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My sixteen-year-old daughter is saving her toes for marriage. She announced this to me the day before she was to leave for Greece to attend a youth group camp at the Ionian Village. She had begged me for years to let her go on this priceless adventure to explore her heritage and discover herself. She insisted she was independent, mature, and responsible enough to leave the country without me.

This did not mean, however, that she was ready to pack for herself. She sat on her bed wearing mismatched socks and a scowl while I barked out the list of required items, checked her suitcase, and frantically scavenged through her drawers and the bottom of her closet.

“Long skirts for visits to the monastery. Check.” I began. “Modest one piece swimsuit for free time at the pool. Check,” I continued as she rolled her eyes. “Sandals for the beach and shower…” I paused, rummaging through ballet flats, pumps and a pair of combat boots, and looked at her expectantly.

“No way,” she announced, her eyes daring me to challenge her.

“It’s required.” I pointed to the list. “You’ll be in Greece. It’s summer.”

It was bad enough I was sending my youngest daughter across the world for three weeks to a camp where cell phones were not allowed. I was sure her ADD would flare up and she would forget her Euros, her passport and how much she loved me. I had seen Taken too many times and my greatest fear was that she would be kidnapped, sold into the white slave trade, and never seen again.

My daughter’s greatest fear, on the other hand, was wearing sandals.

When she was in first grade, I bought her a pair of pretty pink sandals with posies on the top. She put them on immediately, pirouetted through the house, and refused to take them off, even at bedtime. The next morning she skipped onto the school bus proud to show off her new sandals to her classmates. That afternoon, she slumped off the bus, wearing socks she’d borrowed from the nurse. It seems a fourth grader with a future foot fetish pointed out her fatal flaw. He noticed that instead of toes that descended from tallest to shortest like the Von Trapp family, my daughter’s second toe stood out defiantly like an exclamation point.

“I’m a freak of nature!” she cried. She flung the offensive sandals high into the air before storming into the house. I watched them plop into a puddle, float for a second, then slowly sink into the mud.

She researched reconstructive toe surgery that would beautify the line of her toes, giving her perfect little piggies. She considered binding her second toe to stunt its growth until the others could catch up. She threatened to chop off a half inch from each offending digit with a pair of yard clippers. Finally, she vowed to never again show her toes in public to spare herself future humiliation. Only her husband, if any man would even want to marry her with that deformity, would ever lay eyes on her naked toes.

But she was older now.  “You’re being ridiculous!” I argued with my teen, stomping my own familial foot for emphasis. “Be thankful you have ten toes, at all! Stand up for yourself and be proud of who you are.”

“You don’t understand! You never understand.” She sobbed and I hung my head, defeated, agonizing how my smart, beautiful daughter could be so shallow.

I looked down at my own feet, freshly pedicured in Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot polish wearing bejeweled sandals that shouted for attention. But it had not always been this way. I flashed back to my own youth and long forgotten feelings of inadequacy crept back. I remembered a young, insecure version of myself, standing barefoot by the pool, curling my toes under my feet so no one would see them. When I was her age, my mother’s well-meaning words did little to comfort me either.

“We’re going shopping,” I announced, determined we would make a quick purchase and finish packing.  My mother taught me long ago that shopping cured everything. I was confident the perfect pair of sandals would save my daughter’s sole.

I cajoled and pleaded with her in the car on the way to the mall. She finally agreed to look at the sandals, possibly purchase a pair, but she would not try them on in the store, and would not guarantee she would even wear them on her trip. When we walked into Sun and Ski, she pretended an interest in Yeti containers while I browsed the sandal selection.

A young man approached and asked if I needed any help. I looked up at him, catching my breath. He had curly brown hair, a twinkle in his eye, and the intoxicating smell of new shoes. He was built like a Greek god in a pair of Nikes.

“My daughter needs some thongs,” I stammered. “For Greece.” I saw her dive under a rack of hoodies from the corner of my eye. “For her…feet.”

He smiled and I melted. “Where is your daughter?” I pointed to her sneakered feet peeping out from beneath the rack. I watched incredulously as he parted the clothes, reached for her hand and led her to a chair. He removed my daughter’s shoes and measured her feet. “Wait here while I find you some sandals,” he said and disappeared before she could protest. She gave me a murderous look and flipped me off with one of her middle toes.

“I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” she hissed. “I don’t even want to go to Greece, anymore!”

“I can’t believe how ungrateful you are!” I hissed back. “Anyone would jump at the chance to go on a trip like this!”

She could deal with prince charming all by herself. Already he had returned, balancing a mountain of shoe boxes in his muscular arms. He kneeled at her feet and gingerly reached for her ankle. I cringed. She glanced at me, mortified, her eyes begging me to come to her aid as he slowly rolled down the cuff of her sock, but I stepped away, lost in my own thoughts.

How I would appreciate another opportunity to go to Greece. I had not been since I was her age, when my father was finally able to take off work so we could go on a family trip to the village where he had been born.

