Confederate troops were looking for a shoe factory when they became engaged in a bloody battle at Gettysburg. It seems that they were in dire need of footwear for their soldiers. The fact that they were searching for something so basic often gets lost in the historical record that focuses instead on the brilliant oratory of President Abraham Lincoln in the address that he delivered in the aftermath of that terrible loss of lives. Those of us living in the United States in the modern era often take the shoes that line our closets for granted, but it hasn’t always been so.
My grandfather loved to tell of the time that he finally received a beautiful pair of high top lace up boots to wear to school. It was the finest pair of shoes that he had ever worn and the leather felt like butter next to his feet. It never occurred to him that he was a still boy who was likely to become taller, or that he might outgrow his beloved shoes, but the day came when he did indeed. His toes pressed so painfully against the end of the boots that he could barely walk. When he told his grandmother that he needed a new pair she explained that she would not have the funds for such a purchase for many months. Since the weather was already warm and they lived in the country, she thought it would be best if grandpa just roamed freely in his bare feet rather than distorting his toes in the cramped enclosure of the shoes.
Grandpa said that he was so proud of those shoes that he couldn’t bear the idea of walking through burrs and stepping on rocks without their protective sole. Still he worried that his feet would become deformed if he continued to torture himself by curling his toes just enough to keep them from pushing hard on the edges of the ill fitting boots. He devised a plan that he thought was brilliant. He went to the barn and found an axe which he used to carefully chop off the leather on the toes without harming the sole beneath. When he tried on his new creation he was happy to note that his feet now fit perfectly in the makeshift open toe style. His grandmother praised his inventiveness and laughed at the sight that he must have been. The strange looking shoes kept him going for many more months.
My mother always spoke of how shoes were passed down from one child to another in her family of eight children. Since she was the youngest her footwear was often on its last leg. The leather on the sole of the shoes sometimes had a tendency to sprout holes which meant that she was often walking directly on wet pavement when it rained. Her inventive mother would save cardboard for instant repairs. She traced around the bottom of the shoe and then fit the protective paper inside to keep the elements off of Mama’s feet. Not too surprisingly my mother developed a thing for insisting that my brothers and I always had the best shoes for daily wear that her money could buy. She would scrimp on almost everything, but never on shoes.
I usually had two pairs of shoes at any given time. One was the set that I wore to school each day and the other was for church. Mama bought high quality brands like Life Stride and Buster Brown. A family from our church had a mom and pop shoe store where Mama always took us. Mr. and Mrs. Lippie took great care in fitting our shoes and literally refused to sell us a pair that didn’t hug our feet as though it had been made by magical cobblers for our unique specifications. Sometimes a visit to their store took well over an hour but Mama felt secure in the knowledge that our shoes would do no harm to our feet. My shoes were ever so practical which didn’t much matter when I was wearing a school uniform but as I grew into my teenage years I found myself drawn to the flashy numbers enticing me from the show windows of shoe emporiums at the mall. My mother often reminded me to be wary of their pointed toes and high heels, insisting that they would do irreparable damage to my pampered feet. Of course her warnings went in one ear and out the other.
As soon as I had the independence that comes from having a decent job and living away from one’s childhood home I became addicted to shoes. Given the choice between a lovely pair of pumps and a new frock I would invariably prefer to purchase yet another fashion for my feet. Because my mother had made certain that my feet were so well cared for I was able to stuff them into virtually any style known to man. As long as the price was right, I did, even as my mother complained and predicted that I was dooming my precious feet to a painful future.
My collection of shoes grew and grew in my adult years until I had enough to rival Imelda Marcos. I rarely met a shoe that I didn’t like and in spite of my mom’s predictions, I had no difficulty wearing the highest heels or the most confining styles. Shoes were like a drug to me. Nothing made me smile more than finding a new pair that was unlike any I had owned before. Sadly my joyful hobby of acquiring shoes for any occasion eventually came to a very sad end.
Just as my mother had prophesied I found myself developing more and more problems with my feet. I had to give all of my stiletto heels away because I could only wear them for a few minutes before my feet and my knees were screaming in pain. Those with the lovely pointed toes were the next to go when my feet rebelled against being so grotesquely constricted. More and more often I found myself purchasing “Granny Gump” styles from Clarks. I preferred the idea of actually being able to walk over the practice of enveloping my feet in portable torture chambers.
I have always loved the summer because I am able to achieve a bit more stylishness with sandals even as I age. People have commented that I have pretty feet and I try to keep them looking good for the warmer months when I can allow them to be free in flip flops and cute gladiator styles that show off my slim ankles. Now even that little slice of vanity is no longer available to me. Just a few weeks ago someone dropped a heavy can on my foot while I stood in line at the grocery store. My big toe throbbed in pain for days and turned completely black. Eventually the entire nail came off leaving me in a very unattractive state. Google tells me that it will take from six months to one year for things to return to normal. For now I will be wearing closed toes in public, which is particularly irksome because I am traveling to Cancun in June. I laugh because it somehow seems to be karma, a mild scolding for my prideful behavior and lack of true appreciation for the gift of good feet that my mother sacrificed to give me.
I keep thinking of the old saying, “I complained because I had no shoes, and then I saw a man who had no feet.” Maybe it’s time for me to lay my shoe fetish to rest and return to the days of practicality. My damaged toe is a sign that I need to get my priorities straight. I’ve been so vain and now it’s time to focus on something that is actually important. The fact that I can still walk freely around my neighborhood is a gift that I won’t take for granted. My own good health and fortune are all the blessings I need, but I must admit that I did drool over those gorgeous sandals that would be oh so cute for Easter. I guess it will take some time before I completely change my shoe loving stripes.