The curse of the ill-fitting Mary Janes

Published 6:12 pm Friday, December 9, 2016


One December day when I was about 5 years old, Mama decided to take me shoe shopping. I had lots of shoes; I had sneakers and loafers and I even had a pair of white vinyl go-go boots. Mama had a little bit of a shoe problem, and she couldn’t resist a cute pair in my size any more than she could walk past the latest pump and not try it on, but I had outgrown my pretty dress-up shoes and I had to have a new pair to go with my beautiful new Christmas frock, so Mama cranked up the GTO and off we roared to town.

I saw them right away, just as soon as we walked into the children’s shoe department, and I knew that there could only be one choice for me that afternoon. The siren shoes were black patent Mary Janes, but not the ubiquitous footwear that all the ordinary little girls wore. No, these were…magical. The leather gleamed so brightly that I could see the light fixtures reflected right there on the toes, and when I got closer, there was my giddy little face, open-mouthed with wonder, shining right back at me! The style was…amazing. Tiny cut-outs of flowers enhanced the vamp, and each one of those cut-out flowers was outlined with black glitter! They had actual, grown-up high heels, at least an inch, and instead of a plain strap across the instep, there was a giant patent leather bow that hung off both sides and snapped instead of dumb old buckling.

“Mama…” I breathed, reaching for the glorious display model.

Mama, always the pinnacle of style and grace, never overdone, never trendy, looked at the most gaudy, over-the-top pair of shoes in the entire children’s section and possibly the world, and turned a funny color. She put the back of one hand across her forehead and grabbed hold of a chair for support.

The saleslady coughed discreetly. “Perhaps the young lady would find this style a bit more…appropriate?” she cooed, pointing to a more traditional version of a little girl’s holiday shoe.

“Nope. I’m getting these, thank you anyway! Mama, aren’t they just perfect?”

Poor Mama looked at my enraptured face and knew that I would have nothing to do with sensible shoes on that day, so with a sigh, she asked the saleslady for a pair in my size.

Well, they sure were the most wonderful pair of shoes that I had ever seen, but they pinched, and not just a little “there is no beauty without pain” twinge, either. They downright hurt, but I pranced up and down in front of Mama and the saleslady with a smile plastered on my face, carrying on about how it was like walking on air! There was no way I was leaving the store without that pair of shoes.

Mama saw through it, of course. She suggested that I try on other shoes that might be more comfortable. I declined. She promised me that we would shop until we found the perfect pair of shoes that fit and were lovely. I pouted. She said she just couldn’t buy me a pair of shoes that hurt my feet, and I burst into tears.

“Okay, but you have to wear them. Every time you dress up, you’ll have to put these shoes on. Are you still sure they feel good?”

I swore that they felt as if they were made for my feet, and she would have to pry them off me, I would wear them so much!

I wore them that very weekend when we went to see a holiday show in Atlanta. We had to park a couple of blocks away and walk. I hadn’t counted on actually having to walk in my new shoes! I was supposed to just stand around and attract admirers! I knew that I looked amazing, and that I and my glitzy shoes would probably be in the social section of all the best papers the next day, but by intermission I was pretty sure that my feet were bleeding, and that blisters were popping up all over the place. I tried to be brave and fierce and beautiful, but as we walked back to the car after the show, I finally whispered a tearful


And without a word, in her elegant, simple holiday sheath, wearing her expensive, understated dress up heels, Mama bent and scooped me up, took my horrible shoes off, tossed them in the nearest garbage can, and tucked my throbbing little feet into her luxurious, simply styled coat.

I got to choose new dress up shoes after that. I chose nice, simple Mary Janes with dumb old buckles and flat heels. And I felt beautiful every time I wore them.


Pepper Ellis-Hagebak spends her days framing other people’s art and her nights lost in the beauty of words.