12 minute read

WHAT SHE THINKS ABOUT WHEN SHE THINKS ABOUT SHOES by Ellen Notbohm

WHAT SHE THINKS ABOUT WHEN SHE THINKS ABOUT SHOES by Ellen Notbohm

My mother wouldn’t have liked me looking in her closet. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors, she often declared, an always-effective conversation ender. For all the years of my childhood, the door to the bedroom she shared with my father sported a sign reading no one under 21 allowed, and neither me nor my brothers breached the invisible force field at that door unless expressly invited. She wouldn’t have wanted me to see the still-life behind the closed doors of her closet, the nature morte, laid out there in dusty relief when the old hollow core door creaked open along its pocked track. But although she is only a few miles away, she will never return to this house, this room, this closet. The day had come for me to open those doors. No one else could.

And there were the shoes. Shoes upon shoes. Upon shoes.

The more favored pairs stood upright on the arched prongs of a metal rack shoved against the back wall. The rest of them rose from the floor in a Yertle the Turtle-style jumble, the newer and hardier ones on top, the crumbling, fading, silently useless ones on the bottom. And all of them, eerily turtlelike in their sameness.

Let’s talk about shoes, back in the day. Back in the day before everyone said, back in the day.

Back in the day, children like us didn’t have wardrobes of shoes. We got one pair at the start of the school year.

I didn’t always get to choose that one pair, or even get to have an opinion about them. I didn’t think much about shoes at all. I put ’em on, I walked around in ’em.

The one-pair thing made sense in my family, given my father’s comfortable but not extravagant income, and given the need to buy shoes for three children’s feet, growing like mushrooms and sometimes smelling like them. I didn’t think about how my shoes were in intimate contact with my body for most of my waking hours. How shoes are visible as all get-out. How they might make noises, groaning and whimpering and drawing the humiliating kind of attention a child dreads. How they affected where I could go and how I’d feel getting there.

I never had reason to think that awful consequences could befall me for having no choice, no voice about shoes until one year, a certain pair of Mom-chosen shoes became millstones. Shackles. Cement suckerfish.

Somewhere in my middle childhood years, my mother decided that my one pair of school shoes would be clay-and-brick-colored two-tone saddle shoes. I can still taste the revulsion in my mouth when, with those boxcars on my feet in Leeds Shoe Store, she made that decision. I gag on their sheer ugliness, their leaden weight, their utter lack of girl-ness. I was a girl child of the 1960s. I wanted to look and feel like a girl, a girl who wore Mary Janes, go-go boots, t-straps with teardrop cut-outs, red canvas sneakers with blinding white laces. I knew as surely as I’d known anything in my short life that the saddle shoes would rob me of that girl-ness. The shoes knew it too. They grew unapologetically heavier on my feet by the second. They saddled me, all right. In every physical and metaphorical sense I could not yet put words to.

Why didn’t I protest? Mom? I hate these shoes. I’ll be unhappy every minute I’m in them. They make me feel ugly. Please don’t do this. Why didn’t I point to her own caramel-colored sleek but sturdy ladies’ loafers and ask, can’t I at least have something like those instead? I couldn’t find my voice. My mother was a kind and practical woman. I didn’t argue with her, ever. I knew that to her, the saddle shoes were a triumph of practicality.

Durable! Rain-resistant! Roomy! I’m sure she saw nothing unkind in choosing such shoes.

But I must tell you. They weren’t shoes.

They were clodhoppers.

They weighed me down, not just by their actual tonnage and rigidity. What my mother couldn’t see was how those shoes added more tremor to my already shaky self-image. I was large and tall, and those shoes added yet more mass, their bulbous toe box hovering over my already adult-sized feet.

Look at my elementary school class pictures. That’s me in the center back row, a head taller than everyone else, shoulders slumped, one cheek turned away, trying to make myself look smaller. No 1960s elementary school class photographer ever thought that perhaps that big girl didn’t want to be the peak-of-the-pyramid focal point in every class photo, perhaps he could put her at the end of a row, one row down from the top, or even seated in the front row. It wasn’t a day and age where a young girl would feel dauntless pride of self for towering over every kid in the class, and the teacher, and sometimes the photographer.

Every day I wore those clodhoppers felt like I was serving a sentence for a wrong I couldn’t fathom.

