Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Toe Jam

By Margaret Renkl

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  My mother took a lot of flack from the women in Andalusia, Ala., the autumn I was born. Unlike most other women of her generation, Mom had waited for marriage until she was nearly 30 years old, and by the time I came along--though it was the very next year--virtually all her friends already had kids in grade school. So it was no surprise that the whole town thought it knew better than my mother how to take care of an infant, and the whole town suffered no hesitation in telling her so. The old ladies were particularly aghast, it seems, that Mom refused to put shoes on my little blue feet. No matter how cold it got, she just couldn't bear, she said, not being able to watch me wiggle my toes.

In fairness to the busybodies of Andalusia, Ala., it probably ought to be mentioned that I was born five weeks early, which in 1961 was dangerously early. There were no neonatal experts in Andalusia, no intensive-care unit in the tiny county hospital where I was born. Even the very latest advances in technology, however, would not have been enough to guarantee life to an infant born five weeks too soon, as President and Mrs. Kennedy were to discover less than two years later; their second son, Patrick, was also born five weeks premature, but Patrick died. So, when I didn't die after a week in an incubator, when I didn't even require transport to larger medical facilities in Montgomery, I was the town's own miracle. People felt they had a right to correct my inexperienced mother, right there on Main Street, when she proudly took me out in November wearing a handmade batiste dress covered with impossibly tiny embroidery and infinitesimal tucks, but without a knitted bootie in sight.

In fairness to Mom, it ought to be pointed out that it doesn't get all that cold in Lower Alabama, 30 miles from the coast, as Andalusia is. It ought to be remembered that I was her first child, a child that she--after watching for years as friend after friend married and begot offspring, while she went home to a boarding house at night--must have doubted she would ever have.

Further, I was a child who had survived a week in a hospital incubator. Naturally, she would find my every body part a digit to treasure. Naturally, she would want as much skin-to-skin contact as one could reasonably expect to have with a late-autumn, premature infant.

As it turns out, though, it wasn't my precarious entry into the world that made Mom besotted with baby feet. Neither my brother nor my sister joined the world in quite so melodramatic a way as I did, and yet, to all appearances, my mother cherished their toes as emphatically as she did my own. My sister, a full-term eight-pounder, was born in January the year we moved to Birmingham, a much colder town than Andalusia in more ways than one. When Mom refused to incarcerate my sister's much plumper little toes in shoes, not a single person in colder, busier Birmingham tried to stop her.

Like my own mother, I delayed marriage and motherhood until I was nearly 30, but I was never one of those childless women who obsess over babies. I didn't automatically gravitate to strollers in the mall, didn't attend baby showers with longing in my heart. When my friends started popping out in the middle, I didn't pat their bellies and dream of myself waddling around, inhabited by my own little bundle of joy. Life was full and busy and happy. Where, I wondered, would a baby fit in? What would I have to give up? How would I make room?

I have to admit, though, that, like Mom, I've always had a thing for baby feet. Even in my most confirmed, professional-woman mode, the sight of those plump little knobs of soft flesh poking out of a romper would make me want to reach out, close my hands around the sweet springy skin, and ever so gently squeeze. Those squat little toes, constantly in motion--flexing and stretching, curling a little in an almost-grip around my proffered finger--would melt my cold, cold Birmingham heart. When I was pregnant for the first time, expecting a dead-of-January winter baby, I held up a pair of footie-pajamas at my own baby shower and burst into tears.

Two weeks ago, when nighttime temperatures dipped into the 40s, and my newly toddling 1-year-old insisted on spending all his waking hours out of doors, it occurred to me that it was finally time to buy his first pair of shoes. I made do last winter with thick socks and baby blankets, but I couldn't put off the inevitable too much longer. Autumn was on the way, and even if Indian summer returned full blast for a few more weeks, the child needed something to protect his pink and perfect toes from the blistering asphalt of our driveway and from the million pebbles our eroding backyard keeps casting into what passes for grass back there.

So I did it. I took him to the small, family-owned shoe store where I've taken his brother for the past five years, and I held my baby on my lap while a kind gentleman measured his foot and fit him in a pristine pair of soft white hightops, just like the ones babies have been wearing for generations. While I stood at the counter to write a check, my son sat on the floor and stared at his feet, mesmerized by all that whiteness. He kept tugging at the strings and then looking up at me and laughing. He gave every impression of being perfectly delighted with his new big-boy shoes.

Now that I have children of my own, I understand my mother in countless ways I never could have guessed at before. Without even realizing it, I seem to have imbibed her ideas about discipline, about encouraging creativity, about the importance of a family's eating dinner together every night. I often find whole phrases of hers leaping unbidden from my tongue when a child disobeys.

Perhaps more than anything else, I've inherited her fascination for a baby's toes. No matter how cold it gets, no matter how many pebbles spring out of the soil in my backyard, I can't seem to make myself put those new shoes on my baby. They sit in their box on the bottom shelf of the changing table, as white and untouched as the coldest snow.


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