our matriarch always showed up to our important events — even shortly after brain surgery, and even for guitar recitals. 2007.

We had sat together in the silent living room on days just like that before, but there was never a lack of movement and life about her like there was in the moments which followed that decision – whether reading or watching my parents go about the day to day, flitting from work to chores to family time to sleep and back again to start each day, she faced the future as boldly as she had lived her past.

She died on a quiet morning as Mom and I slept on the floor next to her bedside in the living room – only after looking up one last time to be sure we were there, together. Mom put on Israel Kamkawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / Wonderful World”, and to this day, I can’t listen to it without crying every tear I held in during her illness. Her soul left her body on the holy ground she had built – she had given my parents a place to raise me in her tiny nine-hundred-and-fifty-square foot home which now hosted her death bed.

The days following her death were first years, then moments, and finally seconds. Time has since quickened the course of the hourglass, only slowing down for moments in which we choose to acknowledge memory, and within those moments, more are made.

At first, her absence made home an impossible place to return to by its original definition. No matter how many times I clicked my heels, no matter how many times I closed my eyes and said the words (figuratively and sometimes in desperation, literally), I couldn’t seem to get ‘home’, and my spirit sunk. For the years which followed, and as the world threw me to the wind as it does many young people, I searched for a path by which to return to it wildly, incensed at its evermore present inaccessibility, not understanding how to return to what I would only understand to be an intangible concept after leaving it.

I felt at home only when I lived within the memories she shared which so had made our own memories as a unit, and therein her laughter would surface in my memory at last. The bitter moments of her absence would teach me that, while you really can’t go home again, the power to do so truly is within you just as it was within Dorothy.

Three years after leaving the town in which we said our goodbyes and two after leaving the state I had called home for over twenty years, I came into the belated but clear understanding that home was not a place to return to – it has no familiar qualities, no tangible way of entry, no key which directly signifies its locked up return address.

Home is the construct of memory alone, of relayed generational experience, and critically, at the centre still, anecdotes, stories, and oral tradition. We are each the construct of innumerable overlapping fractured pieces represented only by the retelling of memory and buried if not cared for – the stories which make it across generations and ages which perpetuate not only our personal and cultural identities but our sense of family and so, home. Those memories transcend genealogical significance or pure cultural pride and themselves hold the power to unite the entire human race through the commonality of this overlap. A tale of adventure from one city to the next – a snippet of someone’s life passed down over generations will reveal coincidence and irony evident only to later generations, proving global citizenship and unfolding a valuable story to understanding our humanity.

My Grandmother was a champion of liberal ideology: she won her open-minded, humanist intellect through self-bought and hard won education. She was flawed as all human beings are, but she was strong, kind, persevering, educated, and all the things I aspire to be. She believed in equality for all, she listened to all, and she cared for all, and through her stories, she imparted these values on all who knew her. Her journey through life embodies the experiences which become stories and so build the house upon which a ‘home’ stands.
Our remembrance of family stories is of integral value to broad-scale cultural acceptance in a world which desperately needs reminders of it. Within these stories, proof of cultural overlap abounds, proving both multiculturalism and global citizenship at their most deeply-rooted levels – and proving to be a powerful tool in gaining ground on cultural acceptance. No person belongs purely to a single race or culture but instead are each the construct of every culture which has, even minimally, touched our own, and within our stories, those cultures deserve recognition. It is critical to our acknowledgement of ourselves as cultural beings to examine and revisit these stories, memories, and to embark on our own journeys towards self-discovery so that we can, in turn, contribute to the cycle. To place our pride in people, not in place, is at the centre of our ability to understand ‘home’.

I can’t go home again – not to the place I knew, because her final lesson has divorced me from my faith in place and instead seen me place my faith in time and memory. Home is all about me because of what she taught me. But nearly ten years later, it’s just about time to symbolically watch that movie together.

We are living in a world which could have benefited greatly from her presence, and so, in her absence, I found a pair of modern-day ruby slippers, and for the next year, I will be undertaking a project which aims to document the stories in my family through travel, photography, and writing – travelling all over the world in these shoes on a pilgrimage which acknowledges my own origins and exemplifies the global citisenship of humanity through story to prove that there really is ‘no place like home’ in the hope that others will do the same.

This is a journey through life in her shoes, viewed through the lenses of love and will to learn through which she saw the world. It exists to exemplify the confluence of cultures in our lives and to honour her memory by illustrating the multicultural facets which construct each of our life stories. And yes, Gram, you’re right…

It’s still not about the shoes.

II. How Van Met Phyllis:
Curley’s Diner, Stamford, CT

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Has anyone ever told you you have bedroom eyes?” He leaned in over the counter of the tiny diner and set down their food as her big brown eyes darted back and forth. For the confident, handsome, thirty-four-year-old veteran (a line cook for now), this interaction was easy, comfortable. For her – also a veteran, and savvy, but with a giddy laugh she never was very good at holding back – the interaction would have been a little less comfortable: she was on a date with another man. But my grandfather didn’t seem to care much.

