With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When I was thirteen, every cool kid in school wore brown, six-eye Doc Martens boots. The specifics were important; Black Docs meant you were goth. Twelve-eye Docs meant you were weird. But brown, six-eye Docs meant you were cool.
I didn’t own a pair, because my parents couldn’t afford them. The cheapest Docs cost more than a hundred dollars, and my parents had filed for bankruptcy due to medical bills. My mother hadn’t bought herself a new pair of shoes in six years.
I didn’t ask for Docs, but I must have talked about them, because one Saturday morning my mother woke me up early. “Get dressed,” she said. “We’re going to the mall.”
She took me straight to a trendy clothing store that carried Docs in every color and size.
“What size are you? Six?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said excitedly.
If I had been a better kid, I would have demurred or at least promised to do extra chores. But my only thought was of how popular these shoes would make me. Never mind that I had a bad highlight job in my hair and my mother applied my makeup. I would be cool.
I wore the shoes to school that Monday. No one even noticed. My life stayed exactly the same. Soon every dork like me had a pair.
I forgot about my Docs until years later, when I was in college and saw a boy wearing a pair. By then they were woefully out of style. The next time I called home, I asked my mother how she’d been able to afford the shoes.
She hadn’t eaten lunch for three months, she said. She had gone without a new coat. She’d kept the money under her mattress.
The day she’d bought them, she remembered, I’d put them on and walked around the neighborhood with a powder compact in my pocket, as proud as could be.
“You were so happy,” she said. “You looked beautiful.”
I treasure my shoes, as well I should; they cost me more than two months’ pay.
I work for a dollar a day here in prison. The state-issue boots, made of stiff, unforgiving leather, almost ruined my feet before I could save enough to buy some running shoes. Have you seen that old Life magazine photograph of the kid during the Depression grasping a new pair of shoes and smiling so hard his eyes are almost shut? My elation was not quite at that level, but it was close when I was finally able to get rid of those crippling state boots.
I keep my new shoes immaculate. In society they would be cheap and disposable, an off-brand, nothing special, but in here they are a coveted commodity. I must be vigilant when not wearing them, or they may be stolen. Heck, I am vigilant while I’m wearing them. You learn quick in here that if some big goon points to your shoes and asks, “What size are those?” you tell him, “My size.”
As a girl I lived with my father and was desperate for his attention, but he seemed too busy to notice me. So I rebelled. In middle school I grew my fingernails long and painted them the brightest colors I could find. Next came the hair dyeing: purple, pink, green, and finally half black, half blond. Then an obsession with body piercings — twenty in all by the time I turned seventeen.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I transformed myself once more, this time into a hippie. I started making my own clothes, eating wholesome food, and giving “free hugs,” and I stopped shaving my legs and armpits and using deodorant. I also stopped wearing shoes. It didn’t matter where I was — shopping at a grocery store or dancing at a music festival or hiking in the woods — my feet were bare.
On the first day of class in my senior year, I arrived late, stoned, and barefoot. My history teacher, Mr. Brown, kicked me out and told me not to come back without shoes. That was fine with me, since I didn’t really want to be in school anyway.
When Mr. Brown and my other teachers realized that, rather than wear shoes, I’d stopped coming to class, they complained to the principal. It just so happened that he had recently relocated to our small town from the Bronx, New York, and a barefoot student was small beans to him. At least I voluntarily showed up for school.
When graduation day finally arrived, I was informed I would not receive my diploma if I showed up at the ceremony barefoot. As you can guess, I wore a daisy-painted cap, a hand-stitched silk dress, and no shoes. Onstage, as I shook the hand of the school-board president, I looked down and saw that she had removed her high heels to hand me my diploma.
Afterward she told me that she’d wanted to go barefoot to her high-school graduation, but she hadn’t had the courage.
