My mother, Genevieve Loretta Dougherty (seated at right)

…that I’ve always had a strong visceral reaction to, but I never gave it much thought…until this past Friday afternoon.

The way the standing leg of the “T” stretches up the middle of the forefoot to meet the cross bar, which circles around the ankle and cinches at the side in a buckle, only to tie the foot up so that it can’t easily get away, makes me feel constricted, confined, controlled.  The hair lifts off the surface of my arms, my breathing becomes shallow, my shoulders rise up toward my ears, my toes assert themselves and spread out along the insides of my shoes, as though trying to push their way right through the seams to free themselves of the leather that binds them.

When I was a child, the thought of not being able to kick a shoe off in an instant and wade through the waters of the Rio Grande River if I wanted to, the thought of not being able to slip out of a pair of shoes on a whim, climb over the fence of the horse corral and slide, barefoot, onto the back of my horse, Patches…the thought of not being able to run free made me crazy nervous.  Nutty, perhaps.  But I’m more than a bit of a claustrophobe and it extends to footwear.

I don’t remember a time when T-straps haven’t been more or less in fashion, often in black patent leather, a high-gloss enameled treatment of animal skin to which I was strangely attracted when I was 15.  When I was invited to the prom by a friend of my older brother’s I used my savings to buy an above-the-knee cream-colored long-sleeved lace dress with a matching slip to modestly cover my almost non-existent breasts.  A search of virtually every shoe store in town led me to a pair of black patent leather sling-backs with a cream-colored heel, which cost all of around $21 dollars, at the time a fortune for a 15 year-old girl.  My mother paid for them and I brought her investment home in a pristine shoebox, each sling-back wrapped in crisp white tissue paper, and took them out, one by one, to show her, leaving fingerprint smears wherever I touched them.

Born just before World War I and living through the Great Depression, my mother had learned a thing or two about using simple ingredients, like vinegar and baking soda, to clean virtually anything. She disappeared into her bathroom to fetch a jar of Vasoline and a soft rag and returned to gingerly wipe off every trace of my clumsy finger marks.  However tender her rescue might have been, it was not necessarily wise, the magic of Vasoline instantly turning my mere fascination with black patent leather into an unreasonable obsession with keeping it looking brand new, the mirror like surfaces of my perfect dress shoes glistening like mountain lake water in the midday sun.  Any girl who has ever owned anything made of patent leather knows this futile effort eventually leads only to tears.

Since it was highly unlikely that my mother would fund the purchase of another pair of dress shoes any time soon, I was grateful for her efforts to preserve the perch that would provide easier access to a possible goodnight kiss at the end of this particular prom, as well as at all of the other too numerous to imagine dances I hoped would be in my future.  Still, I was far more comfortable in bare feet – young dancer that I had been since I was six – than I would ever be in a pair of shoes, and it was something of a miracle that I wasn’t insisting I’d go to the dance barefoot.

Even though my father had been dead for ten years, I had strong memories of standing tiptoe on his shod feet as he danced with me around the room.  And while I couldn’t really see how the sexy laciness of my prom dress would be in any way diminished by the nakedness of my toes, it was clear that my date’s easy height over me begged my mother’s generous gift of a few inches under my feet, especially if I was to receive that hoped for kiss.  And so I fell in love with the black patent leather sling-backs as much for the chance they provided to dance cheek-to-cheek as for the ease with which I could kick them off if the trembling suggestion of claustrophobia should suddenly show up in the middle of a dance.

I hadn’t spent my entire childhood unshod.  There were a young girl’s requisite flip-flops and sandals and ballet slippers and clogs.  And in place of the ubiquitous cowboy boots of Northern New Mexico, which would make me break out in a sweat just thinking about the effect of Chinese foot binding, I coveted a pair of 4-inch silk satin heels my father had given my mother to dye just the right shade of lemon yellow to match a dress she’d had made.  I imagined an evening of easily received kisses.  I imagined the wonderfully simple escape that could be made from the beautiful fabric gracefully circling just beneath the line where my mother’s toes attached to her feet.  I imagined that someday some handsome man would buy me such a pair of shoes to match an evening dress.  I imagined that some day that man would want me to feel sexy and free at the same time.

My mother and I never talked about shoes and the occasional need for the artful quick escape. I never told her why I didn’t want a pair of T-straps, no matter how chic, au currant, in vogue, stylish and sexy others thought they might be.  I never considered any of this until I got an email on Sunday, September 25th from my cousin – my mother’s younger sister’s daughter – announcing that she had come across a framed group photo of our mothers, their sister and older brothers when they were children.  She told me that it had been a cherished possession of her mother’s and wondered if I would like to have it.  I jumped at her offer and was grateful she had thought about me.  For many years I’d been slowly piecing together two family trees, a paternal one and a maternal one, and my cousin had shared a lot of information about our mothers’ mid-Western Irish family.  But I didn’t have any photographs of my mother when she was around 8 or 9 years old, the same age I am in the photo that graces my home page, which was taken three years after my father died.

The promised photograph of my mother and her siblings arrived on my doorstep late Friday afternoon.  My immediate and visceral reaction to the look in her eye and the obvious stillness of her body was eerily familiar to me. The sepia-toned photo had been taken a year or two after the death of her own father.  I took in her widow’s peak, which I inherited, and her thick, curly, and obviously bright red hair, which I did not inherit, and worked my way down the photo across her crisply ironed frock and somehow oddly white knee socks, before settling, somewhat stunned, on the round-toed T-strap shoes that bound her feet, which were crossed at the ankles.

I don’t know whether the intent expression on my mother’s face had anything to do with what I perceived to be the restrictive nature of her fashionable early 1930s T-straps, or whether it was due to what I knew it felt like to live in a fatherless house, or to something else entirely.  But I knew that gaze and the particular set of her lips.  I knew that by the time she and her siblings gathered for this photo a certain burden of responsibility had been placed on her young shoulders by her mother – she was the eldest daughter, as was I when my father died – that took her years to get out from under.  I might not have had any photographs of her as a young girl until this one arrived, but I had plenty of memories of my mother telling me how she longed to escape the family farm, and how she longed for freedom, which she finally found in the company of my father, who many years later would take her out to dinner and then dancing wearing those lemon yellow silk shoes and matching dress.

My mother and I often spoke about freedom.  But holding the framed photograph my cousin had sent me, suddenly I wished I’d been able to tell her about the special kind of freedom that can only come with an artful escape accomplished in bare feet.

Somehow, I think she would have understood.