From baby booties to orthopedic brogues (and all the high and low heels in between) shoes mark important rites of passage, reminding us of both the good and bad times: the road not taken, the prince that got away, the missed opportunities, the traveling, the fun. Most of all, they bring to mind the people we’ve loved and sometimes lost along the way.
Combining tidbits of cultural history, Morrisroe chronicles her life as a bullied Catholic schoolgirl in “Moby Dick” brogues; a besotted college student in granny boots; an aspiring journalist in Annie Hall oxfords; a skeptical bride in her first Manolos; a reluctant fashionista in towering peep-toe pumps; and a concerned daughter, whose elderly mother hoped that her New Balance sneakers would help her regain her old balance. With wit and compassion, she introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters, from her grandfather, who treated the family to legendary foot rubs, to her husband, whose vast collection of vintage Puma sneakers threatened to overwhelm their apartment and derail their marriage.
Morrisroe’s “coming-of-age” is, at its heart, the story of a generation of women who’ve enjoyed a world of freedom and opportunity that was unthinkable to their mothers. Spanning five decades and countless footwear trends, 9 ½ Narrow is, like Love, Loss and What I Wore, about how we remember important events through a coat, or a dress, or in this case, a Beatle boot or Confirmation “wedgie.” With her charming sense of humor and irresistible voice, Morrisroe not only recounts her own story but also everywoman’s. Funny, candid and unexpectedly poignant, 9 ½ Narrow is about how we grow up, grow older, and finally grow into our own shoes.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Last month I was killing time before a dentist’s appointment when I wandered into a “shoe event” at Bergdorf Goodman. Dozens of women were teetering on five-inch heels and drinking champagne. Shoe boxes were everywhere. I spotted a pair of studded black boots that I didn’t need and couldn’t afford, but after inhaling the scent of shoe lust—a carnal blend of animal hides with a splash of insanity—I flagged the nearest salesperson.
“Is your name on the list?” he asked. A list for what? Boots? But apparently there was a list, and I was not on it. As a consolation prize, he offered me champagne, but I didn’t want champagne. I wanted the boots. The salesman seemed genuinely perplexed by my inability to grasp the obvious. The boots were already “pre-sold.” Did I actually expect to waltz into the store in early September and come away with a pair of highly coveted fall boots that other customers had been plotting to acquire since the previous spring?
I thanked him and gathered my things while he checked out my bag and shoes.
Sensing that he might be losing a potential customer, he motioned me closer. “Maybe I can do something,” he whispered. “I’ll see what’s in the back room.” He zigzagged around the shoe boxes and disappeared. He was gone so long, it gave me plenty of time to wonder if the back room was so far back it was now in New Jersey. When he returned, he was out of breath. “I was saving these for a celebrity,” he said, “but she never showed up.” The boots were a size 8½. I’d asked for a 9½.
“They run large,” he explained, “and I see that you have very narrow feet, so they might fit.”
They didn’t, although that didn’t stop me from parading around in them, hoping they’d conform to my feet through sheer force of will. As I circled the room, I attracted the attention of several tipsy women, who were heading for the escalator with shopping bags filled with shoe boxes. They spotted the boots and began to follow me.
“Unfortunately, they’re too short,” I told the salesman.
He gave me the name of an elite shoe repair shop that could stretch them.
“And they’re too wide.”
“I can get you some insoles.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid they don’t fit.”
The women gazed down at my poor pathetic feet, the feet that couldn’t fit into the boots a celebrity had almost wanted. I could feel their pity and, it must be said, their disgust. I didn’t have a pedicure, which made me the outlier in a room of perfectly painted toenails. I would never get the boots or the prince because in a weird twist on Cinderella, my feet were both too slender and too large.
We’re living in the Shoe Age, when women have determined that there is nothing more fulfilling, more thrilling than a pair of head-turning, sole-killing “statement” heels. While not a new phenomenon—women have always been shoe-obsessed—we’ve entered an era when shoes have not only become the most important fashion accessory but also the most profitable item in high-end department stores. Conquering territory that once belonged to designer clothes, shoes are now displayed in the equivalent of footwear museums. In 2007, Saks Fifth Avenue was one of the first to jump on the trend when it turned its eighth floor into a shoe emporium so enormous it needed its own ZIP code—10022-SHOE. Five years later, it felt cramped, so Saks added another 7,000 square feet, including on-site shoe repair. Not to be outdone, Barneys created a 22,000-square-foot shoe department that spanned the whole fifth floor, with Italian marble walls, glass and ebony wood tables, and iPad stations. Macy’s, with 63,000 square feet containing nearly 300,000 pairs of shoes, claims to be the largest shoe department in the entire world, but Harrods in London and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong are fast catching up.
Department stores need to do everything they can to entice shoppers, who can easily click on a retail website, such as Net-A-Porter, and have Christian Louboutin’s Follies Resille five-inch pumps “crafted from gold leather and glitter-finished fishnet” overnighted to their homes. If their size is sold out, they can go on any number of social commerce websites and locate them in London, Singapore, or Berlin. The e-tailer Yoox started an online shoe store, Shoescribe, after it discovered that sales of shoes far outpaced those of any other items.
