Zinaida Serebriakova 1884-1967
Sometimes the simplest things in life can bring us the most inspiration. What better to contemplate those integuments for our feet. What if we didn’t have them? What do they symbolize? Have a good story about shoes?
Ah, shoes! My secret passion! (My other passion is hats but they are out of fashion so don’t count.) But I LOVE SHOES. I have no idea why. But I can tell you that the first thing I notice about a person is their footwear. I’ve startled strangers and friends alike by sidling up to them and saying in an emotional, conspiratorial whisper, “I love your shoes!”
Besides a “thank you” I usually also receive a wink and a nod and a “Me too! They’re my favorite.” And we smile the smile of a passion shared. Another shoe lover!
Looming large in our living room in the home where I grew up were two oil portraits from the early 20th century, framed by thick, ornate, and gilded frames. Each pictured a formidable character, and I knew them as “Grossmama” and “Grosspapa.” They were my great, great grandparents who immigrated from Germany. Grosspapa had a handlebar mustache and kind of looked like Edgar Allan Poe, but I was fascinated by Grossmama. I always wanted to hear her story.
“Look at her earrings and her pin,” my mother would tell me, pointing to the very Victorian-looking bunches of grapes dangling from her ears and the high neck of her dress. “That jewelry was made from her baby Florentine’s hair.”
Even though I already knew, I would ask, “And who was Florentine?”
“Florentine was the youngest of Grossmama and Grosspapa’s fourteen children.”
“But only seven of them grew up, right Mommy?”
“Yes, that’s right. And one year, Grossmama lost her three youngest children to tuberculosis: first her six-year-old, then her four-year-old, and then her two-year-old, Florentine.”
“So Grossmama had the jewelry made from her long dark curls, right Mommy?”
“Yes, her long dark curls.”
Then my mother would produce a small pair of tiny black leather boots with buttons up the side. They looked almost new. “These were Florentine’s shoes,” she would continue. “Grossmama would hold them and cry and say, ‘If only I could bear looking at the shoes!'”
How thrillingly morbid! I loved this story. Couldn’t get enough of it. Unsuspecting guests who had never been to our house before would enter our living room for presumed hospitality, only to have me push ahead of them where I shouted out a “highlights-only” version of this story. I had to get there before my brother tried to steal the show and tell the story first. Mind you, my brother couldn’t care less about the story and was probably playing Atari in the other room, but I beat him, nonetheless. I’m sure our guests were very grateful.
Why the shoes? Why couldn’t Elizabeta Von Sturmer Hugo bear to see Florentine’s shoes?
I think it’s because they didn’t have the worn sole and scuffs of a child who played outside, or followed her brothers and sisters on adventures, or walked to market and church. They seemed too small not to be worn. They represented the steps not taken.
About ten years ago, my mother asked me what she should specifically leave me in her will. I couldn’t really think of anything. (For the record, my mother has approximately 438 pairs of shoes. Also for the record, my brother, when posed the same question, immediately asked which of my mother’s belongings cost the most.)
“I think I want the bible Grossmama and Grosspapa brought from Germany,” I said. I love old books, and I remembered the careful list kept on the first page of the bible detailing the births and deaths of their children, and the family to follow.
“And Florentine’s shoes,” I added.
Because every footprint we leave is important to someone.
And my breasts—it’s better not to mention them at all except to say that
they seemed to be in a race to see which could be first to reach my knees.
Maya Angelou, Rainbow in the Cloud
Gravity has had its way on me, as on Sister Maya. And beyond the obvious effect of gravity, age has also affected my shoe size. I always had big feet. As a teen, I had to buy shoes at a tiny Rochester, NY emporium euphemistically called the “Tall Girl Shop.” Now, feet that used to be comfortable in size 11s need 11-1/2 or 12s. I’m lucky to live in Nordstrom land, where through the gift of mostly Munros my feet are comfortably clad.
And at the same time—when I think of my expanding feet, I think of the greater understanding they represent. That too, is a gift of aging.