Mother's Day was created, probably by Hallmark Cards, to honor our mothers. I've never taken the day too seriously, but lately I find it more compelling. I am a mother and a grandmother and my mother is still alive. She has lived a long life. She's the first to tell you she's outlived her time. She's 95 years old. The way she sees it her body is "disgustingly healthy, but her mind is another matter." She has advanced dementia. As Mother's Day has come and gone, I have my own conflicted feelings about Mom's long life. I prefer not to examine her mind, as it can be painful to focus on that. Rather, I will tell you about her feet.
Mom's attitude toward her feet is a jumble of contradictions. Going barefoot has always been her preference at all times, in all places, at each stage of her long life. She delights in people's reactions to her naked toes when she roams the long hallways of her most recent home in an assisted living retirement facility. The friendly nursing aides react with an amused air of disapproval,
"Ms. Fleisher, where do you think you're going? You need to put on your shoes!"
"Why?" she responds, "I'm not going anywhere."
Throughout her adult life, she would go outside in winter all bundled up, a petite woman swathed in a long heavy sheepskin coat with curly fur around her neck. But, those tiny pale feet were always bone bare inside her wooden clogs.
Always one to be dressed in the latest style, her shoes were all the rage, but often raised eyebrows when worn by someone her age. Four-inch wooden platform open-toed shoes held in place by a single leather strap were the shoes of choice at her granddaughter's out-door wedding. Everyone in attendance held their breath as my 83 year old mother hobbled along the rutted dirt path leading to the wedding tent--in the rain, clasping her son's arm for balance. By the middle of the ceremony her feet were bare, and with assistance, she made her way back to the car gingerly stepping through mud and gravel. Age never was a factor for her when choosing what should adorn her feet.
Now in her mid nineties, she's a feisty tiny woman with clumps of gray thinning hair. She may not remember what she ate two minutes ago, but she has glowing memories of her athletic prowess in adolescence. Her blue eyes, framed by deep laugh lines, sparkle proudly when she tells stories of her number one seeded position on the district tennis ladder. She was known as the girl who played barefoot on the manicured grass courts reserved for the top ranked tennis matches. Her bare feet carry a message of pride and rebellion. "I'll be damned if you are going to tell me what to do!"
On close inspection, her feet are a curious oddity. Her big toes are small, but strong. And each toe thereafter is bent toward the outside edge of the foot, as if broken at mid-point. "Ugly!" is what she calls them. Ugly, like the way she feels about the rest of her small muscular body with a belly that is always too big. Ugly may be her descriptor, but she flaunts those feet openly in public as if to say, "They may be ugly, but they are strong and proud and free-spirited. They never did enough for me to love them, but if I could have I would have."
As I've watched my mother grow old I realize how little control we have about how long we are fated to live. I've changed my thinking about the goal of a long life. Quality of life is more important to me. And how much control do we have over that? Still, I hope I will have the kind of spirit and pride Mom shows the world despite her certainty that she has outlived her time.