this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on June 25, 2013.

I hate looking at my feet. The toes are short and pudgy, the width has a masculine look to it, and the bunions are really unsightly when I go barefoot.

Thus, I buy only closed shoes—shoes that will not reveal the ugliness of my feet. One reason I don’t have pretty feet is that growing up, I was made to wear ill-fitting shoes. I know it’s also part of my genes (I inherited the width from my father), but I can’t help but feel wistful and think that my mother should have shopped for shoes with me and let me try them if they fit or not, instead of buying them abroad and sending them to me in balikbayan boxes.

You see, as far as I can remember, my mother has been working abroad as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. I can’t remember ever buying shoes because she would buy them there and send them through her other domestic-helper friends coming home for a vacation. How did she ever know my foot size? She’d tell my sister and me to trace our feet on bond paper, cut the patterns, and send these to her by airmail. Then, when she’d go shopping for shoes (usually on sale), she’d insert those cut-up paper feet in the shoes she liked and see if they fit.

I realize now that this method was counterproductive because by the time the airmail arrived in Hong Kong, my feet must have grown a centimeter longer, and by the time her friends arrived with my shoes, my feet must have grown inches wider. And because my mother left for abroad when I was two years old, I have the feeling that she never noticed how wide my feet were and that they were growing, too. As a result, the shoes she sent me never did comfortably fit. My sister was lucky because her feet were slim, so she never had trouble wearing the dainty shoes my mother was so fond of buying.

And so, during all those years from kindergarten to high school, I endured the pain of wearing ill-fitting shoes because I didn’t have a choice. When I complained to my grandmother, she said we had to save money because my mother is a single mom (my father never financially supported us since they separated).

When I started going to college, where we were required to wear high-heeled shoes, my mother sent me second-hand shoes given to her by her friends (usually discarded shoes from their employers). She would proudly tell me that they were branded. They never fit me, of course, and they looked too fancy to be worn to school. So I decided to buy my own shoes. But because I had been programmed to wear ill-fitting shoes, I chose the wrong kinds of footwear. Many times I sacrificed style for comfort; thus, for appearances’ sake, my feet suffered.

In my junior year in college, I visited my mother in Hong Kong. I was thankful for the chance to get to travel abroad, but I’ve never really been comfortable around her even as a child. Worse, I overheard her tell one of her friends, “Help her (meaning myself) look for an employer because she’ll finish college next year.” I was hurt and sad because she wanted me to be a domestic helper like her. There’s nothing wrong with her work, but didn’t she want something better for me?

She got mad at me once, saying I didn’t show “good manners” to her employer because I said, “I miss my boyfriend and I’d rather be in the Philippines than in Hong Kong.” She said I was supposed to say “thank you” for being allowed to stay in her employer’s house. I couldn’t understand the supposed wrongness of my statement—and hadn’t I said “thank you” enough? She was also embarrassed when I didn’t accept the shoes that one of her friends offered. They didn’t fit my feet, but for her the brand’s more important. How could I refuse branded shoes?

When I started working and earning my keep, I went to great lengths to take care of my feet. I’d have foot spa, foot massage, and a pedicure every weekend. I was careful not to get my feet wet after a hard day’s work, lest I get ugly veins all over them. I also had quite a shoe collection, and thankfully, I’ve learned to buy shoes that are comfortable and stylish at the same time. Yet, I’ve never really been happy with how my feet look.

My mother still keeps sending us shoes, but my sister has stopped wearing them, too. She said they look old-fashioned.

I know my mother has good intentions regarding those shoes. All those years, she wanted me to wear the kind of shoes she thought were good for me; it didn’t matter whether they fit or not because for her, they’re good enough. She forced me to wear the shoes she wasn’t able to wear herself.

That must have been the reason we had quite a row over the kind of course I wanted to take up in college. She wanted nursing, I wanted teaching. I won. I was trying to break away from her mold, and that must have exasperated her. But she was very happy when I made the “right” choice of boyfriends. It didn’t matter to her whether she had met them or whether they were treating me right. What’s important to her is that they had good jobs, unlike my good-for-nothing father.

And just like the branded and fancy shoes she loves to own, my mother likes keeping up appearances. I believe she channeled this to us while we were growing up, for my sister and I learned to endure, to be quiet, to fake smiles and pretend we’re all right when inside we were hurting. It was bad enough that her sister abused me physically, but the sexual abuse from her brother was just too much. But then, I’ve learned to keep up appearances just like her, and I didn’t want to rock the boat, did I?

Three years ago I went to visit her in Hong Kong again, and I found that she hasn’t changed. She’s still very much into shoes. She showed me off to her friends and employer as her “professor” daughter. I’ve learned my manners; I said “thank you” to her employer, and I politely accepted a pair of shoes from one of her friends even when I couldn’t wear them. But it was all pretense. I was still wearing a mask. I wanted my mother and me to sit down and talk, but something stopped me. I knew I wasn’t ready and I didn’t want to force myself.

But I’m taking tiny baby steps toward reconciliation. Next time I get a chance to take a break from school work, perhaps I can visit her again. This time, I wish to tear away the masks. I will tell her what I really feel, tell her what has happened to me. And maybe, after all the tears, denials, forgiveness, and acceptance, we can go shoe-shopping.

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