To the Foot from Its Woman of a Certain Age

…But this blind thing walked

without respite, without stopping

hour after hour

one foot and then the other,

now a man’s

or a woman’s,

above,

below,

through fields, through mines,

through department stores and ministries,

backward,

outside, inside,

forward,

this foot labored with its shoe,

it hardly took time

to be naked in love or in sleep,

it walked, they walked

until the whole man stopped.

                   From “To the Foot from Its Child” by Pablo Neruda

It is possible that faces remain taut and lineless, that eyes still sparkle, that hair—by art or by nature—flows lush and vibrant and free of any gray. A person’s countenance might mock and defy the influence of age.

But all an interested on-looker would have to do, to truly know the era of that seemingly youthful being, is to look at her feet.

We don’t need portraits moldering in an attic; our feet reveal the truth.

We ought to be more grateful to our feet.

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When I was a child, the feet of adults embarrassed me.

I saw them rarely; they only emerged from their hard, black oxfords or cheap everyday canvas sneakers, on trips, say, to the beach. Parents did not, in my experience, wear toe-revealing shoes, not ever. The feet that emerged when we went to the lake were shocked by the sun, scalded white, looking like something long locked away.

My father would sit on the blanket, after everyone was settled, the cooler parked, towels and over-clothes tossed in a pile and bathing-suited kids running screaming to the water. He would sit on the blanket and unroll his thin black socks; he’d knot the socks into a tight little ball, light a cigarette, and stand up to walk to the water’s edge on feet that looked impossibly long and thin and fragile.

My father worked on the coal pile of an electric company; he drove the heavy machinery: bulldozers, cranes, sometimes the short connector train that picked up the box cars full of coal. He was outside in all weathers, and his skin was burnished like a fine wood by sun and wind and freezing rain—the skin on his face, and neck, and arms and hands.

His feet and his legs rarely saw the sun. In those days, men would come home from work and go out to toss a ball with their kids, still wearing hard black dress shoes, plaid button shirts, and creased and cuffed trousers.

For men like my father, the sun rested on his toes only at the beach. There, his long, thin feet stepped gingerly on the hot sand, avoiding sharp rocks; he parked them in the shallow water where it lapped the edge of land. He stood there, smoking and watching his kids in the water until his cigarette burnt down.

He’d push the stub into the sand of the beach, burying it deep, and then he’d swim out, with long, strong strokes, to the very edge, that place where ‘I’m okay here,’ crashed into ‘This is too deep.’ He’d park there like a sentinel. The bigger kids, the daring, strong swimmers, would join him there to splash and dunk and carouse.

My mother stayed on the blanket in a prim blue cotton gingham one-piece suit. She might venture down to the water’s edge to build a sandcastle or search for tiny shells with a little one, but she did not go into the water. Once, in the faded haze of history, she had been a child who jumped into a crowded pool and plunged to the bottom. Other kids jumped in after her; they knocked her back into the water, over and over.

She thought that she would drown, and when she didn’t, she vowed never to go swimming again.

And my mother’s poor feet! Twisted and knotted from overwork and years of poorly fitted shoes and a family tendency to bunions, her toes overlapped each other. Bones stuck out where they shouldn’t. A barefoot stroll on the beach was an excruciating ordeal.

She stayed on the blanket, a towel thrown carelessly over her toes, or she crouched in the damp sand with her castle-builder, her feet half-submerged.

Looking at my parents’ feet on those exciting summer days shot a chill through the adventure. Those feet had a message.

There has been pain, and it has been hard, they intoned.

Poverty and neglect can twist you around, they whispered.

I felt a painful lump in my throat, looking at my parents’ feet when we went to the beach. I ran into the lake to throw myself on waves where the water came just to my chest.

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My mother had a bunion operation, and it went horribly wrong. Nowadays, it’s an in-and-out, healed in a week surgery, but not for my mother. Her bones shifted. One stuck out the bottom of her foot. She’d go to see the surgeon who caused the damage, and he’d perform some arcane treatment. When she came home, sometimes, the pain was so bad she would crawl from the car to the house.

It was a long, long time before she completely healed. There were very few shoes that she could wear.

“You take care of your feet,” my mother would tell me, “and they won’t look like mine.”

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My father, on the other hand, believed in the power of shoe-free feet for kids.

“Take off your shoes!” he’d yell, when we came in the house, when we sat down to watch TV.

When the grandchildren came over, the first thing my father would do is pick them up and swing them around. Then he’d sit down with them and pull their shoes off.

“Better for them,” he’d say. Patient daughters-in-law would bite their lips.

Maybe my father’s feet resented their time in his steel-toed work boots, in his hard-soled black shoes.

And maybe, my mother hinted, he remembered his years as a poor kid in the Depression, standing in line for shoes his father couldn’t buy him. The ladies who gave them out, he told me once, treated the kids they favored with hand-me-downs like crap,—looked over and through them, saw not the pinched faces of children in need, but the wonderful glimmer of their own good deeds. 

They weren’t particular about things like fit.

“Those ought to do you,” I imagine one saying absently, handing a pair of old leather high-topped shoes to the scrawny kid that was my father.