Where once viewed as secondary to handbags, shoes are increasingly essential to a designer’s brand. In addition to being highly lucrative, they expose new customers to a designer’s ready-to-wear business, as well as frequently dictating the look of fashion shows. When heels go up, hemlines do too; when they go down, dresses become looser, pants slouchier. With prices for designer clothes increasingly out of reach, shoes may feel like a relative bargain, and with clothes becoming more casual, they add an element of sophistication. Shoes are fun to shop for. They don’t require you to enter a dressing room and stare at your cellulite under unflattering light. Feet may develop bunions and corns, but they’ll never get fat, and they’ll still look beautiful—in the right shoes.
Sex and the City brought “shoe porn” to the masses. From 1998 to 2004, Sarah Jessica Parker, as the shoe-obsessed Carrie, introduced TV audiences to such high-end designers as Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, and Christian Louboutin. “Manolos” became so popular that 37 percent of women surveyed in a Women’s Wear Daily poll claimed they’d bungee jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in exchange for a lifetime supply of them. In the fall of 2014, Parker introduced her own line of footwear, SJP, which included a strappy spike named the Carrie.
By the time I reached the dentist’s office, I couldn’t stop thinking about shoes. For a brief moment, I even thought about Imelda Marcos, who, after fleeing the Philippines with her dictator husband, left a cache of her famous designer high heels behind. Termites invaded the presidential palace and ate them. Then I began thinking about Bernie Madoff, whose possessions were sent to the auction block to help compensate his victims. What captured the public’s imagination was not his collection of Patek Philippe watches, or his wife’s 10-karat emerald-cut diamond, or the Steinway grand piano, or the cow-shaped creamer. It was the 250 pairs of handmade Belgian loafers in the “Mr. Casual” style. The press had a field day with headlines such as WALK A DAY IN BERNIE MADOFF’S SHOES. Not that any would want to, since he was serving 150 years in prison, but the shoes came to symbolize Madoff’s improbable journey from prominent investment advisor to notorious financial swindler.
Marie Antoinette, whose reputation for extravagance earned her the title Madame Déficit, bought shoes by the hundreds. The queen’s trip to the guillotine is rife with shoe imagery. During her escape from the storming of the Tuileries Palace, she lost a delicate high-heeled slipper with ruched ribbon trim that is now in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. She wore two-inch plum-black mules to her beheading. Her final words, “Pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it,” were uttered to the executioner after she accidentally stepped on his foot. More recently, the veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin was killed in Syria when she returned to a building to retrieve her shoes during a rocket attack. In keeping with local customs, she’d removed them before entering.
Shoes not only tell stories but are also thought to indicate character. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured Wiesbaden Army Airfield in a pair of black stiletto boots that the Washington Post’s fashion editor, Robin Givhan, viewed as a refreshing demonstration of power, sex, and toughness. Later that year, Rice was roundly criticized for going shoe shopping at the Fifth Avenue Ferragamo immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Sarah Palin, in her debut as vice presidential candidate, chose a pair of bright-red, high-heeled Double Dare pumps by Naughty Monkey, a brand that usually caters to twenty-year-old club kids. If Palin was viewed as inappropriately sexy, Representative Michele Bachmann, in her 2012 presidential run, was often photographed in dowdy open-toed orthopedic-style sandals paired with pantyhose. She claimed high heels triggered her migraines, which set off a whole flurry of stories about how she’d deal with the stress of the presidency. Michelle Obama, famous for her chic mix of high and low, wore a pair of relatively affordable J. Crew pumps to the 2013 Inauguration Day festivities. The shoes offset the expensive made-to-order Thom Browne coat, signaling that she was both glamorous and grounded.
Shoes play an important role in fairy tales, largely due to their sexual connotations. To Freud, they symbolized the vagina, with the foot representing male and female castration anxieties. When Cinderella slides her foot into the smooth glass slipper, she is signaling to the prince that they will live happily ever after, at least in the bedroom.
Even in real life, shoes have figured prominently in courtship and marriage rituals. In some countries, the father of the bride presented the groom with his daughter’s shoes to symbolize the transfer of authority. When placed on the husband’s side of the wedding bed, the bride’s shoe signified ownership and fostered fertility. People still tie old shoes to the bumper of a newlywed’s car as a way of wishing good luck.
Our language is filled with shoe references. If something is very soothing and familiar, it’s as “comforting as an old shoe.” If we assume someone else’s responsibilities, we’re “stepping into his shoes.” When we grow fearful, we “wait for the other shoe to drop.” When someone experiences a spate of bad luck, we tell ourselves that we “wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.” In the war against terrorism, we even have a new term: shoe bomber.