I remember my parents making us visit one boring museum after another when all my sister and I wanted to do was to lie out on a beach, flirt with Greek boys and swim in the cobalt sea. We must have looked at a thousand Greek statues when I made a life-altering discovery. Each statue, every statue, had second toes that stood out defiantly from the rest. A placard on the wall informed us that this anomaly was a sign of aristocracy and beauty to the ancient Greeks. Elated, we took photos of the statues and compared their strong, grounded feet with mine. We snapped shots of me barefoot behind the statues, and laughed that I was following in the footsteps of our great ancestors.

We finally had the chance to lay out by the pool at the hotel our last day in Athens. For once in my life, I stretched out unselfconsciously on the chaise lounge. For the first time, I did not try to hide my toes under the rubber slat of the chair or cover my feet with a beach towel. I was a cosmopolitan woman of the world, feeling the pleasant sensation of the Mediterranean sun on my bikini-clad body. I closed my eyes, finally at peace with myself and the toes God had given me. My sister with her normal toes was almost jealous of my authentic Greek ones.

I was drifting off to sleep when suddenly I felt a pinch on my right second toe, like a bird had swooped down to bite it, mistaking it for a worm. Startled, I opened my eyes to find a man at my feet sporting a hairy chest, a Speedo and a leer.

“I love your toes!” he exclaimed in perfect English. “Beautiful girl, beautiful toes!” I blushed from head to toe under my Grecian tan as he walked away.

I sat up and looked at my sister in the next chair. My greatest nightmare had come true. A strange man had not only spotted my Achilles toe, but had the audacity to violate it with his hand. Had he grabbed a huge hunk of my bikini bottom I would not have been more mortified. My sister and I stared at each other in horror, mouths gaping open, sharing a silent scream like only teenage girls can do. Then we howled with laughter.

I should have kicked him in the face. I should have lectured him on boundaries and proper pool etiquette and reported him to the authorities. Instead, I fantasized marrying this man who had worshipped my toes, bringing him back to America where I would live happily ever after enjoying foot massages and open-toed shoes.

My daughter interrupted my thoughts. “Mom, which ones do you like?” She smiled broadly as she examined her feet. Wearing a Teva on her right foot and a Sanuk on her left, she paraded up and down the aisle for me as the salesman looked on, nodding his head in approval. He stopped her and got down on one knee to adjust a strap, his fingers lightly grazing her toe, a look of appreciation on his chiseled face. She gazed down at him, clearly head over heels.

I pulled out my credit card and handed it to the boy. “We’ll take them both,” I said, winking at my daughter.

She wore the Tevas out of the store, no longer afraid to put her best foot forward, and we hurried home to finish packing. Today she bought new sandals. Tomorrow she would travel to Greece and explore a new world. Soon she would be off to college, and like me would tiptoe down the road to self-discovery. Perhaps she would find something more valuable to save for her husband.

But for now I was happy to foot the bill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baby Steps

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My daughter and I have a love-hate relationship. She loves to interrogate me at length about my past, her favorite subjects being my most embarrassing moments and the opposite sex. She lectures me on being an overprotective parent and tests how high she can raise my anxiety before I detonate.  She feels I should be honest and thrilled to share my most private thoughts with a 16 year-old who promises not to utter a word of what I confess on Twitter, Instagram or to her best friend, Madeline. She, on the other hand, hates reciprocating. If I dare ask about her day at school, she stares at me vacantly, retreats to her room with a bag of Goldfish and slams the door.

When she announced one day after school that she had big news, my first reaction was shock that she was initiating a conversation with me. At last, I thought! An A in Algebra, a perfect score on the dreaded SAT, perhaps she was being inducted into the National Honor Society.

“Yeah, so I’m having a baby,” she muttered as she walked by me, checking her text messages. “Do we have any food in this house?”

“What?” I shrieked, glaring at her tummy. “How did this happen?”

“I don’t know why you’re freaking out,” she said. “It’s my life that’s totally screwed.” She grabbed a bag of Oreos from the pantry and headed towards her room.

Panic overcame me as I raced after her. “What are we going to do?” I cried to the locked door. My daughter could not even remember to charge her cell phone, much less take care of a baby.

“Please open the door!” I yelled, trying to make myself heard over Lana Del Rey. “We need to talk.”

She shoved a piece of paper under the door.

“Child Development Assignment,” I read with teary eyes. “Students will learn proper parenting skills by adopting a computerized baby for a three day period. Student will learn the proper care of newborns and infants, including their physical, mental, emotional and social development.”

I wiped my nose on my sleeve and whispered a prayer of thanks.

She brought home her 10- pound bundle of toy the next weekend. “Isn’t she cute, Mom?” she gushed. “I named her Evi. She has her own car seat, diaper bag and milk bottle.” She smiled down at the infant, proud as any new mother and rocked her in her arms. “Want to hold her?”

“Uhm, sure,” I answered and she gingerly placed my new granddaughter in my arms.   I peeked at the plastic face. “What a…doll!”