That is the spark-flying story of how Van met Phyllis – the story of how my maternal grandparents met. Hers was an extreme caricature of a position many women have encountered over the course of history – whether to follow the head or the heart. She followed her heart, and like their memory, the diner still stands today.

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The year was 1948, and Curley’s diner in Stamford, Connecticut had been open for seven years, about the same number of years Van Gordon Evans, a southern gentleman with a strong jawline and an incurable sense of confidence, had called the north his home. There was instant chemistry, and through a series of events she never fully detailed, they were married six months later with their first of three baby girls arriving ten months after that.

My grandmother had an affinity for diners – frequently calling us from the land line of a local joint she had spontaneously arrived at to see if we would like to join her for a coffee, one of my greatest regrets in life is the one time I declined to join her on one of these occasions. But more often than not, we would end up in a booth at a diner, having a B.L.T., and talking about life: the future, the past, and the present. It was in those diners where I got my first sense of the world around me, of the community we lived in, and where she passed to me her unabatingly street-smart sense of class. Frequently, she spoke out against things she felt were wrong if the time arrived, but more frequently, she complimented that which she saw as good for the world. I gauged her reactions to the world around me partly in diners just like Curley’s, and in so doing, she taught me when to speak up and when to shut up.

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A Day At The Beach: Van and Phyllis enjoy the beaches of southern Connecticut early in their relationship.

Their courtship would have taken place as the height of Country-Western, Latin, and Big Band music led up to the birth of rock n’ roll. Most of their dating activities happened in and around the Southern Connecticut area where she had spent the latent parts of her childhood after immigrating with her family from Italy at the age of eight. But Curley’s diner is the stand-out landmark of their love story – itself as imperfect and inescapably charming as their relationship. The neighbourhood surrounding them abounded with visual disparity even then between the ‘rich’ sides of town and the poor, ramshackled places struggling with crime, violence, poverty, and drugs.

The diner was empty when I arrived, and admittedly, sticks out like a sore thumb in the heart of the increasingly gentrified Stamford, Connecticut, which in its efforts to beautify the neighbourhood has gone largely in favour of a more classic turn-of-the-century style. Skyscrapers and parking garages spring up all around, and construction sounds ring out in a clamour from behind the tiny parking lot, but inside there’s just silence. Across the street, town efforts to transform the neighbourhood into a bustling downtown are succeeding – it is a portrait of gentility with carefully restored brickwork and particularly-chosen lampposts. Black, Hispanic, and White workers can be seen ducking between the shadows of the buildings, working on construction crews while well-kempt Black, Hispanic, and White families enjoy the appeal of the restoration efforts below, driving into the city for a day of shopping while locals are an interesting mix of privilege and pain. But Curley’s is a quirky and quintessentially authentic New England diner, hosting senators, congressmen, and actors – DeNiro even filming a part of his film “Everybody’s Fine” at the counter.

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I love your shoes.” The waitress says in a very matter-of-fact way as she swings by the table. “Thanks! There’s actually a funny story about that – it’s kind of why I’m here”. I explain my Grandparents’ story and the shoes’ significance, hesitant at first and admittedly taken aback by the interior which looks more seventies than fifties despite the iconically original sign which still stands on the roof outside, but I am welcomed by her directness and interest. When I explain my grandfather’s opening line, she laughs and exclaims with great joy “I’d probably date him, too! And the Wizard of Oz is my favourite movie. Love it.

Opened by Herluf Svenningsen, called ‘Curley’ for his golden locks in 1941, the diner has been a stubbornly-steadfast icon of Stamford for decades, changing hands in the seventies after being bought by Maria Aposporos. It has, literally, made it through hell and high water: surviving everything from the flood of 1955 which left southern Connecticut drowning, to gentrification efforts which would have liked to do away with the diner entirely.

In 2007, then Stamford City Mayor and now Connecticut State Governor Dannel Malloy’s Urban Redevelopment Commission’s efforts to seize the diner under Eminent Domain in hopes of replacing it with an apartment complex lost to Aprosporos in a hard-fought and very public Connecticut Supreme Court battle garnering attention from everyone from The New York Times to CNN.

Curley’s didn’t ‘fit in’ with the sleek gentrification plan for Stamford, and the ground upon which it rests was valuable. It gives off an anachronous vibe: clashing heavily with the art deco style taking over the newly renovated downtown with its fifties charm and even more out of place seventies interior. Aprospros fought back with a card as political as the one she was dealt, using powerful alliances and the press to establish security on her investment – after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight government claims of Eminent Domain, the battle ended in Aprosporos and her sister Begetis saving the decades-old piece of history from destruction.

img_1196Aprosporos, a Greek emigrant with thick white hair and friendly eyes whose accent is as steadfast as her commitment to the diner, has garnered plenty of attention and support from Republican politicians and community members as a result of her public battle with Malloy, at one point supporting Tom Foley’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign for Governor in 2010, and serving on the Republican Board of Representatives in years prior. During his campaign for Governor against Foley, Malloy would later cite her involvement as a political move and claim no involvement in the Urban Redevelopment Commission’s decision to attempt to seize her property in Stamford.

