The Secret History

You can track the growth of your children through baby books, report cards, countless home videos. Or, like Nancy Gibbs, you can open a closet stuffed with shoes and, at a glance, see the path of their years. How one small space came to tell the story of her family’s lives.

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You would be forgiven for thinking that I have a dozen daughters, scurrying around on a total of 24 feet, judging by the quantity of footwear in our house. But it turns out that it takes only two fast-growing girls to amass way too many shoes.

I grew up in a small apartment; there was not much room for hoarding. My husband moved every couple of years growing up, so he learned to travel light. The very idea of one family owning so many shoes was a little unsettling—so Imelda Marcos, so Kardashian—until I came to see them as a form of archaeology. Footprints, you might say, from our journey together.

We didn’t really have so many shoes until our daughters approached adolescence (they are now 13 and 16). At that point, several things happened simultaneously, which triggered a sudden infusion of footwear. They started playing different sports in different seasons, and so the single pair of sneakers that worked just fine for third-grade gym class spawned soccer cleats and running shoes, aqua socks, hiking boots, high-tops. They started going to parties, so the Mary Janes that worked for church were supplemented with strappy, shiny, teetering invitations to orthopedic disaster. They started growing like weeds, which meant that at any given time, some number of shoes hung in suspended animation—too small for big sister, too big for little sister. And, finally, we found a shoe outlet near school where the fanciest pairs go for $21.99 and many are $8 or $10, which makes it easier to view those awesome purple shoes as a defensible investment.