“Can you hold her while I go to the bathroom? Just be careful with her!” she warned eyeing me suspiciously.   “Support her head. She’s very delicate.”

I forced myself not to roll my eyes at her instructions. Babies are actually stronger than we think. I recalled the time my older daughter fell off her changing table and hit her head on the corner of the bedroom wall, leaving an egg shaped hole in the sheetrock. She was unharmed, never brought an illegitimate baby home, computerized or not, ended up graduating high school with honors, and was currently a freshman in college.

Evi whimpered and I reflexively began to jiggle her in my arms. I unwrapped the pink blanket and peered into the tiny face. A shiver ran through me as I was met with a vacant stare. The whimper turned into a wail. I was clearly having a difficult time bonding with the new addition to our family.

I examined the screaming infant. She was hairless with perfect toes, clearly taking after the other side of the family, and odorless. I smiled as I recalled my sweet babies born with full Elvis sets of hair and adult sized eyebrows, smelling faintly of pee-pee perfume. I bet this baby made perfect poop pellets. No explosive diarrhea for little Evi.

“Mom! Do something!” my daughter screamed from the bathroom, shocking me back into the present. “If she cries too long I get an F!”

“Me do something? You do something!” I cried in frustration as my daughter burst from the bathroom holding her iPhone. “And you better hope there’s an app on that phone for how to be a good mother!”

She snatched the baby from me juggling her phone and the milk bottle. It occurred to me that as accepting as society was becoming, the only thing deterring a teen today from an unwanted pregnancy was the inconvenience of holding a baby and texting at the same time. When I was younger, there was no practicing motherhood with maybe babies. Sheer terror discouraged me from coming home pregnant, never mind the fact that I had never had a boyfriend. In fact, death from parental wrath would have been my first choice of punishment. It was more merciful than banishment to a remote village in Greece where I would be forced to lie that I was a widow, wear black for the rest of my life and raise my baby in shame.

My daughter held the bottle to Evi’s lips and instantly the crying was replaced with small sucking sounds of contentment. “See, she just needed a bottle,” she explained, suddenly an expert on motherhood. “It’s easy. Next I’ll burp her.”

See how easy it is doing that on two hours of sleep wearing cabbage leaves in your bra, I thought, as I retreated to my room. You wouldn’t be feeling so perky if little Evi had been pulled out of your body with an angry pair of forceps after 12 hours of labor. See how many Instagram selfies you shoot when your stomach takes on the consistency of an underinflated waterbed.

That night her friend Madeline came over to see her precious “niece”. The girls took great pains to feed and bathe Evi and change her perfect little diapers. They took her to the park and for ice cream and posed her for a thousand photos in each of her outfits. Auntie Madeline even offered to sleep over to help with the nightly feedings. The three fell asleep watching movies, one big happy family. It was all fun and games until 3 AM when the girls were exhausted and baby Evi wanted to play. I put a pillow over my ears to block out the crying, which by now was not only coming from the baby, and willed myself to go to sleep.

The next morning my daughter stumbled down the stairs wearing saggy sweatpants and a baggy, wrinkled t-shirt, her hair frizzed into a massive mane around her face. She squinted at me from behind a pair of crooked glasses, dark circles rimming crescents under her eyes. She had aged 10 years overnight. She looked manic, menopausal, murderous. She looked… like me. I could hear Madeline snoring from the couch upstairs.

“Rough night?” I asked.

“I literally hate my life,” my daughter moaned. “Babies suck.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “I did everything for her, fed her, burped her, changed her diaper but she just kept crying. I can’t go anywhere this weekend. I don’t get why anyone would even want a baby. What do you get in return?”

I pulled her to me and rocked her gently in my arms. “Poor baby,” I crooned. “It gets better.”

We did not dare go to church that Sunday. Neither of us wanted the whole congregation to think one of us had just given birth. I could imagine the scandalous whispering in the pew. “I noticed the mom had packed on a few pounds, but I just thought it was middle age spread… Isn’t that the girl who’s always on her phone? She seemed like such a nice girl. It must be the mother’s fault…”

Instead we stayed in and watched old home movies, laughing until we cried.  My daughter made fun of my perm and shoulder pads, while I grew melancholy watching her take her first steps across the TV screen and stumble right into my arms.  We took turns holding Evi one last time.

“Motherhood sure is tough,” my daughter decided as the movie ended and she looked down at the peaceful baby in her arms, “but I almost hate to see her go.”

The shrill ring of her phone broke the mood and I watched her face light up as she recognized her big sister’s voice.

She glanced at me. “Yes, she’s sitting down. Why?”

I waited expectantly through the pregnant pause that followed.

“You have big news?” she asked.   “What is it?”

Adrenaline took over and I bolted from the room.

No news is good news. The life I was born to lead in a secluded Greek village high up in the mountains was long overdue. I would catch the first flight out. I could play a convincing role of a grieving mother.

And black, after all, is so slimming.

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