Lake Placid, New York
My Chinese great-grandmother had bound feet. When she was a girl, it had been common for well-to-do families in China to bind the female children’s feet, breaking the arches and producing a foot that, even fully grown, measured only three inches in length. The tips of my great-grandmother’s toes were barely visible at the bottom of her ankle-length cotton dress. She had several pairs of embroidered silk shoes so tiny that even my six-year-old feet couldn’t fit in them. Most of her shoes — along with other expensive clothes and jewelry — had been seized by the Communist government, which had outlawed foot binding, and those few pairs she’d managed to keep were precious to her. In her room she would hold them close to her heart, lost in nostalgia.
My great-grandmother rarely spent time outside the house. When she did take a short stroll through the neighborhood, she would ask me to accompany her as “an additional crutch”: she would grasp my shoulder in one hand, her real cane in the other. Bored with her snail’s pace, I would soon run off, dashing half a block before skipping back to her. An unsympathetic brat, I laughed and teased her as she stood helplessly on the street, legs trembling.
East Lansing, Michigan
I always struggle to find summer activities for my son, Chase, who is blind and in a wheelchair. A few years ago his physical therapist told me about an outdoor day camp she’d founded, where typical kids play alongside children with special needs. She said they offered golf, baseball, archery, karate, and swimming. I eagerly signed Chase up. Now, when other parents asked me what my son was doing over the summer, I could reply, “He’s going to camp,” just like the rest of them.
At the end of Chase’s first day at camp, I looked down in disbelief at my son’s feet. “Oh, my God, Chase,” I said, “your shoes are covered in mud!”
His counselor apologized profusely and explained that Chase had chosen, with the help of his physical therapist, to get out of his wheelchair to play tag, and the ground had been muddy.
She misunderstood. I wasn’t mad. I was so happy, I almost cried. It was the first time my son had gotten his shoes dirty.
In our twenties my sister and I backpacked through Europe together. We stayed awhile in the Italian seaside town of San Terenzo, where the youth hostel was in an ancient stone castle. The proprietor gave us a stern lecture: “We lock gates at 10 PM. You outside castle, we not let you in. You sleep outside all night. No exception! No money back!”
On the way into town we met two Australian guys who were also staying at the hostel. Within ten minutes it was clear that the more handsome one had chosen my sister, whose big breasts and blond hair held sway on domestic and foreign soils alike. I resigned myself to drink more wine and make the best of it with the other one.
But at dinner my sister was distracted and left the table several times to make long-distance calls to her ex-fiancé, with whom she may or may not have still been in love. In her absence I spread my flirtations freely around the table, and by the time we were ascending the steep stone steps to the hostel, I was holding the hand of my sister’s guy, and she was striding ahead with her arms tightly crossed.
We made it back just before the 10 PM lockdown. My new Australian friend whispered a rushed farewell, promising to meet me on the rooftop in half an hour with a bottle of wine. Then the old proprietor shooed us to our separate male and female dorms.
I got into bed fully clothed.
“You’d better not,” my sister said.
“What?” I asked, picking up a novel that I was too drunk to read.
“You’ll get us kicked out.”
“Whatever,” I said.
I pulled the blanket up to my chest to cover my clothes, but the proprietor eyed me suspiciously before switching off the lights and slamming the door. I listened for a long time, waiting for silence. I longed for the sweet, salty night air and the strong arms of the Aussie stranger. I couldn’t remember his name, but I remembered the lazy wave of his dirty-blond hair, the frayed edges of his khaki shorts.
I must have fallen asleep, because I woke up and found the castle dead quiet. Damn it! I stood unsteadily, still feeling the effects of the wine. I crept into the hallway and took each step of the spiral staircase to the men’s dorms in slow motion.
There were three rooms for the men. In the first I could see only silhouettes and couldn’t make out faces. Not knowing the boy’s name, I couldn’t whisper for him. I padded around the bunks trying to see faces until I tripped over something — a pair of shoes. That was it! I remembered he wore trendy green-and-brown suede sneakers. I crawled around, groping for the shoes at the end of each bunk. It was too dark to see colors, so I felt the textures and flexed the arches while the sleeping men breathed heavily all around me.
Having no luck, I went on to the next room. The sliver of a moon cast its light slightly brighter in there, and I walked from bed to bed, reaching down to check the shoes. But none belonged to my Australian. There was a distinct musk of a dozen male bodies, vulnerable, half naked, and unaware. My mouth was dry and tasted stale, and, suddenly realizing that it was too late and I was too drunk, I retreated to my bed.
