I’m 18 and sitting on the floor of what I like to call the “loneliest aisle” in the women’s shoe department, the section reserved for women like me with size 11 and above “boats” attached to their ankles, masquerading as feet. At least that was what an ex used to playfully call mine, which always made me feel especially sexy before a night out on the town. Unlike the pristine aisle where the size 6 through 8’s are prominently displayed in neat rows, this corner of the store is littered with shoebox lids, torn discounted price stickers, and stray single shoes whose match may be floating around somewhere in housewares. We are a rare breed, the size 11’s, and I typically find myself alone in the empty aisle save for a store employee restocking the shelves through a hole in the ceiling, the only way they can manage to get shoes my size into the building safely.
I stare down at my huge feet with my usual look of disgust. The thin tan nylon sock made for trying shoes on is hanging limply from my big toe like a used condom, after having slipped from my heel immediately after I stretched it on. I swear I can see a tumbleweed whisk past out of the corner of my eye.
“Ugh! I HATE my huge feet!” I sigh, “Its not fair!”
My mother is standing nearby, perusing the size 9’s for any sort of seriously discounted footwear.
“Dahhling, don’t say that!” she says, in the British accent she insists she doesn’t have anymore since moving to America some 40 years ago. “You have your Aunty Jenny’s feet, you know. You should embrace them.”
I roll my eyes in typical teenage fashion. It’s difficult for me to imagine my sweet-Aunty-Jenny-in-England possessing the same giant awkward man feet as mine. Jenny carries herself with a beauty and grace and fashion sense that can’t be matched. Her hair is always done, her makeup natural but carefully applied, her outfits colorfully fluid and perfectly curated. To me, Jenny is the definition of “British;” She drinks tea every day at tea time, drives a BMW, shops only at Marks and Spencer’s, and has excellent posture.
And she ALWAYS wears heels.
Something I avoided at all costs.
A few years later my huge feet and I were living “between homes,” which meant sometimes I slept in a car and sometimes I didn’t sleep for 7 days straight. At 6 feet tall I weighed less than 100 pounds, my hair was stringy and falling out, and my skin was covered in sores.
Some people stared in total shock and horror at the sight of me.
Most looked away.
Drug addiction left me feeling separate and alone, but only during the few moments I was able to feel anything at all.
After a while I got used to being invisible, and I had all but forgotten the healthy and vibrant girl I used to be.
My mother and I didn’t go shoe shopping anymore. I’m pretty sure she spent most nights wondering if I was going to be alive in the morning.
“Your Aunty Jenny is coming to visit next week,” she told me nervously during one of our rare phone conversations. “She’d like to see you if you can get yourself together for it.”
The fact that there really wasn’t much of me left to get together hadn’t occurred to either of us.
When Jenny arrived to meet me for lunch I showed up 20 minutes late and looking worse than ever. My nerves about seeing my prim and proper British Aunty who I loved so very much and knowing how disappointed she’d be in my appearance had got the better of me the night before. I’d coped by doing copious amounts of drugs and not sleeping.
But Jenny didn’t seem to notice.
“Hi Jac!” she greeted me cheerfully, as she looked me up and down assessing the damage. “It’s been a while hasn’t it?”
She was smiling and I waited for her to stop, to avoid my eyes, but she never did. Over lunch she asked me about my life as though I actually had one, which no one had bothered to do in a very long time. She recounted a few stories about my childhood visits to England, and asked if I still read all those books and wrote stories and poems. She updated me on her life as well and we joked and laughed and it felt so good to be having a real conversation, and to really be seen.
I found myself relaxing and having a nice time. Because of her lack of judgment, I found myself remembering who I really was.
“Right then! Jenny suddenly said when the bill had come. “Shall we go shopping now? Looks like you could use a few things.”
I don’t remember how we ended up in the shoe department an hour later, but I’m guessing it had something to do with the look of dismay Jenny gave me when she found out that the only footwear I owned were the flip flops on my feet.
I headed toward my least favorite section with a sense of impending doom as Aunt Jenny followed closely behind.
I gave my usual disclaimer,
“I have really huge feet, so I can never find any shoes.”
“Oh you have my feet is all,” Jenny replied. “Look.”
She slipped off her low-heeled shoe and pointed her naked toes toward mine.
I was shocked to find that I was staring at a slightly smaller and much older version of my own foot. The similarities were incredible. The length, the prominent veins on top, the weird arch, the mile long toes.
It was all there.
And they were beautiful.
“I used to shove my feet into shoes that were two sizes too small because I was embarrassed of them,” She told me. “Can you imagine that?”
“Well don’t do that, darling. It’s not good for your feet or your life, to shove yourself into something that just doesn’t fit.”
We remained close after that day in the shoe department; she still came for yearly visits and we would get together for lunch or shopping or both. When I eventually found my way and began to recover from the addiction that almost took my life, Jenny encouraged me every step of the way and always made sure I knew how proud she was of me throughout.
When I moved from California to New York City 2 years ago, the distance between the literal motherland and myself became shorter, and I began hearing reports from my cousin that Jenny was becoming frailer and less likely to travel abroad. I wouldn’t have known this from Jenny directly, as she never complained about her ailments in any of our email exchanges. She always made sure to ask how I was doing and send encouraging words. I tried to make plans to go visit, but work or holidays or whatever else always got in the way. A few months ago I finally bought a ticket to London. My main purpose of the trip was to spend time with Jenny, every part of me knowing that it may be the last opportunity I had. When I emailed her to let her know I was coming, she said she was thrilled.
Last week, exactly one month before I was set to arrive in London, Aunty Jenny passed away unexpectedly in her sleep.
I was immediately filled with regret for not having gone sooner to see her. What could have possibly been more important? The only answer I can come up with is nothing.
I am of course in the deepest reflection of all of my moments with my sweet-Aunty-Jenny-in-England, as are her large collection of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and siblings.
I will always remember Jenny for being the person who made me feel seen when I thought I was invisible. Who gently reminded me that the way I was living-by-dying just wasn’t the right fit. Who made me feel loved, which brought me back to being human. During my darkest days, these are the moments I believe kept me alive long enough to finally reach the light of recovery.
I wish I could have one last teatime with Aunty Jenny. I would thank her for sharing our long giant feet, and for making them gorgeous. I’d tell her how grateful I am for the time she made the loneliest aisle of this absurd life a little less lonely for me.
A few days after Jenny passed, I was playing on the beach barefoot with the little boy I nanny. His dad walked up to say hello and commented on my feet.
“Wow! What’s up with those feet?! Those things are huge!”
For a moment I became self-conscious and wanted to bury my feet in the sand. Instead I lifted my foot and pointed my naked toes right at him.
“I got these from my Aunty Jenny in England,” I said proudly. “They are the perfect fit.”