Imelda And Me: A Hidden Child's Fancy Footwork


Irene Frisch trying on different shoes.

Several years ago, in the wake of the overthrow of the Marcos government in the Philippines, the media reported (among other curiosities) news about the shoe closet of the President's wife Imelda. On hundreds of shelves, arranged neatly, were literally thousands of pairs of shoes-all belonging to the Philippines' First Lady.

My husband joked, "She has almost as many shoes as you do." Reading the news story over his shoulder, I responded as might be expected-I didn't find Imelda's collection all that extravagant.

Though my husband and I are of modest means, it is true that I too, like Imelda, have a penchant for shoes. In fact, I have hoarded shoes for nearly 50 years: high heels and low, shows for winter and summer, evening and daytime, boots as well as slippers, shoes for spring, shoes for fall. Many have not yet been worn, and some never will be.

I recently bought several pairs of shoes while on vacation in Europe, shopping with equal gusto at both the fanciest boutiques of Paris and the mercato flea markets of Italy. I just cannot pass in front of a shoe store without stopping in and discovering a particularly good buy.

I have also, over many years, perfected the art of slipping my purchases into my home undetected. In plain brown shopping bags, the shoes make it past husband and children, avoiding their "what, more shoes!!?!" interrogations. Before I was married, living with my parents, I did the same to avoid my mother's disapproving eye and comments.

But it wasn't until reading about Imelda that I really began to think about my history with shoes, about what they mean to me.

After largely comfortable years of early childhood in Poland, my life's good fortune was drastically reversed by the Nazi invasion. Being Jewish, I was forced to go into hiding in order to survive. A gentile woman rescued my mother and me, hiding us in her apartment for the duration of World War II.

I was an average-sized 11-year-old when I went into hiding. For three years afterward I went barefoot, never leaving the apartment. My mother worked inventively to try to make my dresses longer and wider to accommodate my growing teenage body, but we never gave a thought to shoes.

By the time of liberation in 1945 I was only 14, but I was tall and full-grown: shoe size eight-and-a-half. I was ready to re-enter normal life, to go to school again, except…I had no shoes.

My mother and I had no money at all and there was no prospect of getting any in those months immediately following the war. I was so eager to resume school, however going barefoot was intensely humiliating, as you might imagine, for a teenage girl. Most nights during those difficult months, my dreams were about shoes-wearing them, acquiring them through luck or ingenuity, and envying them. At one point I was so desperate that I hatched a serious plan: I would convert to Catholicism-surely a kind priest would reward me with shoes. (This was a 14-year-old's valiant attempt at problem-solving.)

After many shoeless months my mother contacted, as a last resort, a wealthy gentile woman whose husband was once a friend of my father's. She obtained from her a pair of wooden platform shoes, actually just flat planks of wood, with nondescript ribbons across the top-a kind of a cross between stilts and geisha shoes. They were so unwearable that I wondered how the woman had ever come to possess them, since her family had remained affluent even during the war. Of course I tried to accommodate my feet to these makeshift things (I was willing to wear anything), but no matter how hard I tried, I always fell out of them after a few steps. Clearly this woman did not have my mother's or my interests at heart.

By November, the weather was growing seriously cold and I was still barefoot. One day, however, my mother came home from work excited. From her odd jobs-- helping people sell merchandise in the flea markets-- she had finally been able to save a little money. We could go to the market and buy shoes. In those post-War days, there were no real stores. All goods were sold in outdoor yards resembling today's flea markets, and most everything was second-hand.

Scouring the stands, I finally came to a stop in front of a pair of men's black shoes: size 10. This was it, I decided.

My mother protested, but to no avail. I was afraid that my feet would continue to grow, and I needed shoes that would last forever. Who knew if we might ever have enough money to buy another pair? After some haggling, my mother paid for them, and I walked home the happiest person in the world, carrying my shoes in my hands.

These shoes had to be saved only for school and special occasions (parties, dances, movies-we were teenagers, we tried very hard to "catch up," to lead normal lives). I polished them regularly and carefully lined the sides and bottoms with folded cardboard, and stuffed the tips with rags so they wouldn't fall off my feet. Still, they were so huge I had to drag my feet; if I lifted them, the shoes would fall off. Nevertheless, I felt like a ballerina.

Unfortunately, my joy was short-lived. After only a few days with my precious new acquisition I was diagnosed as having a serious joint diseases in my feet and legs-a consequence of my many years of shoelessness and I was bedridden for several months. I then contracted rheumatic fever with high temperatures; for weeks I had to crawl about on all fours to move around in our small apartment and my beautiful shoes lay unused next to the bed.

It took me a long time to recuperate (in fact, I've never fully recuperated) since health care was primitive in Poland. I remember having to swallow awful-tasting pills that were so enormous they had to be broken into four pieces, their taste disguised in hunks of bread. My mother, though dreadfully worried, was unable to stay home with me because she had to work.

Our conditions improved after moving many times-through Germany, Poland and Israel, eventually crossing the Atlantic. I have had good times and better-than-good times-but I still feel the unflagging need to buy shoes. Regardless of how many overflow from my closets, I always crave more.

In general, I am a person who is quick to pass judgment on others. But for Imelda Marcos I have not an unkind thought, since I am sure there is a story and an explanation behind all of her closets lined shoes. Perhaps quite different from my own, but a story nonetheless.