I have always watched the feet. Of women… Not just the texture, the varnish, the larger second toe (sure sign of a hen-pecked husband they say). Not the style of footwear, though that can be telling…
The way the shoe is worn, the degree to which it is, the weft of the laces, the wrinkles in the leather – you can tell if she walks or she drives, if she runs and she trips, if she carries her own children and shopping. You can tell whether anyone ever massages her soles – the skilled hands of a beautician or the awkwardly firm and gentle ones of a husband or lover. There are the feet of lonely women, well pampered and glistening some, peeling and scuffed others. There are the feet of busy women, usually encased in sensible shoes. There are the feet of vain women, delicately painted toes peeking out of impractical decorations with fancy tags.
There are the feet of my aunt; now in her seventies, her husband a few years ahead of her. He gave up his religion to marry her, a staunch, family-oriented Catholic. He’s had his demons, she’s worn her martyrdom. Three children, several grandchildren and a lifetime later, theirs’ is an uneasy but loving truce. But, she says, giggling in a way belying her open heart surgery scars, ‘He first noticed my feet.’ And last week, after a rude fight, he bent his tall, creaking frame and kissed my aunt’s toes in reparation.
My mother’s feet are the most beautiful. Structurally perfect, soft, evenly blended, the colours of peaches, milk and honey. The nails on the toes are rounded, slightly elongated squares, the arch is clear and high and strong and bridges the fat ball and the rounded heel. My mother has been lucky enough to have grown up to have had a car at her disposal. She wears good shoes and keeps a clean floor. But even though they have borne the weight of six children, her cherubic feet are a gift of ancestry. Her family were rich, educated, landowners. No doubt a great-great-grandmother ran in the soft soil of just-ploughed fields with the same perfect arches or climbed mango trees in her mother’s grove clinging with the same perfect toes.
My eldest daughter has inherited some of the structural beauty of her maternal grandmother’s feet, the arch, the heel, the colouring. But her toenails are the same hilarious shape as my one of my sister’s… wide, as if meant to work in tandem with tiny-movie projectors. ‘Television toes’ we’ve always called them.
Seven years ago, outside my little girl’s school, the mothers waited for their children. The gate was opaque except for six inches off the ground where a grill allows the monsoon water easy passage. In that first harrowing week of sending my 3 year old into the real world without me, I would stand outside, earlier than all the other mothers, waiting for her to be released from the unknown, listening for her voice amongst the other toddlers. After four days of fears of abandonment (hers) and fears of her falling faint with crying (mine), I thought I heard her laugh. I listened carefully… there it was, my little girl’s voice and then she said to her teacher, ‘Look, look, I can see my mama’s feet. Those are my mama’s feet! She’s come to take me home.’
Of course I cried. But I also did a little funny foot dance to let her know that I had heard her.
The last time I watched television, the camera lingered, in closing, on the departing feet of a young woman, in her late twenties. The backs of her shoes arched inward slightly to accommodate the sway of her young woman hips (though the camera was focussed way below those). Her trousers and soles seemed sensible, but their no-nonsense belonged to the character, not the actress. Her feet and her stride, attached like a shadow, snitched on her true personality, giving her away.
The feet of unencumbered women, of women celebrated for their beauty, of women who are pursued – these women have well cared for feet. And they watch them as they walk in their delicate shoes, watch for the curve in the road that could unsettle them, or the unwieldy carpet fold that could catch their heel.
But the feet of women caring for children; some chapped, some bruised, some cheaply shod, there is a grace that comes from guiding another pair or two beside them. They stumble so the little pairs can catch up, they walk through the puddles because they’re dragged in… and when their hips sway, they sway with the weight of a pair of young legs wrapped around them, never looking down, one eye on the road, one eye on the faces of the children, smiling. Because they know; they have the strongest feet in the world.