At the time of my mother’s death, there were 96 pairs of shoes in her closet. Ninety-six. NINE SIX. I know because I counted them with my niece, Margo, as we began the inevitable job of cleaning out her closets. When we’d start to cry as we told each other stories, we’d start screaming what number of shoes we were up to:
Fifty-seven!!! Fifty-seven f’ing pairs of shoes!!!
The tears would quickly turn into laughter and we’d keep counting. The occasional pocketbook was mixed into her shelves of shoes. Coordinating colors and materials. Suede. Peau de soie. Snakeskin. But it was shoes mostly. So many shoes.
Twenty-five years earlier, I helped my mother do this exact same emotional chore. A 16-year-old me helped my mother clean out her mother’s closet. What did we find?
Housecoats. So many housecoats, with metal snaps and bold floral designs of cabbage roses and tiger lilies....
She had suits and matching structured hats with black netting that came down slightly over the eyes. I tried the hats on as we took them out of their boxes – stacks of octagonal hat boxes with perfect rope handles. (Storage was serious business to my grandma.)
I never wore them for long. After a moment, I’d carefully put the hat back into its tissue paper nest, afraid Grandma would appear from the beyond and say, “No, not like that!” or “Let me put it back, it’s tricky.”
When we got to Grandma’s shoes, my mother told me for the first time of a tradition. I was told Jews do not wear the shoes of dead people.
“But why not?” I asked.
“They just don’t,” she answered.
Amongst her costume jewelry, I picked up a bow made of rhinestones. It looked like a pin, but not quite. “This is pretty,” I said.
My mother looked at what I held in my hand. She said I could keep it, but I had to promise her I’d never wear it. It was a decorative clip for shoes. She reminded me again that anything that had to do with the shoes of the dead were never to be worn. We would give away all her shoes, but I could keep the rhinestone bow.
My mother wore a size 12. Her feet got bigger with every child, she said, and there were four of us. Most of the 96 pairs of shoes in her closet had barely, if ever, been worn. When she found her size in any style, she bought it. (Size 12s were hard to come by.) If my mother had a wild streak, she expressed it with her shoes.
I wear a size 11 myself. My niece wears a size 10. We wanted so badly to keep some of them – Purple Uggs, hot pink flats, green snakeskin block heels. But I told my niece what my mother had said 25 years earlier in this mirror image moment: “Jews don’t wear the shoes of the dead.”
So we continued to bag them all up, shouting out the number we had counted to so far: 87 pairs of f’ing shoes hahahaha!
I would fill my mother’s closet with a million pairs of shoes if she were still here. It’s been eight years since I brought them all to a women’s charity. Dress for Success was something she’d seen on Oprah, and I knew she loved the idea behind it. So I filled my car with bags and bags of beautiful, barely worn shoes. I think I made three trips to that church basement 45 minutes away.
It felt so good.
Last week, I stopped by my friend Lara’s house. Her mom, Lee, died seven months ago. She was lovely. Lara and her sister now face the emotional shoe-sorting chore that ultimately falls on daughters. It turns out that Lee was a size 11 shoe like me. She was sort of petite and very fabulous. Not showy fabulous, but that sparkly fabulous that certain people just have.
I picked up a bag of shoes that had barely, or never, been worn. I thought about my mother’s words – never to wear the shoes of the dead. It felt like more of a superstition than a rule. I’ve researched Jewish customs and can’t find much basis for it now. At the very least, my mother’s belief is very open to interpretation. She might have even told me to keep her purple Uggs, and to wear them. I think she would’ve told me to dance in them.
My daughter, Miriam, has average size feet for a four-year-old. I don’t know yet if I will tell her of my mother’s superstition. When I’m gone and Miriam has to go through my things, I want her to feel close to what physical items are left – a scarf, a pair of sweatpants, my Wonder Woman bracelets her father gave me for Mother’s Day this year.
If she has a size 11 foot by then (and I kind of hope she does), I want her to wear my shoes. And keep walking for me. To every amazing place she can find.