When I was thirteen, my mother got me a pair of tan orthopedic shoes. She said I was slightly pigeon-toed, and wearing them would straighten my feet. I hated everything about those shoes: their oatmeal-vomit color, their “ultra durable” faux leather, their thick laces, their clownish square toes. They made me feel ugly.
Despite my athletic abilities, my mother wouldn’t let me participate in high-school sports. She insisted I’d become too “mannish,” and boys wouldn’t like me. I didn’t care. I was already strangely attracted to Susie M., though I couldn’t fathom talking to her, in part because my self-image had been decimated by my hideous corrective shoes. I desperately wanted to get fun shoes with high heels or platforms or pointy toes, but my mother rejected my pleas.
Many pairs of sensible shoes later, my toes were straightened out, but I wasn’t. I’d married a kind man and had two children with him, but there is only so much correction and redirection a woman can tolerate.
After fifteen years of marriage, I bought a pair of leopard-print Doc Martens and told my husband I thought I might be just a little bit attracted to women. He gave me a hug and said everything would work out. Relieved, I went shoe shopping, gradually filling my closet with spike-heeled boots, red stilettos, and pointy-toed pumps. Every single pair was excruciatingly painful. Yet I wore them all, enduring blisters, strained ankles, suffocated toes, and embarrassing stumbles.
Instead of bolstering my confidence, my new shoes turned me into a high-heeled joke. I came to realize that it wasn’t the shoes that made me uncomfortable. My own skin did.
I went for a long barefoot stroll on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Every time the bottom of my foot met the cool rough ground, I acknowledged the truth: Left. “I’m gay.” Right. “I’m gay.” Left. “I’m gay.” And I started to feel steady, strong, brave. I was moving forward, one shoeless step at a time.
Los Angeles, California
Exhausted after a twenty-three-hour flight, I peel off my heavy hiking boots the second I enter my apartment. They are still dusty, with traces of cow dung: Mongolian souvenirs.
In 2008 I was hired to shoot a documentary about street children in Ulaanbaatar, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with one boy. Now, six trips later, I call five kids “my children.” When in Mongolia, I live with them in a yurt, shovel manure, and cook three meals a day. That life couldn’t be more opposite from my New York filmmaking existence, but out there in the steppe with my children, I feel a contentment that the city now denies me.
I want both worlds, so I put my dirty boots back on and go out for a drink at my regular bar. My friends shake their heads and smile when they see my country footwear. As long as I wear my boots, part of me is still in Mongolia. I cannot be fully converted back into my New Yorker self in these unfashionable, practical, dirt-welcoming shoes.
When I can’t keep my eyes open any longer, I go home and lie down in bed, my feet dangling over the edge, my boots still on.
New York, New York
My dead father’s shoes came to me as a gift, and a burden, when I was twelve.
“You’re almost a man,” my widowed mother told me. “These were your father’s things. Now they belong to you.”
She presented me with his gold watch (the initials on the back were the same as mine), his silver trumpet, his banjo, and finally his shiny shoes.
“Your father shined them every day, sometimes twice,” my mother said. “Try them on.”
They were a little large.
This was during the Great Depression. My mother had just finished paying for my father’s tombstone after eight years. She intended to make me into what he had been: top of his class, a musician, an extrovert.
To me he was a god. How could I become him?
Within a month I’d lost the watch. I plinked the banjo strings once. I could not bring myself even to put my lips on the mouthpiece of the trumpet. I waded through enough mud puddles in my father’s shoes to remove the shine. They never did fit.
But decades later, I wish I still had the shoes.
I was born without a fibula, the smaller of the two major leg bones below the knee. It runs parallel to the larger bone, the tibia, and the two meet at the ankle.