I never forgot those shoes. But I can’t remember how I got rid of them. Did I finally ’fess to my mother how viscerally I hated them? Did I make a case for how they hurt my feet (well, they did, right?). Did I accidentally-on-purpose cause them to come to some irreparable harm? Did I grit my teeth until I outgrew them?

Somehow that desperately desired severance happened, but the scar remained: never again in my life would I wear a pair of shoes that I so organically hated, that hated me back with a perversity some inanimate objects seem to wield.

Half a century later, the memory of them came back to me, still leaden, but with overwhelming irony.

I had to clear my mother’s home of fifty-seven years after her move to a care facility. Her closet revealed what she could not part with: sixty pairs of shoes—all more or less the same style, canvas slip-ons, nearly all of them black or off-white, in stages of wear from brittle and crumbling to new-with-tags, like generations of shoes, with their lookalike DNA spanning the decades as they aged along with her. She knew what she liked, and she never deviated, not for fashion or special events or any other reason. Nothing I said or did dissuaded her from wearing ancient Keds Grasshoppers to her granddaughter’s formal wedding. No one made her wear a pair of shoes she hated.

Unless, back in the day, someone did.

Back in her childhood day, in the depths of the Depression, children didn’t have wardrobes of shoes. My mother would have gotten one pair, which made sense given her father’s being a kind-hearted dentist who accepted bags of apples and potatoes when patients couldn’t pay. My grandmother was a kind and practical woman who also needed to buy shoes for three growing children’s feet. She would have chosen sturdy, roomy shoes for my mother’s feet. My mother would never have argued with her.

Perhaps she couldn’t argue. See, those sixty pairs of shoes were sizes 11 and 12. What was it like for a girl child of the Depression who reached her full adult size before age twelve? She spoke of it often. I knew that pain so I never probed beyond what she offered. Did she go to school in gun-boat men’s shoes when no girls’ shoes were available in her size? Did she resign herself to a lifetime of little selection, which gradually ebbed to little interest, then ebbed even more to little empathy when it came to the shoes of her daughter?

Deep in dementia now, I can’t ask Mom what her feet cost her self-esteem, the name-calling that must have followed her around.

You’re a poet and you don’t know it,

But your feet show it,

They’re Longfellows!

Or, where’s the oars for them?

Violin cases, lower forty, bread trays, orange crates. She must have heard them all, though she never let on.

I need a picture. I know where to go—the Sears Catalog, the ultimate anthropology resource on 20th century American life, precise to the smallest detail. I easily find one from the 1930s online. Its vivid yellow cover features a portrait of a little girl with large brown eyes; the little girl and the stamp Chicago under Sears, Roebuck and Co. confirms that I’ve come to the right place. It’s easy to find saddle shoes for women. They’re “sporty” and “high style.” And, of course, “sturdy.”

They’re available in women’s sizes 2-1/2 to 8. A bit of further research revealed that the average woman’s shoe size in the 1930s was 4.5 – 5.

Our chaotic archive of family photos, some still in their 1930s gray-green Walgreens photo service envelopes, spill from old Marshall Field’s boxes, the corners split with age. See my mother, the adorable baby who grew into a cute little girl who grew into a lovely preteen. See the studio portrait of her with her brothers. See her pretty taffeta dress, her pert white anklets. See her feet positioned by the photographer, same as her older brother’s, crossed at the ankle as she sits sideways, leaning into him as he holds their toddler brother. See the shoes. Almost the same as her brother’s, black saddle shoes. See how her foot is two-thirds the length of her calf. She is five years old.

See her standing at the beach. The lovely waves of her dark brown hair, her soft and friendly eyes, her natural smile, her long slim legs. See her feet. No, you can’t see her feet. They are carefully buried in the sand. She is 11 years old.

Did her parents fret about the expense, in the dark days of the Depression, of having to pay adult shoe prices for a child’s shoes? How many too-small pairs did she agree to, on a salesperson’s promise that they would “stretch,” how much agony, bruises, abrasions, and blood until she buried them at the back of the closet and hoped against hope her mother wouldn’t notice? How dear the dreams of “ladylike” feet she would never have? How long until she learned to avoid the bowling outings her father loved, where the clerk at the shoe desk loudly asks her “WHAT SIZE?” and moves to the men’s side to get them.

