For years I had known of my sister’s shoe collection. Strangely, I had never asked to see it. When she died the collection came to me; a nondescript brown box taped up and labeled “Ellie’s Shoe Collection.” Sure, I was curious, but I couldn’t open it; couldn’t risk opening myself up to the barrage of emotions that would surely overtake me if I did. I put it up on a high shelf in the garage where it sat safely until I moved, seven years later. By this time I was helping Mom get settled into an assisted living facility nearby and was again unable, unwilling, or just too busy to open the ever-mysterious box of shoes. I had even considered taking it — unopened — over to the local Goodwill facility. Surely someone else would enjoy this box of shoes more than I would. Heck, I thought, I’m not even a shoe person. But I couldn’t do it and the box stayed under the stairs for another two years before I discovered it again. This time I opened it and began to unwrap a few of the bundles, curiosity getting the better of me. Cramped in a small space and pressed for time, I reconsidered and quickly wrapped up what I had started, sealed up the box and placed it on another high shelf in my garage.
Last weekend while reorganising (my husband is English; hence the fun spelling) a new round of chaos, I came across the box again. Ten years, I thought, I’ve had Ellie’s shoe collection for ten years. It’s time to see what’s inside. I cleared a space and began. The ceramic baby booties were the first to appear; the ones I had seen before. Then came a pair of shoes that shocked me: vintage black heels with white polka dots and flowers, possibly Japanese. My first thought, oddly enough, was that my friend, Deborah Batterman, author of Shoes Hair Nails, should be standing next to me. She loves shoes. She would love this unveiling of them, I told myself. I continued unwrapping, mesmerized by an eclectic display of delicates that seemed in direct opposition to my sister’s personality: envision a beautiful yet rugged, athletic, sensible-shoe-wearing lesbian. Heels? Seriously El? I laughed…the pile of wrapping growing as large as the unexpected joy I was feeling; my smile huge.
Boots came next — made of metal, glass and wood; large, small and tiny. These seemed more in keeping with sis – she would have connected boots to my brothers, father, and grandfather; all in the building industry, all wearers of boots. The moccasins fit as well – she loved them, and bought them for me too. She and I were practical when it came to our footwear. This I could get behind.
But each time I unwrapped another delicate pair of shoes; the kind Carrie Bradshaw would have coveted, my emotions swirled. Moved? By shoes? Ah, but these were my sister’s shoes; shoes she had collected over many years. Each time she purchased a miniature set of flowery heels or sexy lace-up boots had she wondered what it would have been like to wear a fancy dress and some pretty Manolo Blahniks? Or did she imagine a lover, dressed to the nines to impress her?
Perhaps these shoes spoke of a time in the past, a time when she and her twin had been carefree, shirtless little girls running around, blonde curls bobbing beneath matching white cowboy hats; a time before she had had to struggle through an identity unaccepted by the world, especially the teaching world of which she was a part. Did this box of shoes represent more than a haphazard collection of miniatures? Did it represent all the facets of womanhood, versus the exact spot on the sexual spectrum where she had unwittingly landed?
When Mom’s actual baby shoes appeared, bronzed to last-forever-perfection, I choked up. Even though I had seen these before, displayed in my childhood homes, I hadn’t been expecting them to show up in El’s collection. Had this pair of shoes been the catalyst for all the rest?
Once I had them all laid out I arranged them in sections: boots, asian shoes, baby shoes, high-heeled shoes, moccasins, clogs, ballet slippers, a single roller skate, and even a glass slipper. Who would have thought that a small box of replicas I had pointedly ignored and very nearly discarded could provide unexpected healing — the shoes a perfect vehicle for walking past the pain; a bit of panache and bling thrown in for good measure and much-needed humor. Brilliant, Ellie, just brilliant.
Shoe shopping anyone?