As a little boy I was sent away for months at a time to a hospital, because in addition to not having a fibula, my right leg was four inches shorter than my left. To correct the discrepancy, I had a series of leg-lengthening procedures over a decade. Surgeons sawed the tibia in half, drove spikes through the two pieces, and then each day turned the spikes with a wrench, pulling the broken bone in opposite directions until I couldn’t take the pain. (That’s how they knew when to stop; it was hardly an exact science.) After each operation my leg was placed in a cast until the next surgery, and bone was allowed to grow into the gap.
I’ve since learned that there is a medical term for my condition: “fibular hemimelia.” As a boy I was called “crippled.” A generation earlier I would’ve been “lame,” and I secretly preferred this more romantic term. Before each of my operations my father read to me from the King James Bible in his soft, Baptist preacher’s voice about how Jesus had made the lame leap.
The transcendent moment of my life was the day the doctor told me I was healed: No more operations. No more custom-made shoes with built-up soles. Ever.
I went out immediately and bought my very first pair of running shoes. I may even have leapt.
Last spring my shoes began wearing down in an odd way. I could no longer stand for more than short periods, could not walk a city block without pain. At age forty-nine my feet — both of them — are collapsing in on themselves. I’m walking almost on the sides rather than on the soles. Expensive shoes serve me little more than four months, and cheap ones wear out in six weeks. If the fit is not perfect, a sore blooms on the inside of my foot, or the thin flesh over my ankle begins to weep. I’m considering having shoes custom-made again, yet I hesitate because I’m proud. I fear, almost more than the degeneration of my feet, that I will live the rest of my life as a grotesque figure, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, a character I’d identified with as a boy.
I don’t know how to accept this. I struggle to uncover some profound meaning in my situation: Perhaps I was given these feet to tame my self-centeredness and vanity. Perhaps my feet are meant to help me empathize with others’ pain.
Flannery O’Connor was once asked by an earnest college teacher to explain the meaning of the Misfit’s hat in her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” “To cover his head,” she said. Maybe my feet are not meant to shame or teach me. Maybe the meaning of my shoes is simply to cover my feet.
Salem, New York
When I met my husband ten years ago in his homeland, I was attracted by his kindness, his attentiveness, and his curiosity about the world beyond his small island nation. Ironically, given all our differences — native languages, skin color, religion, education, income, and the political systems under which we’d grown up — it was a pair of sandals that caused our first dispute.
A few days after Fernando and I had met, he invited me to a friend’s birthday party. When he arrived at my host family’s house to pick me up, he looked down at the fancy black sandals I was wearing and asked, “Are you going to wear those?”
He wished I would wear the more casual, closed-toe shoes he’d seen me in before. He had on Docksiders, the same pair he’d been wearing when I’d met him.
“This is how things are here,” he said. “If a couple goes out at night, they have to wear shoes of a similar style.”
Confused and a bit irked, I changed into my other shoes. When we stepped out into the street, I saw couples with strikingly different styles of shoes on, but I refrained from commenting on it.
I came back to Fernando’s country for several return visits, and we learned to laugh over this early stumbling block. He confided to me that it had taken him months of working black-market jobs to acquire the money to purchase his shoes, and he’d been embarrassed to admit that he owned only one pair. I’d even brought him some sandals.
Fernando eventually moved to the U.S. to be with me. He was appalled when, during our first trip to the grocery store, I declined the cashier’s offer of a plastic bag, a luxury in his country. Wouldn’t people think we were poor, he asked, balancing our purchases in our arms? Fernando was equally offended when, on warm days, I chose to roll down the car windows rather than turn on the air conditioning. He worried those who passed us on the freeway would think we couldn’t afford air conditioning.
Our differences multiplied as the relationship went on. After seven years of fighting, I moved out. Neither of us felt ready to formally end things, but we stayed separated for two and a half years. Then I met someone else.
When I told Fernando, he was devastated. He asked for another chance and said that he wanted to go to counseling and to tell me things about himself and his past that he’d been too proud to share with me before.
Fernando’s voice grew teary as he told me how, when he was fourteen, he’d gone to his newly remarried father to ask for some much-needed replacements for his holey (and only) shoes. His father refused him, saying he needed the money to buy Fernando’s infant stepsister a present for her upcoming birthday. Feeling rejected, Fernando ran away from home. He camped out in the bus station for several nights until the police picked him up. As punishment, his father left him to spend the night in jail. Fernando never got his new shoes.
