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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Photo by Comstock Images / Getty Images

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.

As their shoes began to spread all through the house like mushrooms, we found we had a management problem. My husband is highly, admirably, thoughtfully organized: The coffee-cup handles all face the same direction; the books are shelved by genre. But the girls and I are more (shall we say) spontaneous in our storage choices. Some objects with wanderlust defy our attempts to contain them: Who can find a bobby pin when she needs one, or the cell-phone charger, or, on a bad day, the house keys?

Finding a way to round up and contain the shoes was a priority. The girls’ bedrooms could not accommodate them all, and getting out the door for school in the morning was already a challenge without repeated races back upstairs to search for shoes that matched and fit.

Eventually a solution became clear. There’s a dark, oddball closet with a sloping floor tucked under our main staircase; in 16 years of living in the house, we had never known what to do with it. On the one hand, it is at the center of everything. On the other, the slope is treacherous and there’s no place for a clothes rod. It was a natural place for shoes to nest and breed: safe, dim, private. Shoes began to find their way there, sometimes intentionally, sometimes tossed into a pile to be excavated many months later.

When the shoes finally ran amok, fully taking over the space, we brightened the bulbs and installed hooks and grippy runners on the slope. Then we headed to the local home store and bought six hanging shoe bags (each holds a dozen pairs), which now line the walls.

Thus was born our shoe closet, the nearest thing I have short of my photo albums to an anthology of my daughters’ various interests and idiosyncrasies. There is one child’s hippie phase, with the funky sandals; then she is a preppy, in saddle shoes or espadrilles. The other is playing dress-up, in heels beyond her years. Then she discovers a passion, the riding boots caked in mud, broken in over long, hard hours in the ring; now she’s a young lady, in proper pumps, going to an interview, a confirmation, a school dance. Ugg boots take up a lot of space. “What becomes of the brokenhearted?” asks the great philosopher Mimi Pond. “They buy shoes.”

I will admit that there are some consolation shoes in the collection, from days when one of them was feeling low and somehow a trip to the shoe place, followed maybe by ice cream, would lift her spirits, help change her direction. Now and then, I scan the array of shoes in search of a stray sandal and spot a pair I’m fairly sure hasn’t fit either of them in years. So we reap and cull, filling bags for the clothing drive.

It is all there in the closet, all the roads taken and the shoes that took us on our way. My husband and I saved some pockets for ourselves, though most of our shoes are in our bedroom closet upstairs or, in the case of ridiculous, once-a-year shoes, in the attic.

My shoes do not so much convey my past and present interests; rather, they present a handy overview of my daily needs and habits and work-life balance. More of a table of contents than a full anthology. I don’t know how many black dress shoes I own, but I do know that my go-to pair—the risk-free pumps that don’t pinch, don’t slip, and have the right heel and height—lives down in the shoe closet, next to the other chapters of my week: the sneakers for morning dog walks, a pair of flip-flops, the flats that get me to the train station, the rubber garden shoes, the slippers for my mom for when she comes out every Saturday.

Here’s what I dream about: Someday, when I’m no longer working, when our daughters are safely dispatched to college and the wider world and my husband and I have downshifted and downsized, perhaps whole precincts of our home could reflect the level of organizational commitment exhibited by our shoe closet.

The girls’ random bins of award certificates and recital programs will all be tucked neatly into scrapbooks, my lost earrings reunited, the gift wrap sorted by season and purpose. It’s not just that my home would look tidy and I could find things more easily, thereby ensuring I could spend less time on futile searches and more on learning to cook a really good cassoulet. It would also mean I had reached a point when I was—if not quite in control—at least in my right mind.

But that idyllic state is a ways off (if it’s even attainable), and in the meantime, if my whole house can’t be a model of order and calm, if my attic is tragic or my basement is a swamp or my linens are piled randomly rather than sorted by size and thread count and tied with scented ribbons…well, at least I have found a good, safe home for those accessories that remind me where we’ve all been and take us where we’re going.

Nancy Gibbs is an executive editor at and an essayist for Time magazine. Her next book, The Presidents Club (with coauthor Michael Duffy), will be published in May ($15, amazon.com) . She lives in Westchester, New York, with her family.