The Shoe Project


Shoe Story 17: Thin as Silk

Shoe Story 17

Summary Trying to survive and help her paralyzed grandmother, Tanya’s mother worked hard growing up, cultivating millions of silkworms. She took care of them and then delivered her creatures to the factory,  to make her first earnings. One day when Tanya was nine, her mother left wearing black shoes, and said she would be gone a month. She was gone twelve years, emigrating from the Ukraine first to England and then to Canada, abandoning her children. But a thin silk thread joining their lives is not broken. After twelve years of separation, Tanya is united with her mother again, in Canada, although their intimacy seems to have been lost forever.

Born in 1965 in a poor Ukrainian village, my mother had an unusual occupation by the time she was twelve. She cultivated silkworms. This enabled her to help my grandmother make ends meet and also to buy new clothes that any village girl could only dream about. This activity–which seems obscure and otherwordly to me–lasted until my birth in 1989. 

My mother kept her first silkworms, which resembled poppy seeds, in a small matchbox. She fed them mulberry leaves until they reached the size of a baby finger. Every morning, she would break off branches from a nearby mulberry tree and fill a sack with them until she could barely tie it up. Using all the strength in her tiny body, she would carry the sack on her back right into the house. One whole room in my grandmother’s home was designated for the silkworms. Every day my mother used to cover racks with fresh mulberry branches as food for her millions. 

Soon after the silkworms matured, their colour changed from white to a pale golden yellow. Then they started to weave their cocoons around themselves. When the cocoons were ready, my mother would deliver them to the factory and collect her money. 

Recalling her childhood, she told me, "The whole house was filled with the odour of dry grass, rot and poverty.” As an unhappy child, she used to dream about the day she would leave my grandmother's house. With one disappointment after another, she began a pattern of running farther without looking back, even if it meant leaving loved ones behind. Perhaps she keeps running, simply to protect herself with distance from others, almost hiding, like a silkworm hides in his own cocoon. 

In 1998, my mother decided to escape her turbulent marriage, abandoning my father, my five-year-old sister–and me. I was nine years old. I still remember the clothes she had on: dark jeans; a green jacket; and black shoes. Although slightly nervous, she seemed cheerful as she suddenly announced that she was going to England. With her suitcase in hand, she left late in the evening. She promised to return in one month. Instead, she remained in London for nine years, visiting us only briefly once a year. Then she became obsessed with a new destination: Canada. We remained apart for twelve years. 

My mother's disappearance taught me that people come and go, entering one's life only for a certain time and role. The absence of love in my mother's childhood and marriage created an expanse between us. But how can I blame her? I know that any mother can give her child only whatever she was given. My mother had grown up in a cage. As soon as she escaped from it, she found herself in a different cage: her marriage to my father. How long can anyone’s soul survive such circumstances? 

Recently, after twelve years of thinking and growing,  my sister and I came to live in Canada with our mother. In this reunion we are not looking for love. There is no way to compensate for those lost years. The damage has been done. Nevertheless, I still cherish a gift I once received from my mother: her first pair of gold earrings, the ones purchased when she was eighteen with her income from the silkworms. Whenever I look at those earrings, and whenever I touch silk, I think about my connection with my mother: a connection as thin, delicate yet strong, as the unraveling thread of a silkworm's cocoon.


Tanya Andrenyuk

Other Shoe Stories from Session 2, Toronto

13: Democratic Shoes

14. My Grandfather's Gift

15. An Afternoon at the Abbey

16. Window to the World

17. Thin as Silk

18. Walking

19. Dance to Live

20. Irish Green Shoes

21. Treasure Shoes

22: Red Boots



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