He took them home and tried them, and they didn’t really “do” him; they were a little tight already and his feet were growing. But those shoes would last him, oh, two years, maybe; he’d squeeze his feet into them and make them work, because they were what he had.

No wonder he peeled the shoes off the grandkids as soon as they walked in the door.

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Oxfords, some doctor told my mother, were the best shoes for growing feet. Good sturdy Oxfords were the thing. So during the years when she could still dress me, my mother made me wear saddle shoes or clunky black tie shoes. They were horrible things. How I longed for a pair of slingbacks.

By the time I got to high school I was babysitting, saving my cash, starting to buy my own shoes. I bought ugly, sensible earth shoes, yes. But I bought slingbacks, too. And I bought four-inch platform soles and clomped around, scraping the sky at about six foot three. I bought pointy-toed narrow heels and minced.

My feet were killing me, but what price fashion? I put band aids over the blisters.

And I bought sneakers for the everyday, sneakers so I could walk. I came late to the land of driving, and I walked everywhere, miles and miles a day. To classes from my apartment in college. To the supermarket where I worked. Downtown to meet friends.

My feet really were my locomotion. Did I think to thank them? Did I soak them and baby them? Did I insist on sensible, comfortable shoes?

Oh, no. Not once.

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In college, I discovered Pablo Neruda, and his poem, “To the Foot from Its Child” especially spoke to me. I loved metaphors, and the foot as metaphor for life, the blind appendage, once soft, growing “…into hard horn”…oh, that moved me. The work of it, the grind, the never-stopping-ness, the pleasures those feet hardly took time for.

That, I thought sagely, was an everyday foot, and an everyday life. I would not forget; I would not grow callused. My life would be vibrantly different.

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Then there was teaching, where the standing on pointy toed, heeled shoes all day long, slip-slapping down aisles to check work and answer questions and comfort the confused or wailing,—well, that was hurtful. I discovered foam-soled Mary Janes, and those became my teaching shoes.

And then there was parenting, comfy sneakers for backyard play, the arrival of a baby that never, it seemed, slept. Barefoot walking, back and forth, up and down. Shush now; shush now, little one.

And he was quiet while we walked.

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That ‘baby,’ thirty now, stared down at my bare feet today as I worked in the kitchen, and said, tongue sharpened by autism-frankness, “Mom, your feet look really weird.”

I gazed at him, trying to formulate a suitable sentence. Thus encouraged, he went on.

“Your big toe,” he said, “it’s like it’s at a right angle. And the toe next to it is bent like a tent.”

“Well, James,” I said, “thanks for that. I guess.”

“Well,” he said. “I’m just saying.”

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Later I go to pull on my hiking sandals, the ones that leave my hammer toes gloriously free and unfettered. I look at my feet through other eyes, and I know my son is right.

My feet look really weird.

I have beaten them up many times,—battered them in the name of fashion; pounded them through a half-marathon in shoes I would later learn were a size and a half too small (that adventure caused my big toenails to turn bloody and fall off; oh, my bruised and aching toes. And that was when a petite, impossibly chirpy young shoe clerk told me I’d been wearing shoes that were not nearly roomy enough.

“Our feet get bigger as we age,” she said sagely, in a voice so syrupy with sympathy, I wanted to add a batch of salt to the conversation. But did not. One day she too will feel the unexpected bumps and hollows of age; one day she’ll ignore the flaws and celebrate, as I do, the patina. I wish I could be there to comment, but I, of course, won’t be, more’s the pity.)

My feet have been workers, trudgers, occasionally dancing, sometimes running, kicking through turquoise pool water, scuffing the tennis court, and always, always walking, walking…

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These days Connie Fitbit keeps me going, fires up my competitive urges, makes me walk at least 10,000 steps a day. I feel like a shirker on days I only reach 10,000; I like it when my phone peeps with a message: Whoa! Overachiever! You’re 4028 steps over your daily goal…

Damn straight, I think.

But I still don’t think to appreciate my feet.

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And there are metaphors there, in the worn and bent feet of my parents, who hoped for better for me and my brothers; there are metaphors in the choices I made that battered my own feet and led me, late but appreciative, to understand.

Similes there be, like the under-accoladed feet are as the under-recognized workers…essential, but not glamorous. Not sexy; not front page news,…but nothing would get done without them.

I am an English teacher; I could go on, but I would never say it better than Neruda. Instead, on this Friday evening, storm clouds gathering, world gentling into night’s darkness, I will draw a hot bath.

I will soak my feet.

I will clip the nails and rub the callouses with a little brick of pumice, and slather my feet with sweet, silky lotion. Then I will let my feet rest while I loll in bed, my hands doing the work of holding up that hardcover book, until I drift off to sleep, mid-chapter.

All that Neruda wrote is true, but I take a mindful minute now to ponder them: my feet, my over-worked, always dependable feet. Thank you, I think, sending that down the line of my body, right down to the toes, which I realize now that I’m paying attention, are just the least little bit sore.

Thank you. Don’t give up on me. Let’s keep on going on, together, a decade or two, or maybe even more.