From crocheted booties to orthopedic brogues, shoes mark important rites of passage, reminding us of both the good and bad times—the road not taken, the prince not caught, the missed opportunities, the dancing, the traveling, the fun. While I can’t always recall the dresses or coats I wore on various occasions, I have a vivid memory of the white Mary Janes that represented my first shoe “crush”; the confirmation wedgies that celebrated my entrance to adulthood; the red patent-leather Puma sneakers my husband sported on our first date; the gray ostrich flats I wore to a girlfriend’s funeral; the New Balance sneakers I bought my elderly mother, who was losing her balance and was too proud to use a cane.
This is my shoe story, but it could just as easily be yours. So kick off your heels, put up your feet, and for the next few hours, walk with me.
It was the summer of 1961. Kennedy was in the White House, I was in church, and Hannah Howard was in a pair of white Mary Janes. Hannah was the prettiest girl in my school. She had long platinum hair, bright-blue eyes, and a Hollywood pedigree, a rarity in Andover, Massachusetts, where Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the town’s biggest celebrity. Hannah’s mother was Priscilla Lane, who had starred in dozens of movies, including The Roaring Twenties, with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, and Arsenic and Old Lace, with Cary Grant. Priscilla Lane, by then Mrs. Howard, had also been my Brownie leader and looked so striking in her uniform that I never missed a troop meeting and briefly considered a military career.
Whenever Hannah and Mrs. Howard walked up to the Communion rail, even the most devout churchgoers put down their missals and gawked. I was among the worst offenders. On that particular Sunday, I kept staring at their outfits as I inched my way toward the altar rail. They were in the line opposite me, so I had an especially good view. Suddenly, I felt a sharp poke in my back. It was my mother, and I knew exactly what the poke meant: You stop right now! You’re in church! But I couldn’t stop because I’d already fallen in love with Hannah’s white Mary Janes.
In hindsight, I realize I was infatuated not so much with the shoes but with the concept of Hollywood perfection viewed through the eyes of a ten-year-old. Though my mother was blond and very pretty, she wasn’t a movie star, and nobody would ever mistake me for a movie star’s daughter. Instead of long platinum hair, I had a brunette pixie cut that clung to my head like an upside-down artichoke, and I was tall, skinny, and so pale my mother kept pressing me to “get some color.” When the neighborhood kids played cowboys and Indians, I was usually cast as the English princess, whose sole responsibility was sitting in a claustrophobic teepee, waiting for the cowboys to rescue me. Usually, they were too busy shooting toy guns and shouting racist comments at the Indians to remember they’d left “Princess Pale Skin” behind.
I couldn’t imagine Hannah wasting her precious youth in an overheated teepee. She was probably a regular at Disneyland, where her family received preferential treatment through her mother’s Hollywood connections. I knew that envy was a sin, but I wanted to be Hannah Howard. I immediately felt guilty for not thinking more spiritual thoughts, especially with Father Smith holding the Host in front of my face. As I returned to my pew, I tried to extricate the sticky wafer from the roof of my mouth, while praying to be a better person. It was then I experienced an epiphany. While not spiritual or particularly profound, it resonated with me. I couldn’t walk in Hannah’s shoes, but I could, if my mother agreed, own the same pair.
“White shoes?” my mother said as we drove home from church. “Are you crazy? They’re going to get filthy and then what will you do?”
“They’ll never look the same. You’ve had some crazy ideas but white shoes, well, that’s the craziest. Just you wait. Your father is going to have plenty to say about that.”
My father worked in finance, first as a bank examiner, and then in the mortgage department at the Arlington Trust Company, where everybody said he was the nicest man they’d ever met. Despite his outgoing personality during business hours, he was a naturally reticent person who treasured his brief moments of privacy. One of his greatest pleasures was reading The Boston Globe and the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, which he’d focus on so intensely he seemed to go into a trance. His mother had died when he was four, and since my grandfather, who worked for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, couldn’t take care of seven children, the family was split up. Depending on their ages, some stayed with relatives or were sent away to school. My father and his older brother, Joe, wound up with their aunt, a Dominican nun who lived in a nearby convent. When they turned seven, they attended a strict all-boys Catholic school, where they joined other students who’d been orphaned or whose parents couldn’t keep them at home. As a form of survival, my father had learned from an early age that books and newspapers were powerful tools of escape. Raised not to whine or complain, he was stoic to a fault. If anyone ever asked how he was, he’d always give the same answer: “I’m fine.”
I knew he wasn’t going to have “plenty” to say about my Mary Janes because he wouldn’t waste a syllable on anything as trivial as fashion. This was strictly a mother-daughter issue. My mother told me I had enough shoes and that I was turning into a very greedy little girl, and you know what happens to greedy little girls?
While she painted a very dark picture of my future, we noticed a skunk in our backyard. It had built a den not far from where we played croquet, preventing us from channeling our frustrations through competitive sport. For the next several days, my mother rapped on the kitchen window and screamed, “Get out, you pest!” Sensing no danger whatsoever, the skunk continued to ignore her, and because my mother was afraid it would soon take over the house—she tended to endow animals with human qualities—she called the Andover police. In all fairness, she hadn’t expected a firing squad. The policemen explained that skunks are rarely seen in daylight during the summer, unless they have rabies. The skunk had to go. To this day, I can still hear them shouting, “Ready! Aim! Fire!” It was not a clean kill. The skunk staggered around our croquet set, before collapsing, dead, over a wicket.
