Yesterday, for the first time since I had hip replacement surgery in February, I wore shoes with laces. Black shoes, light as air on my feet, with grey and black laces that I bent over to tie into tight loops.
My feet felt more firmly supported in those shoes than they have in the sandals and slip-ons I’ve worn for the past several months. And as I went for my evening walk, my body moved with an easier grace because of that support.
As I walked, I thought about shoes. And support. And how the kind of support I need changes as I grow and change.
The first pair of shoes I remember owning were handmade Mary Janes, stitched from deliciously soft red kid leather. The strap fastened with a red button. I must have been three years old when my dad bought them for me. I remember being fitted for them at the shoemaker’s. His slender hands slipping the shoes on my feet. The snug feel of the leather against the arch of my foot.
I remember their smell of new leather. The way they creased at the top of my foot. The silky feel of their suede-lined insides.
I loved those shoes. I slept with them cradled in my arms at night. I wore them every day.
Then I turned four, and went into Grade One (or First Standard, as we called it) at Queen Mary’s, the big kids’ school. Where I had to wear a uniform, and white canvas shoes. No more red leather Mary Janes.
What happened to those lovely shoes? Outgrown before they were outworn, I expect.
Although I don’t remember when I stopped wearing them, there’s a red-leather-shoes-shaped space in my heart where they live. They’re all mixed in with my father’s love for me, his delight in ordering them for me. My excitement when I opened up the box they came in.
Those shoes carried me from toddlerhood to school. And to a succession of white canvas shoes which I Blancoed every night, and set out to dry before morning.
My first pair of heels carried me from girlhood to adolescence. They were white too, with long, pointed toes and a tiny heel, no more than a half-inch high. More the idea of a heel than the real thing.
I was fourteen, in my last year of high school. I chose those shoes myself, to wear to my cousin’s wedding.
I chose them; and my dad paid for them. Reluctantly. He didn’t think I was old enough to wear heels. Or pointy toed shoes. That he bought them for me anyway says something essential about the kind of dad he was. The kind of man he was.
Those were my lost years, when my mother spiraled into raging manic episodes, and our family spun with her. The centripetal force of her psychosis eventually flung my sister into boarding school, my father to business far away. And left me alone with a crazy woman who woke me in the middle of the night to sort and rearrange her closet full of shoes.
But that’s another story.
When I left India for good, at the age of twenty-one, I wore black leather boots with high stiletto heels. I’d bought them in London, on sale at Selfridge’s. Wearing those boots, I knew I could do anything. Leave home. Travel the world.
They were boots for the adventurer, the intrepid explorer in me.
Striding along the tarmac in those boots–which I wore with Kelly green leggings and a black mini-skirt–I boarded a Cathay Pacific flight at the airport in Bombay. As the plane roared into the star-studded sky, I didn’t look down to wave goodbye to the country I was leaving behind. I flew off to Oregon as confidently as a migrating bird.
Those boots carried me through my years at university. I had planned to wear them to my graduation, but I emigrated to Canada instead.
In Canada, I bought my first hiking boots. And tramped up and down mountains, as I had when I was a child. Sturdy, ankle-high, and made of waterproof leather, they moved me through an enchanted world that was entirely new to me. Through evergreen forests and muddy mountain trails, clear streams and breathtaking blue vistas.
When my first son was born, my feet grew half a size. I never wore size nine-and-a-half’s again.
Both my sons are winter babies. At each of their births, I wore woolly socks. The birthing rooms at Grace Hospital were air-conditioned, and cold. Those socks kept me warm. And helped me feel safe, cared-for, with a tenderness I’d given myself when I bought them, when I packed them in my going-to-the-hospital-to-give-birth bag.
I can’t remember the shoes I wore as I shuffled through those years of my sons’ babyhood, sleep-deprived and bone-weary. Mother-love blessedly screens off the mindless exhaustion. The diaper changes and night-time feedings. Leaving only a hazy afterglow of bedroom slippers on a nursery floor.
My sons’ first shoes weren’t really shoes. I couldn’t bear the thought of folding their tender feet into shoes. So, for a long time, they wore handmade moccasins, soft and lined with lambswool.
Until one day they were little boys, and their shoes were boots or runners, always covered in mud, smelling ripely of little-boy sweat. Piled just inside the mud-room door with the shoes of their friends, while my house reverberated with the shrieks and delight of boys playing.
But that’s a story for another day . . .
It was a sad day when I realized I couldn’t wear heels any longer. Not even the smallest, sturdiest of heels. I had a collection of them by then, lovely shoes that remained in my closet unworn, wrapped in tissue paper, nestled forlornly in their boxes.
One evening I invited over those of my friends whose feet are the same size as my own. Who still wore high heels, and attended Gatherings Where High-Heels Are Worn.
At the end of an evening of good food, and lots of laughter, they waved goodbye as they walked to their cars, carrying boxes and boxes of shoes.
And I was left with a closet full of flats. Which I loved, and was happy to wear. So why was there a tinge of sadness at waving goodbye to my high-heel-wearing self? The self who had disappeared long before that evening’s gifting.
In my fifties, menopause made the skin of my feet thin and tender. Some of my shoes hurt my feet-even though they had no heels; even though I’d worn them comfortably for years.
Another round of giving-away take a look. Much less fraught this time, much more “let’s get these to people who can wear them, and make room in my closet for footwear which supports me.”
What’s left now: Shoes that are kind to my feet. That feel as close to being barefoot as I can get. That keep my feet warm and dry in the winter. Cool and airy in the summer.
Simplicity. Comfort. Ease. Support.
There’s wisdom in shoes.
(Share your story about shoes, support and anything else you’re inspired to share. I’d love to hear.)