I was happy that Fernando was opening up to me, but so much had happened that I didn’t know how we could start over. I wished things could once more have been as simple as the decision of which shoes to wear for a date on a hot summer night. But maybe things had never been that simple to begin with.
My paternal grandmother was a short, stout, determined woman who drew her strength from her Southern Baptist faith. Her step was so heavy, the dishes rattled in the cupboard when she walked by. She was without frills or soft edges and had raised her two sons with a stern hand: no card playing, no dancing, and no sex before marriage. Even between husband and wife, she told my mother on her wedding day, sex was a regrettable obligation.
Suppression of pleasure was at the core of my grandmother’s beliefs. She had a wardrobe full of gifts she’d received, all still in the cellophane: sheets, pillowcases, towels, tablecloths, and other assorted household items. She felt it was a sin to indulge in material excess, but also a sin to be wasteful and throw away perfectly good items. So she kept them, still wrapped.
All my grandmother’s shoes were black with laces and fat, blocky heels. She traveled by bus to Louisville, Kentucky, from her home in southern Indiana to buy them. Once, on the bus ride home, she lost one shoe. It must have slipped, unnoticed, from the bag. She was left with a lone shoe. Not wanting to waste it, she put it in the wardrobe with the unused gifts.
Years later a woman appeared at her front door, seeking a handout. Noticing that the woman had only one leg, my grandmother went to the wardrobe to fetch the single shoe. It fit the woman’s foot perfectly.
As a toddler I’d slip my tiny feet into my father’s enormous slippers and clomp around the house while my amused family called me “Dainty Feet.” That was the last time I wore big shoes with glee. I quickly learned that little girls are not supposed to grow into their father’s shoes and that my feet were by no means diminutive.
A woman’s role, I discovered, is to seduce men by wearing shoes that somehow make her appear to be both smoldering with passion and girlishly helpless. In my young womanhood I squeezed my not-so-dainty feet into all manner of seductively pointed and high-heeled shoes, which I bought a half size too small, convinced this would make my feet look smaller. I used color to distract the eye: who would think that a woman wearing such a dazzling pair of soft orange leather sling-backs was hiding a large foot size? I stood for countless hours on cement-slab floors of the costume shops where I worked, wearing eye-catching, high-heeled red leather boots.
Those expensive red boots are still in my closet, lovingly kept, but it’s been years since I could wear them — or any high heel, for that matter. My bones have shifted, and my toes point permanently inward. I can no longer stand in anything more elegant than a well-padded sneaker. I have female friends who have undergone excruciating foot surgery due to pain so great they could hardly sleep at night. None of my male acquaintances have voiced similar complaints.
Today I took the red boots from their plastic bag. Their color is still deep and rich, but the leather has grown a trifle brittle. I’d forgotten how pointy the toes are. I’m ready to part with them, but who would want them? My nieces like retro clothing: should one of them have the boots? On the other hand, would I want either of these beautiful young women to suffer as I did? Better to give the boots a proper burial, deep in some fertile ground, where their decomposing leather may become mulch for some new growing thing.
Brooklyn, New York
Footwear held a special place in in the Soviet Union. Although a pair of imported boots could cost a month’s salary, Muscovites stood in long lines to buy them and ignored the much cheaper, uglier domestic product. Quality shoes imparted status and self-esteem to the wearer. You could always buy nice fabric and sew fashionable clothes, but you couldn’t fake footwear.
In 1983 my friends and I entered our tenth and last year of school. The big graduation party was looming, and the girls all talked about dresses, hairstyles, and, of course, shoes. Some lucky souls, like me, had parents who traveled abroad for work. Their moms or dads could buy shoes in Zagreb, Prague, London, or Delhi, where styles and colors were plentiful, and no one had to stand in line to buy them.