I became hysterical, and to calm me down, my mother offered to buy me a Popsicle. “I just saw an animal being killed before my very eyes,” I cried. “You think a Popsicle is going to make that image go away?”
“Then what would?”
I pretended to think for a few seconds. “Hmmm,” I said. “White Mary Janes?”
A few hours later, with my new shoes and a celebratory Popsicle, my mother told me I should be grateful to the skunk, whose death had not been in vain, though the animal did blanket the neighborhood with a noxious odor. It was a small price to pay for such beautiful shoes. As I was admiring the way the white leather blended seamlessly with my white legs, my mother casually dropped a bombshell: “You were born with twelve toes, you know.” Before I had time to process this bizarre piece of information, she ran into the kitchen to answer the telephone. The street was abuzz with rumors that she’d killed someone.
Twelve toes? Where did that come from? While I could understand her calling me the prettiest baby in the hospital nursery—except for a boy with an unusually large head, I was the only baby—but twelve toes? That’s not something mothers usually brag about unless they live in parts of Asia, where extra digits are considered good luck, but in Andover, twelve toes aren’t necessarily bad luck. They’re just not a big advantage.
Simple things like nursery rhymes suddenly become darker and more complex. What’s a mother to do after the fifth little piggy goes “wee wee wee” all the way home, and she’s stuck with a sixth little piggy? Does she send it off to market again? Pretend it’s a Siamese twin? And what happens when the baby gets older and learns that 5 + 1 doesn’t equal 5½ or, if the mother is in total denial, 5?
I came home from the hospital minus two, so I was spared the math problems, but the story, as I soon discovered, didn’t add up.
“So, about those twelve toes,” I said when she returned from explaining to the elderly woman next door why her rhubarb smelled “off.”
“What are you talking about?” my mother replied. “I never said you had twelve toes. What I said, if you’d listened carefully, is that you were born with jaundice.”
My mother was a master at blurting out things and then developing temporary amnesia.
I was pretty sure that I hadn’t confused a condition that causes yellow skin with a birth defect that results in extra digits. Even if my mother had used the medical term for jaundice, which is icterus, it still sounded nothing like twelve toes. I took a closer look at my little toes. Why did they have identical scars? “Corns,” my mother said. “We all get them.” But babies don’t walk far enough to develop corns. They take a few steps and then go boom to the kind of wild applause they’ll probably never hear again in their entire lives.
The sudden revelation of my missing toes brought out the inner detective in me. I was a major fan of Nancy Drew books, which my mother bought for me the minute a new one came out. My mother read them too, though she made me promise never to tell anyone. “I’m just a kid at heart,” she’d say.
Whenever my mother slathered herself with baby oil and went outside to “work” on her tan—most women treated tanning as an actual job—I attempted to solve The Mystery of the Twelve Toes. My first stop was the family photo album, which my father had started when I was born and kept up regularly throughout the years. It sat on the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase, wedged between Ernie Pyle’s Here Is Your War and Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.
With an old magnifying glass I’d discovered in the basement, I immediately struck gold. A photo marked First Day Home from Hospital showed me kicking up my bare feet on my parents’ bed. My mother’s index finger extended into the frame, pointing at my left little toe. Using the magnifying glass, I began counting. One, two, three . . . ten. If two were removed, why didn’t I have bandages? And who cut off the toes? The obstetrician? A nearsighted mohel?
Right then, I had an image of dancing feet, and I recalled with some repulsion Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Red Shoes. It’s the story of a little girl who receives a pair of beautiful red dancing slippers that she can’t stop thinking about even during church service. The shoes eventually take over her life, forcing her to dance until her feet bleed. She can’t remove them, so she visits the local executioner and asks him to chop off her feet.
“You cried when you read that,” my mother recalled. A gigantic cumulus cloud had settled over the backyard, and she had come indoors for some iced tea and to check on the progress of her “color.”
“Gee, I wonder why?” I said. “The girl winds up with two stumps for feet and then dies in the end.”
“But she goes to heaven.”
“So you think I’m like that vain little girl and as punishment I imagined that someone chopped off my toes.”
“I’m not saying that exactly. But didn’t this toe obsession of yours start with those white Mary Janes?”
Reinhold’s Shoe Store on Main Street was my favorite place in town. It had a vending machine that dispensed brightly colored gumballs, and another packed with exotic trinkets, such as mini trolls, rubber spiders, and rings that glowed in the dark. Its biggest attraction was a strange-looking wooden cabinet that my mother warned me never to touch because it might explode. It was called a shoe-fitting fluoroscope, and until the early 1950s, it could be found in 10,000 shoe stores across the United States.