When the moment came that Mom’s feet could no longer hold her up, when she fell, when we took her to the emergency room from which she would never return to her home, I saw her feet without socks for the first time in decades. One toenail extended half an inch beyond her toe, unyielding as a brick. When I asked the ER nurse to trim it, she said she could not, that ER staff isn’t allowed to treat anything other than the condition that brought the patient to the ER. Later, on the orthopedic ward, a kind-hearted nurse brought a special tool from home.

In rehab, where Mom exhibited the surliest behavior I’d ever seen from her, she scorned and resisted caregivers’ attempts to care for her feet until I appealed to the head nurse, who said she would do it herself. Afterwards she smiled while telling me about it, how as she clipped and filed and massaged, she talked amiably to Mom about having a pedicure, how it’s a health measure but also a treat she allows herself once a month. Mom scoffed and scowled. The nurse continued calmly speaking about self-care, and the satisfaction of caring for others—as Mom did as a physical therapist. This wasn’t much different, she told Mom. We help others, others help us. Mom could hardly argue that.

Now she is so very old. Her feet have borne no weight for more than four years. And now they’re finally smaller, the toes deformed from disuse. I watch the podiatrist gently treat them while Mom groans softly.

Those misshapen toes eventually develop an open sore requiring attention of a wound nurse—and even larger shoes. The nurse says Mom will never wear hard shoes again, not even sneakers. In a catalog offering adaptive clothing for seniors, I find “Solution Slippers.” They look a bit like igloos, their creamy velour toe boxes rising in high domes that won’t press on tender tootsies. The hospice nurse—before Mom “graduates” from hospice and lives on—dispiritedly calls them “clown shoes.”

Time passes. My mother’s closet is now bare, the whole house empty, the sixty pairs of shoes unceremoniously and unsentimentally dispersed to final resting places unknown. Thrift stores. Landfills. Incinerators.

And still I think about shoes. Empathy is what “walk a mile in my shoes” tries to teach us. Perhaps that was my mother’s gift to me, even if she wasn’t conscious of it, even if it took me half a century to hear.

A consignment shop owner had urged me to bring her shoes. “The cross-dressers love them! They sell instantly!” Mom wouldn’t have taken this as a compliment.

So I think about what she thinks about when she thinks about shoes, almost a century’s worth of shoes now. Encased in her all-but-wordless dementia, I can’t know what she thinks about anything anymore, if she even thinks in the narrow conventional sense. But I’m told that the earliest memories are the last to go. If I can’t let go of my own thoughts about childhood shoes, is it too foolish to hope that she can, that she did? In her final years, I am now the parent-child, she the child-parent. And like most parents, I now want more for her, for her child self, than I had for myself. I want her to be spared thinking about shoes.

Ellen Notbohm’s internationally renowned work has Informed, guided, and delighted millions in more than twenty-five languages. In addition to her perennial bestseller Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, three other award-winning books on autism, and her acclaimed historical novel The River by Starlight, her columns and posts have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent. Ellen’s books have won the Chanticleer International Book Awards Grand Prize for Instruction and Insight, Sarton Women’s Book Award for Historical Fiction, Western Writers of American Spur Award, and been named to the Grand Prize Short List and Montaigne Medal finalist list for the Eric Hoffer Books Awards, in addition to numerous finalist awards and bookstore staff picks in fiction and nonfiction.What She Thinks About When She Thinks About Shoes is a finalist for Chanticleer International Book Awards’ unpublished Short Story/Essay category.

Ellen Notbohm’s internationally renowned work has Informed, guided, and delighted millions in more than twenty-five languages. In addition to her perennial bestseller Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, three other award-winning books on autism, and her acclaimed historical novel The River by Starlight, her columns and posts have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent. Ellen’s books have won the Chanticleer International Book Awards Grand Prize for Instruction and Insight, Sarton Women’s Book Award for Historical Fiction, Western Writers of American Spur Award, and been named to the Grand Prize Short List and Montaigne Medal finalist list for the Eric Hoffer Books Awards, in addition to numerous finalist awards and bookstore staff picks in fiction and nonfiction.What She Thinks About When She Thinks About Shoes is a finalist for Chanticleer International Book Awards’ unpublished Short Story/Essay category.