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Mama Needs Shoes

June 10, 2016

Shoes have meaning for mothers. Not our own shoes. Our kids’ shoes.

Most mothers can remember the tiny little pair of baby shoes they got right before or after children entered their lives. Maybe they were those pliable little saddle shoe lookalikes or sneakers or miniature Mary Jane patent leather flats with bows. They came in a shower gift with some onesies and too many bibs or three pairs of little pastel socks. We held them up, marveling. “Oh, look how tiny!” We admired them from all angles, tried them on our fingertips, imagined a little foot inside them belonging to a child taking steps for the first time.

Baby shoes magically evoke visions of the future. Those first tiny sneakers come into your possession before your baby can even crawl–about as useful on feet as they would be dangling from the rear view mirror of a car. Still, we put them on those little feet, lace them up and tie bows that will only come undone…all the while envisioning a day when that child will run to us, pedal a bike, race downfield in soccer, cross a graduation stage to applause while we look on proudly, excitedly share that he is engaged, walk down the aisle on her father’s arm, or stand to thank the Nobel committee. Mothers need shoes, especially in those early days, to remind us that the child who keeps us up at night until we are bleary with exhaustion will one day walk on his own. Shoes belong to the future. They keep us going.

My teenagers’ shoes proliferated in ways I could never understand. Piles of them bloomed by the garage door, the stairs, and in the laundry room. No matter how many times I moved them to better locations, they somehow returned to inconvenient places. Casually tossed under the table in the kitchen where someone studied late last night. Left in the car for days after kids in the car pool changed in the back seat en route to a basketball practice or soccer match. Stuck in gym bags marinating in a sea of dirty clothes in the laundry room. Stacked NEXT TO the shoe rack, I built in the garage but never placed ON it for some unfathomable reason. Kids coming to visit invariably and courteously left their own shoes by the front door. A good Saturday night in their high school years meant I’d head upstairs to bed with sounds of laughter floating up from the basement and a nod to the stack of tennis shoes, flip flops, and Sperry topsiders in the hall that were all planning to stay the night. Shoes by the door meant kids in the house.

When Kristin left for college, I was assigned the job of unloading the giant laundry basket full of her shoes into the small square of floor in her dorm room closet–a task designed to keep me too busy to be sad about leave-taking. Girls choose shoes intentionally anticipating occasions. Noticing what she’d brought gave me clues about what she believed college would hold. Cute flip flops and sandals to make friends, gym shoes for workouts, soccer cleats “just in case of intramurals,” the fake Ugg boots she was so proud of owning that were faithful old friends from high school for confidence, a pair of cute trendy rain boots she had splurged on indicating she intended to reinvent her style here, a pair of professional-looking pumps for business school presentations, a sparkly pair of dress shoes for dances. I came home to her bedroom, peeked into the nearly-empty closet and sat on her bed and cried.

Three years later when Joe left for college, I came home to find that in his typical style (he cares deeply about living in the moment and will always choose people over planning), he’d left a couple pairs of his shoes in the house by the door to the garage–exactly where they had lived for most of the summer. He had moved, but the shoes, flash frozen in time, remained in place. I had griped about stepping over those shoes daily for months. I had moved them time and again only to find them back in the same spot the next day, stubbornly resisting relocation. Tripping over them once again as I came in from that college move-in, I cursed their existence and my son’s inability to grasp how to put things away.

And then I left them there for a month.

Every day as I walked past those carelessly arranged shoes right by the door out to the garage, I pretended he was still home, upstairs sleeping late tangled in his sheets, his broad shoulders and hairy legs overfilling the bed we bought for him as a child. I stepped carefully over those shoes on my way into the house from work each evening for all of September and felt like he might come through the door at any moment so I could grumpily ask him if he would PLEASE put them away. And finally…when I had given myself time to accept the fact that our nest was really empty…I put them away myself, realizing a little sadly that they’d now stay put.

My husband, wisely, said nothing.
Mothers need shoes.

This month, I helped Kristin move things to a storage unit from her apartment in D.C. She won’t be able to take the things she’s amassed in a few years of working in the world with her to law school housing. We packed and stored a box full of black and nude business pumps, high heels, dressy sandals, cute flats for walking to and from the train station. She kept out flip flops, sneakers, and comfortable boots to take with her. I eyed them and could see her vision of nights in the library and tramping across the Law Quad to Contracts, Torts, and Crim Pro.

A few weeks later I helped Joe pack his car to move to Chicago to work. As we got ready to say good-bye, he handed me a crumpled looking brown grocery bag with three pairs of old shoes in it. “These need to go to Goodwill, and I forgot to drop them off. Sorry, but would you mind taking them for me?”

Of course I don’t mind taking them. I peered into the bag. The dress shoes we picked out sophomore year for fraternity dances and business school interview days. The expensive topsiders he couldn’t afford that we surprised him with a few Christmases ago after texting a picture to his girlfriend from the store and getting a “YES!” response. His favorite pair of sneakers. All scuffed and well-worn-out from lots of living in them these past few years. These shoes were shared with fraternity brothers in need searching the stew of clothes they all view as community property. They danced on sticky floors to loud music at parties. They got soaked on rainy walks to class or snowy trudges through “Scary Woods” behind Phi Gamma Delta. They’ve been replaced with shoes now more appropriate for the next bend in the road and relegated to the bag in the back of my car. I helped him choose their successors last month as we contemplated the things to come and what he might need to wear. And, despite being many times the size of those tiny sneakers from years ago, the new size 12 wingtips also magically conjure pictures of his future for me.

So…I haven’t taken the bag of shoes to Goodwill. I keep meaning to drop it off, but I just haven’t had time. I’ll get around to it I know. Probably pretty soon. But for now…for just a few more days…Mama needs shoes.

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