The machine used X-rays to take pictures of a person’s foot inside a new pair of shoes, allowing the salesmen to see the bones and soft tissue. Though the method was deemed essential for a “scientific fit,” customers were exposed to twice the recommended dose of radiation every time they placed their feet directly on the X-ray tube. After people began to worry that tight shoes were less of a problem than radiation-induced cancer, the fluoroscope was phased out.
Reinhold’s kept theirs as a reminder that “fitting” shoes was more important than “selling” them, and to that end, the salesmen were never without their Brannock Devices. Named after inventor Charles Brannock, it’s an aluminum contraption that you rarely see in adult shoe stores and never in high-end ones, where fashion trumps fit. This would have broken Brannock’s heart. The child of a shoe store owner, he’d become obsessed with creating an accurate foot-measuring device in the mid-1920s while a student at Syracuse University. His hobby made him somewhat of an oddity at Delta Kappa Epsilon, where he kept his frat brothers up nights making a prototype from an Erector set, but the Brannock Device eventually became the standard measurement tool.
The concept of measurement was based originally on the foot, which sounds so obvious, until you realize we’re talking about the actual human foot. With limited tools at their disposal, our ancestors used whatever was “handy,” including, of course, their hands. The human foot was roughly twelve inches, so a foot equaled—twelve inches. According to the Anglo-Saxons, an inch was three barleycorns, and a quarter of a barleycorn was a poppy seed. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, this antiquated method is still the basis of shoe size today. At my current size, I’m twenty-seven barleycorns and six poppy seeds, or 9½.
Prior to the Brannock Device, feet were measured with a simple measuring stick that focused purely on length. Brannock introduced the radical idea of width, from AAA to EEE. I was a triple A. The salesmen always complimented me on my slender feet, not realizing they might have been a whole lot wider with two extra toes. But no matter the size or configuration, Reinhold’s had something for everyone. After carefully measuring each foot, one of the bland-looking salesmen—they all wore variations of beige and brown—would disappear into the storage room, climbing a ladder to reach the top shelves. Five or ten minutes later, he’d emerge with so many boxes you couldn’t see his face. Like Prince Charming, he’d kneel down in front of you, take your foot in his hand, and with a long metal shoehorn, he’d slip on the first of a dozen selections. Out of boredom or bad taste, he’d occasionally come back with something totally inappropriate, such as the silver lamé marabou mules that he claimed were the “latest thing for the boudoir.” My mother, who’d been chatting with a friend near the fluoroscope, glanced over as I paraded up and down in the backless high heels. “Take those off immediately!” she said. “They look ridiculous!” The salesman quickly shoved them back in the box and disappeared into the stockroom.
My mother was a stickler about quality at a good price, and in those days, that meant only one brand: Stride Rite. In 1919, the company started out in a converted stable in Boston, not far from the city of Lynn, which was then the shoe capital of the world. While the wealthiest women went to Europe for custom-made shoes, companies in the United States, catering to a large and diverse population, were forced to offer multiple sizes, colors, and styles that weren’t available from European mass-marketing companies. As a result, America owned the ready-to-wear shoe business until the 1950s, when shoe manufacturing, like other industries such as wool processing, were caught in the post–World War II industrial decline. By the 1970s, highly respected firms such as Delman and I. Miller, which had hired Andy Warhol to do its shoe illustrations, fell into bankruptcy.
Whenever my mother bought a pair of shoes for me, she sometimes bought a pair for herself, but she’d usually return them. Despite the Brannock Device and the ministrations of the very attentive salesmen, the shoes never fit once she got home. Her feet were totally normal too—a size 8B. I could never figure it out. She’d get frustrated and say, “Dear Lord, help me,” and then go back to Reinhold’s. I think she missed the fluoroscope. There was something comforting about knowing the salesman could see the skeleton of her foot inside her shoes. Without that, she had to rely on her own intuition, and when it came to her feet, it consistently let her down.
“At least you got shoes,” she’d say. My mother was competitive as well as indecisive, which usually gave me the edge. I was an only child for nearly seven years and my father’s job as a bank examiner kept him on the road much of the week. As a result, my mother and I spent a lot of quality time in front of our new Magnavox TV. Since she didn’t like to cook, we ate Swanson TV dinners on special TV trays while watching Father Knows Best or Lassie. We usually wore lounging pajamas, which we didn’t wear to bed because they were only for TV viewing. To up the glamour quotient, I suggested to my mother that she might want to buy the silver mules since they matched the aluminum TV dinners, but she was distracted by the blizzard in our Magnavox. Even before global warming, it “snowed” in the weirdest places, such as inside Mrs. Cleaver’s kitchen or Lassie’s farmhouse. When that happened, you had two options: You could either wait for the weather to pass or fiddle with the rabbit ears, a delicate operation that required a sure hand and a gentle touch.
“Darn it,” my mother said. “It’s still snowing. Now we’ll never find out if Lassie is going to rescue that little boy stuck in the mine.”
