In a room near Triceratops, not far from the elephant skull
and the wave machine we come upon a glass case
with shelves of women’s shoes. My daughter and I peer in
not expecting this, a relic of pre-World War II displays.
Shoes are freckled, with intricate embroidery and beadwork.
We are momentarily dazzled. Elizabethan shoes brush against
New World moccasins, and above and below shoes from Japan
and China line up, a medley of footwear. “Those are certainly for children,”
my daughter says, spotting a set with sharply pointed toes
thin as praying hands. I bend down, looking at the tag, confirming
China, which I tell her, adding simply, “Those are women’s shoes.”
“No,” she says, “too tiny.” At almost eight, logic and observation
are working well for her. I tell her again: “They’re women’s shoes.”
How to explain foot binding with some of the shock, but not all?
“A long while back in China mothers tightly wrapped their
daughters’ feet to keep them tiny.” My daughter listens, then says,
“But why?” “Small feet were considered beautiful,” I tell her.
“But it did make it really hard to walk.”
“Why?” my daughter frowns. “Why would they do that?”
“The men wanted women close to home. If you can’t walk well,
you can’t go places. They don’t do that to feet any more, though.”
My daughter sets her lips tight, staring at the shoes. “Okay,”
she says. “Okay. That is just plain mean.”
She comes from the land that first used silk for clothes,
that invented paper and printing, then put them together into books,
that had eaten noodles for centuries and sent them back to Italy
with Marco Polo. The list is long of what we can celebrate.
Foot binding is different. I don’t tell her about the bones
breaking because the wrapping was so tight, the feet beginning
to decompose. That will come later, along with her wonder about
why so many girls are abandoned, making the orphanage a world
of women, making every one of the stuffed animals in her menagerie
at home not a he, every elephant, every bear—a she.