As a child, I was always a bit horrified by my great aunt’s shoes. Dark brown, functional, but lumpy in all the wrong places. No-nonsense shoes for a no-nonsense person. Shoes that reflected her strictness. I wondered whether I would like to be one of her piano pupils, as I’m sure they were scolded regularly for failing to practise. They had to wait in her basement kitchen for their lessons, perched on a hard bench at the kitchen table. An old brown skull that lived on the mantelpiece there would stare at them. I thought they must have been brave, her pupils.
Above her ankles, she was an elegant Edwardian lady with hair in a neat bun, slender and straight-backed. Like her three sisters she was intelligent and well-educated. Her father was head of University College London. Her mother had gained a degree long before most women even considered university. Her family aimed high and she was no exception. She had studied oboe and piano at music college. You don’t learn the oboe unless you are really dedicated. You need rigid determination to get past the initial squawks of the double reed – a strangled duck comes to mind. Only after many exhausting hours of training of breath and lip can you emerge into being the player of an instrument which can pull heart-strings like nothing else. She lived to exacting standards, my great-aunt.
And yet when I discovered that her shoes were NHS standard issue for people with severe bunions, I saw her in a different light. Her feet must have been a source of pain to her, both because they hurt and because they were ugly. As a musician she valued things that were beautiful and she valued excellence. Her feet were neither.
When I grew old enough not to be so afraid of her, I discovered a woman with a warm and kind heart. She was the softest of her rather austere sisters. As Quakers, her husband and she had been conscientious objectors in the war, and had gone as ambulance drivers to India. The values of their faith gave them a kindness and a humility that meant they valued people with little status. When their big textile factory had had to close down, her husband’s family found jobs for all their employees before they let them go. Afterwards her husband worked for years in a workshop that gave disabled people jobs. Both he and my great-aunt spent a lot of time caring for others.
Perhaps the pain my great-aunt endured from her feet meant she had learned compassion. Maybe the fact that her feet were not elegant meant she had space in her heart for others who couldn’t manage to look good either. It’s possible that her feet, strangely moulded as they were, had shaped her soul.