Even though I was thirty years younger and considerably less worldly, blizzard or no blizzard, I had a strong hunch that Lassie would rescue the adorable kid. Patience, however, wasn’t my mother’s strongest virtue. Neither was TV repair. Getting up to fix the picture, she yanked the rabbit ears so hard one of them broke off. She blamed me for bringing up the mules when I should have been focusing on Lassie. Now I’d wrecked the TV and we’d probably get electrocuted. “You better turn it off,” she said. “I’m afraid.”
Sometimes my mother was so impossible I felt like tearing out my hair, but with my pixie cut, I didn’t have a lot to spare. “It’s your fault,” I said. “You don’t even know how to work rabbit ears.”
“I do too.”
Our rivalry intensified when my widowed maternal grandfather came to live with us. “Bumpa” was a very special person with a high tolerance for bickering. He also suffered from tinnitus and had trouble hearing. Bumpa was an excellent cook, a skill he learned somewhere along his versatile career that included being a merchant marine, a butler, an opera singer, and a music teacher at the Brooks School, in North Andover. With my father starting his new job at the Arlington Trust Company and my mother giving birth to my sister Emily, we were now officially “a family.” Which meant no more TV dinners.
In addition to his cooking skills and various other talents, Bumpa was a master storyteller. Though born in Ireland, he’d long ago dropped his telltale accent for one that made him sound like John Gielgud in Hamlet. The bottom drawer of his bureau was devoted to his “memorabilia,” which included pictures of exotic-looking women he encountered prior to his marriage to my English grandmother. “Who’s this?” I asked about a dark-skinned woman with a head scarf and hoop earrings. “Oh, just a gypsy who lived in the next village,” he said. Apparently she “read” the back of people’s feet instead of their palms, and then, for an extra fee, she’d throw in a foot rub. “I learned the technique at her feet,” he joked.
Bumpa was a brilliant masseur and my mother and I fought constantly over which of us would gain his attention. After dinner my mother would say, “Dad, my feet are killing me,” and then I’d say, “My feet are killing me,” and soon we’d be demonstrating whose feet were killing them more by limping around like Tiny Tim. Out of deference to her seniority and acting skills, Bumpa usually let my mother go first.
I kept a close watch on the clock, and after the allotted fifteen minutes, I’d say, “Time’s up,” and then it would be my turn. My mother claimed that Bumpa had “healing hands,” which made it sound as if he could cure the lame. He used a special green liniment from the local barbershop. It contained menthol and peppermint and made your feet tingle for hours. Sometimes my feet tingled so much I couldn’t fall asleep, and then I’d request a nonmentholated food massage just to calm my nerves.
Bumpa kept the liniment in his closet next to the wooden foot roller he used to strengthen his arches and maintain flexibility. He was religious about his “daily constitutional,” which could last for hours, especially when a neighbor invited him in for tea. He’d tell stories to anyone—the newspaper boy, the garbage man, the guy who sprayed weed killer on the lawn. If the subject of opera happened to come up during a discussion of trash or herbicides, he might even sing a few bars from La Bohème. This embarrassed my mother no end. “Dad, just stop it!” she’d say. “He’s here for the dandelion spores, not a concert.” Bumpa had a sweet temperament, so he’d never get angry, though occasionally he’d mutter, “Just take me out feetfirst.” He was referring to the old wives’ tale about the importance of carrying the dead body out of the house with the head facing away. Otherwise, the spirit would look back and beckon another family member to the grave. Bumpa was full of superstitions, although he’d never heard the one about extra toes bringing good luck. Then again, he’d never heard about my extra toes.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“Mommy,” I said.
“Then it must be true.”
After I explained that she’d subsequently denied it, he said, “Then I guess it’s not true.”
“What’s true—the extra toes? Or no extra toes?” Now I was getting exasperated.
He heaved a big sigh. “Just take me out feetfirst.”
One day, my mother came home with a pair of marabou mules. She’d returned a sensible tie shoe that was too tight across the instep, and the salesman convinced her that maybe she’d have better luck with something a little less rigid, something “for the boudoir.” Since our lounging days were behind us, I felt she’d missed the boat on that one, but perhaps she was trying to recapture the glamour of our TV dinner days. She wore the mules a few times, but her feet kept slipping out of them and once she nearly fell down the stairs. “I could have killed myself,” she said. “All because of these stupid mules. I’m taking them right back.”
That was good news. Whenever she left the house, I’d use the valuable time to snoop through her personal belongings. To my disappointment, she wasn’t a woman of mystery, and I didn’t find adoption or divorce papers or any evidence of my missing toes. If I’d been Nancy Drew, I was sure I’d have come up with a diary, or a broken locket, or an old copy of Gray’s Anatomy, with the page turned down on “The Foot.”
Nancy and I both had dogs, but as detectives, they were total duds. Hers was named Togo and, depending on the book, he was a fox or bull terrier. Either way, he was useless. Buff, my cocker spaniel, had a mischievous streak that no one but me found endearing. His favorite pastime was digging up my mother’s flower beds. One afternoon, to distract him from the tulips, I let him loose in my parents’ bedroom to see if he’d pick up any suspicious scents. Eventually, I went to practice piano and forgot about him. My mother returned home while I was playing Rondo Alla Turca, and I heard a scream from upstairs.
