“Papa, tell me your comin’ over story again,” Lelah begged. While her Papa worked,
she loved to sit in his shop and listen to his tales. Her Papa was Christopher Nelme,
the best cordwainer in all of Virginia territory.
“Just a minute, Little One, I’m working on a difficult part right now.”
Lelah looked all around. Having crawled in here since being a baby, she intimately
knew every wooden shelf, stool, and floor plank made by Papa’s own hands. She
breathed deep and sighed. The shop’s fragrance seeped into every crack and crevice,
into every fiber of the humble establishment. Papa wore that scent home every night,
filling the cabin with the essence of his livelihood.
“All right, Sweet Pea.” Never missing a stitch, Christopher began the account once
more. “Your Mama and I prayed, asking God for guidance and soon found ourselves
boarding the Margaret at Bristol on September 15, 1619. Along with blacksmiths,
carpenters, tanners, brickmen, laboring men of all sorts, we left the safety of all we
knew in England, placed ourselves in God’s loving hands, and put to sea for this new
Virginia. We were given two years wages in advance and a promise of 70 acres of land
once we arrived here in Jamestown.
“I brought with me thread, awls, pitch, and rosin. And one thousand three-penny
hobnails and two thousand sparrowbills.”
Lelah giggled. She had always thought the tiny nails that held the soles on without
gouging the heels had such a funny name.
“We were a long time on the Margaret, but she held through storms and high seas. I
toiled the whole while we sailed and arrived with two hundred pairs of new shoes and a
few sanctified souls too. We landed without incident and found the people charming
and very eager for new footwear. You see, a few years earlier they’d had The Starving
Time and were so hungry they’d boiled their leather shoes for soup!” With a grin he
added, “along with a few cats, mice, and other unmentionables.”
Lelah always wondered what the other unmentionables were, but when she asked
Papa once he refused to say.
Her attention faded at this point as she again inhaled the bouquet of the freshly tanned
skins used in crafting shoes. Each leather had a unique smell. To make the leather
firm some had to be saturated and put on a last, a rounded oblong block of wood used
to mold the leather to fit a human foot. Lelah loved to play with all the different sized
blocks. She would build a tower, but Papa invariably seemed to need some lasts and
her towers were never as lofty as she might like to fashion.
Another type of leather was boiled, but not for eating, she laughed to herself, because it
made the leather hard as wood. Old Mrs. Merriweather liked shoes like that, stiff just
like her jaw and pursed lips when she sat in church or saw the kids chasing her cat.
But the leathers that Lelah liked best were those treated with oils. The perfume of the
oils was so delightful and they made the leather soft as a cloud. That’s what Papa used
to make her shoes. It didn’t matter to Lelah that they were also water resistant, she’d
really prefer they weren’t. Then she could get her feet wet when she splashed in rain
“Are you listening, Lelah?” probed Papa into her reveries.
“Your Mama and I first built our cabin and then this little shop. We were thankful I had
apprenticed to become a cordwainer in England. The people here were so needy,
some were wearing tree bark held on with rags to protect their feet.
“Their souls were needy too. God truly sent us here that we might put shoes on their
feet during the week and fit their feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace on the
Sabbath,” Papa finished with a broad grin.
“Papa, you’re not only the best shoemaker in all of Virginia, you’re also the best
Lelah giggled as her Papa picked her up. She held on with arms and legs as he swung
her about and then carried her out of the shop toward their cabin. “Mmmm, how I love
that smell,” she thought as she snuggled down into Papa’s neck. That wonderful
fragrance that wound itself all about him, portraying who he was, her Papa, the best
cordwainer in the world!
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