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My grandmother’s shoes were black with four eyelets and a one-inch stacked leather heel. Orthopedic shoes for old, bone tired feet – these were my Granny B’s shoes. She detested buying them, wore them begrudgingly and looked pained every time she put them on over her thick, brown-pressure stockings. At day’s end, she would undo the laces and pry her swollen feet and legs out of both shoes and stockings, relieved to have both out of her sight.
“Barbara” she would sigh, rolling her feet on a yellow tin of Habitant pea soup, “take care of your feet, you need them, even at my age. Make sure your shoes fit. Don’t wear high heels unless the occasion calls for it, otherwise, you will be like me. Bunions and corns, wishing these feet didn’t need to take you anywhere and some mornings wishing they still could.” I would nod, only partly listening and usually out of obligation. We would be in the living room: she in the La-Z-Boy with the orange flower pattern, and I, perched on the gold sofa under the front window, usually with my nose in a book. I was 17, she was 89.
Marilyn Monroe was right when she said that with the right shoes, you can conquer the world.
“Barbara,” Granny B reminisced, “it was those button boots, the two-tone brown ones with 15 buttons. Size 4 and I was a size 5″. And with that, she was transported to a time where she was known simply as Kathleen, when orthopedic stockings inside orthopedic shoes were not even considered, let alone imagined. The dispensing of life advice would lead her to a quiet reverie where she relived wearing those shoes to and from her job as a telegraph operator with CP Rail. Those too-small, brown two-tone button boots would have taken her along the wooden sidewalks, cobblestone alleys and muddy streets of downtown Montreal to Windsor Station.
I remember, also, how my father lined up his shoes in a ruler-straight line in his closet. And every Sunday evening they would be laid out in that same straight line on the maple workbench stained with paint, grease and polish. The stains and scars marked it as a place of builds, repairs and love in my father’s life. His Sunday habit was instilled and never abandoned from his days in the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was a ritual that was an insight into his heart and soul as a man of responsibility, seriousness and focus. This small, weekly act that was an outward symbol of always putting his best foot forward.
My mother’s shoes, in complete contradiction to my father, were stored more haphazardly in her closet. There were sensible shoes, slippers and heels. Shoes that she could not bear to part with for sentimental reasons known only to her, as was her habit; the reasons were never shared, certainly not with her children. Her black-satin kitten heels with the fashionable 1960s pointed toe had a place of honour in her closet. She kept them wrapped in the original tissue and stored in their original box. These same shoes are now in my closet, where a quick stroke of their fabric brings me back to bedtime kisses as my parents would head to a mess dinner for a night out. She always looked beautiful in her fancy dress, the powder blue one with the organza overdress, wearing those matching black-satin kitten heels. My father looked dashing in his military mess uniform with its scarlet jacket, epaulettes and black pants, his black military dress boots polished to a reflective shine the Sunday before.
Shoes are a rite of passage, a marker of milestones and events. The first pair you buy for your baby, your first day on the job, your wedding. The red sandals I refused to take off at the age of 6 but were always at the foot of my bed in the morning. (I imagine they were done so with a quiet, loving smile maybe even a kiss on the forehead.) The white Mary Janes from Ogilvy’s department store that I wore to my sisters’ wedding and later had dyed royal blue for my Grade 8 graduation and my grandparent’s 50th anniversary. The black-patent kitten heels with a silver metal toe that I bought for my university graduation only to have to wear them to my brother’s funeral first. I donated them to St. Vincent de Paul after the service – the pinching memory of his death was too loud to keep in my closet. Then there are the black riding boots, worn for fashion only, that I love for their invisible energy and ferocity that forces me to believe in my own power, strength and resolve; I chose their presence and authoritative step while waiting for news, any news, from the surgical oncologist at the hospital.
My closet is deferential to my grandmother’s advice – stilettos and heels are few. My father’s weekly shoeshine ritual simply never took hold for me. Like my mother, shoes are haphazardly placed but my splurges are displayed proudly, not tucked away in boxes. My burgundy suede boots hold court front and centre with my black fashion boots, while my yellow platform sandals dance with my mint green flats. My lime green Birkenstocks and my cycling shoes compete daily for my attention.
Shoes are memories, advice and often polished with care and worn with pride. Shoes are fashionable, practical and powerful. Some shoes are too dear to abandon, others are too loud to keep.
Barbara Robertson lives in Ottawa.