“The dog has something caught in his throat,” she yelled. “He’s choking to death!”
Had he found the toes? She picked him up and we raced off to the vet’s office, while Buff kept making horrible choking noises. My mother was afraid he’d expire in our new white Ford Fairlane. It had a bright-red interior, which really wasn’t my parents’ style, but my mother didn’t have the patience to order a more subdued color from the car dealership. “Now I’ll think blood every time I get into this car,” she said, “and we’ll have to go for a trade-in.”
“He’s not bleeding,” I said, wanting to clarify his medical condition. “He’s just choking.”
“Oh, Miss Smarty-Pants. I guess you’re a doctor now.”
The vet took us immediately, even though a hamster was next in line. Its tail had been stapled to the cover of a Popeye coloring book, and if I’d had to guess who did it, I’d have picked the boy with the mother who kept saying, “If Hammy dies, you will NEVER get another pet again. Do . . . you . . . hear . . . me?”
“What has he been eating?” the vet asked, prying open Buff’s mouth and looking down his throat with a little flashlight. I thought it best to keep the “toe theory” to myself.
With a tiny instrument that looked like tweezers, he pulled something out. “There, I’ve got it,” he said. I closed my eyes.
“What is it?” my mother asked. “It’s all sparkly.”
I imagined a baby toe with iridescent nail polish.
“It appears to be a feather,” the vet says. “Was the dog chasing birds?”
Buff had obviously found my mother’s new marabou mules, perhaps mistaking them for an exotic species of tulips.
When we got home, my mother went upstairs to her bedroom and held up the slippers. With the vet’s bill, the mules were the most expensive pair of shoes she’d ever owned and now she couldn’t even return them. “Without the feathers, they look like any old ordinary pair of slippers,” she complained. Actually, they looked worse, because Buff had left teeth marks on the satin.
The next time we went to Reinhold’s, the salesman said, “I guess the mules worked out. You didn’t bring them back.”
Pleased that she could finally give him a positive report, she gushed, “Yes, they were wonderful.”
“Were?” he said.
“Our dog ate them,” I explained.
“It happens,” he said, disappearing into the stockroom to get my mother a brand-new pair.
When I was young, “sexiness” was equated with bullet-shaped breasts and killer stilettos. Stiletto is Italian for “little knife,” and during the Renaissance, it was the weapon of choice for assassins, who could easily hide the needle-pointed blade among their robes before inflicting a mortal blow with a single, well-placed thrust. Over the years, stiletto shoes also have been used as murder weapons, although the end result has never been as clean or as swift. In April 2014, a Houston woman murdered her boyfriend by striking him twenty-five times in the head with pair of cobalt-blue stiletto pumps. Though the boyfriend had given her $1,500 Louboutin stilettos, she used her $50 knockoff versions, thereby preserving the resale value of the originals.
Stilettos came into vogue after World War II, when women left their jobs and returned to their traditional roles as wives and mothers. During the war, the U.S. government and Hollywood conspired to create the “pinup girl,” distributing glossy photos of Betty Grable and other stars to boost the morale of the boys overseas. In the most iconic photograph, Grable is in a white bathing suit, wearing high heels and flaunting her famous legs. After Esquire magazine published a calendar of Alberto Vargas’s images of scantily clad women in heels, the pictures were reproduced on the “noses” of military bombers. As a result, high heels became good luck charms, fetish objects, and something ordinary women needed to wear in order to compete with the idealized pinup that helped us win the war.
What People are Saying About This
Advance Praise for 9 ½ Narrow:
“9 ½ Narrow is an utterly charming — I might say fleet-footed — memoir about entering life with big (but narrow!) feet and bigger dreams. Patricia Morrisroe depicts the agonies of growing up as a born sophisticate in a Catholic family and a small town with an enviable lightness of touch — and a comic's sense of timing. It is hard to read this book without laughing — or occasionally grimacing — in recognition at the truth of an observation or situation, leaving one wondering how someone else has figured out exactly how you feel about everything from getting a bad perm to Bergdorf's shoe department.”
— Daphne Merkin, author of The Fame Lunches
"9 ½ Narrow is a 10! A girl becomes a woman and shares her memories, her loves, family, and shoes. You'’ll identify with Patricia—laugh with her and at her—page after page. “
— Ilene Beckerman, author of Love, Loss and What I Wore
“Patricia Morrisroe writes with the sharpness of a stiletto and the wit of a Louboutin.”
—Patricia Volk, author of SHOCKED: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me
"I love shoes and this delightful memoir shines a light on all things shoe, as well as all things personal. Patricia Morrisroe's life unfolds through her wedges, ruby shoes, t-strap heels, and Manolo slingbacks. As I read it, all my memories came back in a flood, and yours will too."
Delia Ephron (7 1/2 Narrow), author of Sister, Mother, Husband, Dog: (Etc.)
Praise for WIDE AWAKE
The New York Times Book Review selected Wide Awake as an Editors' Choice.