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Typically, the Connecticut Democratic Party’s constituency are proponents and defenders of arts, culture, and humanist ideologies, and gentrification projects tend to reflect the democratic majority’s reverence for the arts and historic integrity, even across party lines – Willimantic, Connecticut, once much more of a heroin hotbed than it is today, has made strong and continuing comeback efforts in recent decades, presenting a swinging comeback which regards the area’s original features and historic value.

Today, restaurant is an unapologetically authentic homestead for the family clan – Maria and her daughter chat away in Greek as they serve the community. As she directs her staff, she carries herself with the wary sensibility of a street-smart mother, as though watching carefully for the next political move which may jeopardise the integrity of her legacy. She carries with her the wariness of her generation, looking out for her diner like a child from behind the front counter, ducking in and out of the kitchen in her apron.

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An African American woman and her son walk in mere moments after I take my seat – right across from the doorway my Grandfather may have walked out of so many decades before. In the quiet diner, she thwarts the boy’s requests for ham in his omelette order, explaining that it would cost more than they had — $0.50 more, to be exact – and that she had to eat, too. As they settle in and prepare to order, the waitress, who has overheard from the kitchen, comes forward to take their orders.

Excuse me, ma’am, not that it’s any of my business, but I overheard part of your conversation. This is the best value on the menu” she points at the menu, explaining the volume of food for one order. “Let him get what he wants. I’ll make sure you have enough to eat. I’ll put the extra dollar in.” She leans down to the child, shyly looking over his menu. “What do you like to study in school?” she asks. He responds happily, explaining in fragmented sentences his love of math, science, and community. He’s gotten loads of awards so far this year. He’s an area local, it’s clear he has no Daddy but he’s too young to mind, and he likes ham with his eggs.

Some time passes and a local comes in, greeting the waitress with a hug. They ask each other about business and he sets about getting some lunch. It’s the authentic place for the ‘real’ Stamford residents to come, where on the other side of the street, wealthy shoppers frequent the attractive, restored storefronts.

“Let me see if I can find something for you… Ma! I’m goin’ out for a minute”The waitress disappears into the parking lot. Moments later, she returns with two items: an old article from the Stamford Advocate featuring the diner’s story for me, and a toy truck. I pour over the collection of images, and information, and naturally, order a B.L.T., then watch as she takes the truck to the boy. “Santa told me you’ve been good this year”, she says, stooping down to deliver the gift. The boy graciously accepts, and the waitress returns with a smile, saying “you keep doin’ good in school, okay?” as she walks away.

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Curley’s diner represents a community through several parts of a very diverse whole, the underlying current of mankind uniting despite political, social, or racial differences to convene for one purpose: to enjoy some really good food and have a chat. Greek, Italian, Scottish, and Black culture, Liberal and Conservative, converging in one space with no animosity. Naturally, conditions are not always this idyllic, but for today, it was peace incarnate, and my Grandmother’s affinity for the American diner was alive both through her story and her legacy of acceptance. Their marriage was rife with differences – some more innately curable than others – but they loved each other, so they dove right in.

Maria represents a demographic which came to American in pursuit the American dream: much like my own Grandmother’s journey from Italy, and a demographic which is still very much alive and well today, but one which is challenged by hyper-conservative immigration reform proposals and adjacent media firestorms. When big business got in the way, Maria accorded with whichever political side could aid her in moving forward with her dream. But even with her conservative allies, she has not lost her socially liberal ideologies; serving food to the poor, sometimes lending money to regulars, and welcoming everyone, from white collar workers to prostitutes, to eat at her table. In the wake of the election, relations are tense even in the ‘quiet corners’ of Connecticut – but the American diner is still even ground on which to have a discussion or to learn about life from a stranger.

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Diners and community gathering places like them are hotbeds of human interaction: in them, we meet people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. Frequently, they are tied to the romanticised ideals of American road-tripping, and frequently, that is an accurate connection, with travellers visiting from all over the country and the world. They provide common ground upon which ideas and differing philosophies can duke it out, ground upon which humanity’s most basic interests stand, and a chance for minds and hearts to meet. My grandmother’s view of diner meals as an occasional luxury was due to more than just her depression-era frugality: she saw the educational, humanist value to the interactions which took place within them.

I speak with Maria on my way out, talking about her experiences owning the Diner and the transitions which have taken place over the years. But charity isn’t new to Curley’s – in fact, Maria explains that the extent of their charity – feeding the neighbourhood poor, hungry, and prostitutes, had sometimes exceeded thousands of meals a week. She explains her battles to secure her business, her plans to eventually renovate, to keep improving, and to restore the building to a more original 1950s style: big dreams which transcend her age or any battles she may face in future.

I’m planning to fix the sign” she explains, sounding almost sheepish. But as her daughter chats with the young boy’s mother in the background of our conversation, watching the young boy play with his new truck, Maria has no idea how perfect her diner already is.

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