My father was assigned to supervise his university’s summer exchange program in East Germany. My mother and I went to great lengths to describe to him the shoes I needed for the graduation party, using photos from Swedish fashion magazines. My father accomplished his mission honorably and bought me three pairs of shoes. My favorites were white with low heels, golden buckles, and dainty red flowers along the edge.
My mom made me a white dress with red trim to match my new shoes. I wore them to the graduation party and throughout college, taking care to buff them with shoe cream and avoid rough spots on sidewalks.
One summer I worked an internship at a factory, and every Friday night I took a train from Moscow to my grandparents’ weekend home in the country. During my hour-long ride, I made sure no other passengers stepped on my feet. If there had been a heavy rain, I took off my shoes for the mile-long walk along the wooded path to the house, arriving at my destination with brown feet and mud-splattered calves. While I washed my feet in a basin on the porch, my shoes sat on the rack inside the door, still clean and white.
© Linda Smogor
At the age of twelve, while my school friends were picking out hot-pink Converse and Keds, I was preoccupied with whether my favorite French-pointe-shoe cobbler was going to retire. He’d made all of my special-order ballet shoes for three years. My ballet friends each had a favorite cobbler whose shoes fit their feet perfectly — a wider box, a deeper shank, a narrower toe. If you were unfortunate enough to have your cobbler retire, it sometimes took a year to find another.
My working-class parents somehow managed to buy me pointe shoes every two or three weeks at fifty dollars a pair. The hard toe box is made of several layers of fabric and glue (not wood, as people often think), and after two weeks of dancing and sweating, the box would practically turn to mush. Sometimes I could extend the shoes’ lives by coating them in shellac or superglue and baking them in the oven. To mold them into shape, I’d hit them with a hammer, slam them in a door, or duct-tape them. All this for a shoe that would cause me fourteen years of excruciating pain.
When I was eleven, my big toenail turned black and fell off. I lost four more nails over the years. My ballet school taught us to be purists and not to use any padding. The goal was to develop hard, thick calluses on every toe. A little medical tape was allowed, but the “real” dancers left bloody toes bare, gritted their teeth, and smiled through the pain.
When I was twenty-three, after five years of dancing in ballet companies, I’d had enough. Following a performance of Cinderella, I ran from the stage, ripped my shoes off, and threw them out a second-story window into the darkness below.
My father’s Vietnam-era combat boots sat proudly on my grandmother’s porch, a planter for her Christmas cactuses, the seams bursting with rich earth. A construction worker, my dad left many more pairs of boots on our basement floor the day he walked out, unable to handle his growing obligations: career, church, wife, daughter, son. He told me he was broken from the strain of living the life his father had planned for him. The day he left, he was wearing the shiny, polished wingtips of an executive.
I took a pair of his size 11 boots to my first year of forestry school, and then to Montana the following summer on a tour with the Forest Service. After three months they split apart at the seams, leaving my feet cold and wet.
That was twenty years ago. Nowadays I am a state trooper and wear my own combat boots: size 11-C factory seconds. I guess that’s all the state can afford. In these boots I deal with the dirty work of society. In these boots I have fought to control riots while bottles flew past my head and the future of America chanted, “The Red Sox won!” In these boots I have sat at people’s tables at one, two, and three in the morning, explaining how their loved ones would not be coming home. In these boots I have listened to an eleven-year-old girl explain that her father had been molesting her. In these boots I have picked up the rape kit of a nine-month-old baby.
At home, another midnight shift done, I take off my boots and sit in my one-year-old daughter’s room, sipping a beer and watching her sleep. I long for the cold, wet creek beds of Montana, or to be held again in the safety of my father’s arms.
Piermont, New Hampshire
When I was a cheerleader in high school, we wore knee-length pleated wool skirts, bulky sweaters, and saddle shoes. There were no girls’ sports teams at my school.
I married my high-school sweetheart right after college. An athlete, he rarely went a day without running, bicycling, or working out. I made sure he had the latest gear and the best shoes, but I never entertained the thought that I could run too.
After thirty years my husband began to criticize me about my weight. I wanted to lose the extra pounds, but I didn’t know how to begin. So I asked him for help. He took me to buy some walking shoes. I tried on pair after pair and finally found some that fit just right. I’d never had shoes that supported my feet the way these did.