“[By] writing about sleep Morrisroe tells an important story, providing a specific example of a profound social and political question: the relationship between medicine and money.”
—Robert Pinsky, The New York Times Book Review
“Cheerfully anecdotal… a journalistic stunt-a-thon full of deadpan funny adventures… a fine firsthand look at insomniac eccentricities.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Morrisroe is well-versed in the scientific background of sleep. She intelligently breaks down jargon-filled research articles found in academic journals to educate readers about various sleep disorders and treatments.”
—Sleep Education Review/American Academy of Sleep Medicine
“A comprehensive study of the culture surrounding sleep.”
—The Daily Beast
“Morrisroe has livened up what could have been a wearisomely fact-heavy read by venturing into the field and embracing the spirit of adventure... As with Fast-Food Nation, the book neatly points up the way technology has altered our lives and our health. But far from being earnest, Morrisroe's romp through the sleep industry is often very funny and full of fascinating examples.”
—The Globe and Mail
“A smart, informative and entertaining memoir … She tells it with wit, honesty and a crisp writing style. This is a good book for the sleepless and for those who wish to understand their plight.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“The book is the closest thing to an amusing chat on sleep (with someone who listens, understands, and cares for you) that I have ever found.”
“Your essential bedtime story... nicely done.”
—The Mail on Sunday
“Provocative and witty.”
—Scotland on Sunday
“The best memoirs take us inside the person's past and this is what Morrisroe has succeeded in doing brilliantly... you will be tossing and turning with amusement.”
—AARP Book Review
“Morrisroe's sparkling writing carries her through. That her journey ends happily, with her discovery of Qigong, means readers will be as encouraged as well as informed, with as much on overcoming insomnia as avoiding snake-oil salesmen.”
“A weird, wonderful journey in search of a good night’s sleep.”
“As someone who cherishes sleep almost as much as my kids, I found Wide Awake a fascinating romp through all aspects of insomnia. Stumbling onto this underground nation of sleep deprived people was like discovering a whole new sector of the population. I never quite understood the magnitude or the desperation until I read Morrisroe's personal, humorous, and well-researched memoir about the one thing we can never seem to get enough of.”
—Lee Woodruff, author of In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing
“Wide Awake manages to be both witty and informative, an absolute must-read for anyone looking to get the bottom of why Americans spend 20 billion a year trying to get a better night's sleep. Morrisroe's hard-won conclusion might just change your life.”
—Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
“Patricia Morrisroe tosses and turns her way through the landscape of insomnia, taking us along on a guided tour so rich in literary allusion, sleep lore, and uniquely personal insight that I stayed up all night reading it. At once poetic, intimate, and surprisingly informative, Wide Awake is a self-portrait of the insomniac as author—a story full of nuance, revelation, and surprise that might just as easily be subtitled, Alice’s Adventures In Slumberland. As for the title itself—I'm proud to share it!”
—Alan Berliner, director of the HBO documentary film Wide Awake
“Patricia Morrisroe is such an entertaining writer—smart, honest, bitingly funny—that you’ll be riveted by her eye-opening tales of the waking world of insomnia. Anyone looking for a read that will put them to sleep won’t find it here. This is both a page turner and a head turner. You’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about the multi-billion dollar sleep industry, and in the process, you might even learn to sleep.”
—Lucy Danziger, Editor-in-Chief, SELF magazine and author of The Nine Rooms of Happiness
“Bursting with fresh revelations, Wide Awake is a mesmerizing exegesis on sleep and its discontents, written with wit, charm, and, above all, wisdom born of Morrisroe’s triumphant struggle with insomnia.”
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past
“Patricia Morrisroe sets out to cure her insomnia with help from America’s booming sleep industry, which peddles everything from Ambien to dental appliances. What she discovers along the way will aid anyone who worries they aren’t getting enough rest.”
—Melody Petersen, author of Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a fun read and a wonderful memoir....set up as vignettes...the authir takes us through her life ...in shoes! Very witty!
Walking in someone else's shoes 9 1/2 Narrow: My Life in Shoes by Patricia Morrisroe is figuratively a walk in someone else's shoes. Ms. Morrisroe, an experienced journalist and author, has written a light-hearted, fun memoir and sprinkled it with a healthy dose of shoe trivia. Ms. Morrisroe walks us through recent history as well as her own. We travel in time with her wearing a different style of shoe in each chapter. Events and even the style of shoe will bring back memories for some of us. The interjection of shoe history and trivia could only have been done by a shoe lover, and Ms. Morrisroe has proven she is one from the time she was young. I found the history of tools for measuring feet (for for sizing) particularly interesting. The growth of the role of shoe in fashion was a historical timeline I had not previously pondered. The portrayal of Ms. Morrisroe's relationship with her family, particularly her mother, will be familiar to most women. It is replete with antecdotes of mother-daughter tension as a part of growing up and leaving the nest as well as of parent-child tenderness as one builds an adult relationship with family members. 9 1/2 Narrow is a quick, fun read that you'll appreciate whether or not you're a "baby-boomer".