My husband and I began to take nightly walks around the neighborhood. The first time I walked a full mile, I felt great. Then I discovered he was having an affair with a much younger woman.
Walking became a way to battle the anxiety. Only when I was in motion did I feel any sense of stability. I hoped that, when my shoes were worn out, my broken heart would be healed.
That husband is long gone. I am still walking. I am on my twenty-seventh pair of shoes.
When I turned thirteen, my mother gave me permission to wear high heels for my first concert in the school band. She handed me her credit card and said I could walk to the store after school to purchase my new shoes.
I thought I would feel grown-up on this errand, but when I entered the shoe store, I felt like a little girl who needed her mother. I asked the clerk for a pair of high heels in black. He brought out a pair of shiny, patent-leather, spiked heels, at least four inches tall. Guessing that all heels looked like these, I tried them on and wobbled around the store. The clerk must have done a fabulous job of concealing his amusement as he sold them to me.
Mother was shocked by the shoes, but the concert was that evening; it was too late to exchange them.
“Wow, your mother let you wear those?” asked my friend Annie when she saw me in the rehearsal room.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll trip?” asked Marie as she watched me wobble.
I smiled and said I’d be fine, but I wasn’t. When we walked out from behind the curtain, I staggered like a drunk and quickly sat down before everyone else. Throughout the concert I could feel the audience staring at my feet. If I heard a whisper or a cough, I just knew they were laughing at me.
At the concert’s end I reluctantly stood with the others to take a bow, hoping I wouldn’t topple over, and then looked to find my mother in the audience. She was smiling.
On the ride home she said, “You’ve grown up before my eyes.”
Middletown, Rhode Island
In fifth grade I wore high-top brogans to a two-room schoolhouse in the foothills of the High Sierra. My father worked on a dam-construction project and was gone during the week. As the eldest boy, I got up at 5 AM and milked the cow before school.
The brogans were my only shoes, and I didn’t always clean them well enough after the morning chores. When some of the other students complained about the odor of manure on them, my mother decided to purchase a pair of rubber boots that I would wear for my barnyard chores. Meanwhile the brogans were just about worn out, and there was not enough money for rubber boots and school shoes. In the spring I began to go to school barefoot.
One day a local married couple came to visit us on our farm and said they had heard I was going to school without shoes. They wanted to take me to church in the city, twenty miles away, and get me a pair of shoes. I submitted only after my older sister, who was eleven, agreed to come along.
When the couple arrived on Sunday morning, I was disappointed that they hadn’t brought the shoes with them. They said I would get them when we got to church.
After we arrived at the church, I asked again about the shoes, because I thought it was a law that you had to wear shoes to church — especially a big, fancy one like this. The little church in our town was sparsely furnished with benches and a simple cross on the wall. The city church was decorated with huge curtains, stained glass, and gold statues. But the couple brought me inside barefoot.
After a half-hour of preaching and singing, the church had a sharing session, and the couple brought us before the congregation. The husband told everyone that I had been going to school barefoot and suggested taking up a collection for me. He pushed me out into the aisle, where I stood, shoeless, feeling ashamed, and fighting hard not to cry.
On the ride home I hid my face, and my sister put her hand on my head and just left it there the whole way back.
The couple returned to the farm only once. When I saw their car coming up the road next to the orange grove, I ran to the river and hid out until they had left. Later I went into the house, and in the middle of the kitchen table was a cheap pair of canvas sneakers, two sizes too large.
Santa Barbara, California
When I was a boy, I bought a pair of silver high heels at a yard sale in our suburban neighborhood. My neighbor Jerry eyed me with suspicion as he took my money. I told him they were a gift for my mother.
I cradled my new shoes beneath my shirt, and once out of sight of the neighbors, I slipped them on. They were too big and smelled a bit, but I was elated. I walked the hot asphalt, ankles wobbling, a nervous exhilaration in my stomach. When I saw some older kids from the neighborhood coming up the street, I ditched the shoes in the bushes and returned for them later.
That evening I was strutting across the family-room floor in my high heels, hand on hip, when my father opened the door. He was a loving and gentle man. When I came out to him in my early twenties, he and my mother were supportive. But that day his face sagged with confusion and dismay.
“But, Dad,” I said, “they were only five cents!”
“It’s not that,” he told me. And he sighed and closed the door. I stood there, a boy in high heels, the grin fading from my lips.
A part of me went underground after that. As a teenager I found a book in my parents’ room called Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity, and I was blinded with shame.
I don’t remember what happened to those silver shoes. I’m sure I threw them away. I wonder if they would fit me now.
In my first-grade class picture from 1950, everyone except the teacher is barefoot. In Hawai’i we didn’t have to wear shoes to elementary school. We walked home three or four abreast on the sidewalk or the dirt path or the grass, happy to let our feet touch the ground. We knew to look out for the hooked yellow beans under kiawe trees and fallen branches covered with black thorns and crawling centipedes. Once in a while someone would get a mean cut from a piece of broken glass — usually from a beer bottle tossed into Cartwright Field, where we took our shortcut through the tall grass — but a band-aid was like a badge of honor to us. If a kid liked you enough, he or she would let you peek at the wound to see the dried blood and mercurochrome. Tough, calloused soles meant you were able to climb on rocks or walk on hot asphalt without pain. We believed we could run faster without shoes.
Even when our mothers forced us to wear starched and ironed shirts to school, we still had bare feet. We wore shoes only for special church events or funerals. Then they had to be polished. We learned to keep those shoes clean, because they cost too much money for us to wear them all the time.
By middle school some of the kids, mostly girls, wore Mary Janes or cross-banded shoes. One boy had sneakers. It was up to you whether you wanted to look grown-up or continue to run free. I wore a long dress to hide my dirty feet, which I kept bare because I liked to feel the texture of tile, concrete, wooden planking, slick marble, wet mud, and pokey grass. It wasn’t until almost every family owned a TV that all of us wore shoes.
The first thing I do now when I return home is take off my shoes. Inside the house I go barefoot so I can keep the wood floors and the carpets clean. I let my feet breathe.
After my grandmother died, her children and grandchildren went to her apartment to claim items to remember her by. I had never before seen the shimmering gold high heels in the back of her closet. She must have worn them to society balls with my grandfather in the fifties and sixties. I knew right away that they would be perfect for dancing the Argentine tango, a hobby I had found relieved the stress of medical school.
My grandmother never understood why I’d decided to go into medicine. I did not seem like a doctor to her, she said. She wanted me to pursue journalism; she saw me as a writer, not a scientist.
I was disappointed that she didn’t support me, all the more so because I knew that she loved science and had majored in biology in college. After she’d graduated, she had worked in a laboratory where early DNA experiments were carried out on fruit flies. It was exciting work, but she gave it up to take a more proper (for a woman) job teaching high-school biology, and then she gave that up to raise her three children. She enjoyed travel and costumes and pageantry but was plagued by a nagging sense of propriety, which led her to have rigid expectations of herself and others. She would not have approved of my romantic dalliances, my taste for wine, and my left-leaning social activism.
During the last few weeks of my grandmother’s life, I visited her at her retirement community, hoping to form a bond with her before the end. She had always loved to talk about the past, but her once-sharp memory had dulled, and she had difficulty answering my questions about her childhood, her parents, and the world she’d grown up in, where automobiles and airplanes and telephones were still uncommon. Her pale blue eyes gazed off into space as she tried to keep her mind on course. I brushed her waist-length silver hair and felt my compassion for her grow.
With my grandmother gone, I felt free of her judgment and more able to do as I pleased. I used my inheritance from her estate to travel to Argentina for a year, where I studied the tango and advocated for community health.
My grandmother made choices that were characteristic of her generation, just as I made choices more typical of mine. But when I wore her golden shoes on the dance floor, I felt her presence inside me. Despite her narrow worldview, she had taught me to celebrate life. I reveled in romance and immersed myself in a foreign culture. Every night I danced the tango without fail.
Carrboro, North Carolina