Toe Separators

Nonfiction / Kerry Leddy

:: Toe Separators ::


One of our jobs those first days after my daughter Sarah died was to create a program for her memorial service. For the cover we decided to use a portrait of her as a baby, which Sarah painted when she was fourteen years old. She had recently told me how she loved this painting because it reminded her of a perfect time in her life. There was a small piece of her beloved “mommy blanket” affixed to the painting. I, too, love this painting.

Sarah’s paintings, without ever studying the period, were somehow reminiscent of the early modernist German Expressionists. Her brush strokes were expressive, done in what appears to be long, sweeping movements. Bold colors, often applied in startling combinations, capture facial features, hands, or arms. But in most of her paintings, the eyes are the dominant feature. She painted friends, family members, or ordinary people found on the street, placing them in settings that revealed something about their lives or who they were. She never wanted her portraits posed, nor made to look too perfect, appreciating the beauty in flaws and imperfections. I couldn’t imagine her fretting over how someone should sit.

Instead she would work from instinct, painting the figure on the left or the right side of the canvas, never in the center, shifting the balance of the image to keep it more interesting. This is true in all of her paintings—that is, except for that self-portrait of herself as a baby. Here she sits in her diaper, front and center, filling the canvas. The subtle shading of her arms, legs, and torso allow you to see the musculature of her ribs and joints. But, as always, it is the expressive blue eyes that grab you. Even at such a young age you can see there is more to the picture, a greater depth of thought and feeling, something on the tip of her tongue she wants to tell you. Her brown derby hat, which belonged to her Aunt Karen, sits poised atop her head. She tips her hat to you.

To me.

My sister Karen suggested we bind the program with colorful yarn, because Sarah often wrapped her dreadlocks in a rainbow of yarns. But a day before the service, we ran out of yarn and couldn’t finish the pamphlets. My sister Carol offered to go to the neighborhood store to buy more yarn. I was like a lost dog that had found a master. I was afraid to be alone, afraid I’d be lost, afraid of what I might feel if actually left alone. So when Carol jumped up, I rose too, numbly, and followed at her heels.

Carol and I headed to Bruce Variety, a store brimming with everything from craft items to underwear to hammers and nails. If Carol went up one aisle, I went up the same aisle. If she turned back, I followed her back down. If she stopped, I bumped into her back.

Maybe around the third or fourth aisle, I came across a large display with the words “toe separators” written in bold letters across the top. I stopped short, reading the description of this new product over and over. I even allowed Carol to walk out of my line of vision. I couldn’t move on. Here was a truly amazing product—toe separators. I had always been a little unhappy about my close-set toes, especially the two that overlapped. Now, here was a product I hadn’t realized I had been waiting for all my life. Some part of my brain must have remembered the hours my sisters and I had spent together, painting our toenails outlandish colors of purple or blue, admiring each other and then carefully separating our toes so as to not to damage our handiwork. Footie work. In the moment, though, it was as if I had never seen them before.

This was salvation in a small plastic-wrapped package. Yes, I, too, could now have straight toes! I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

I called out, “Carol, quick, come see. Look! Toe separators. See? Aren’t these amazing?”

She found me and looked quizzically at the display, then at me. Her voice was soft, the voice of a kind parent who’s holding tight to a pebble a child plucked from the ground.

I told her all the wonderful things these toe separators would do for me, even quoted the package: “‘One size fits all.’ ‘They gently divide and cushion your toes.’ ‘These soft, foamy toe separators are made from a vitamin-enriched gel which absorbs pressure and friction.’”

 “Yes, they are amazing.” Carol sweetly kept replying to each of my proclamations.

 “Look—it says right here they help relieve pain and discomfort.”

“Perfect for you,” she said.

“Oh, may I buy them?”

 “Yes,” she said, “you should get two pairs,” as she pulled a second one off of the display. I tagged along to the register, stood in line next to her, hardly able to wait for the cashier to ring them up so I could grab them before losing them to the bag.

We traipsed back to our car. Carol was barely in the driver’s seat before I was unwrapping the package, chattering away. “Carol, just look at these!” I pulled off a shoe and then a sock, placed my foot up on the dashboard and slipped on my new, very own, toe separators!

“Look how they fit right between my toes. They really are incredible. Have you ever seen anything like them before?”

Oh. I peered down at my feet and suddenly saw these ridiculous pink spacers between my toes, making me look like a webbed-footed pelican. I noticed the burning heat of the black dashboard under my feet, then a dog loudly barking in the car next to us. I took in the people passing by in front of our car. I blinked slowly, as if the sunlight had been turned a notch too bright. It dawned on me that I was out in the world—a world I barely recognized anymore. I couldn’t take in the life that was brimming all around me. Seeing people do ordinary things—going to lunch, shopping, walking dogs. As if life were exactly the same. Didn’t they know it wasn’t?

I turned to my sister and said, “Boy, now I feel better. So much better.”

Carol, still not sure if I had returned to myself, gave a tentative laugh.

I wriggled my toes. I wriggled more. “Much, much better,” I said.

Now we were both laughing.

Carol backed out of our parking space and headed down Goldsboro Road with the two of us exaggerating how good life now was with toe separators. I started to do an infomercial: “Have you had tragedy, are you feeling down? Well, Toe Separators are here to help.”

We laughed the entire fifteen-minute drive home. Doubled over, wiping the tears of laughter, or so I thought they were. My husband, hearing us from the house, came out to see what the commotion was. He stuck his head out the door—what disaster was this? He saw Carol and me, red with laughter, as I held on to her arm waddling along in my toe separators.

He grinned. “Don’t you know people are in mourning here?”


From the writer

:: Account ::

In writing “Toe Separators,” excerpted from my memoir Ghostmother, I am trying to capture the initial disorientation I experienced after the death of my daughter, Sarah. At that time, my thoughts and feelings were a jumble, my brain flooded with overwhelming and chaotic torrents of emotion. My mind, refusing to accept or integrate such an event, kept saying, “This can’t be.” I wanted to portray this state of confusion, where I felt caught between two worlds: in one, Sarah was still there, a specter just out of reach, and in the other, the world was irrevocably changed and rendered nearly, unrecognizably void. I also wanted to bring in the idea that even in moments of desolate grief, humor can provide solace.

And maybe, most importantly, I longed to find a way to bring Sarah’s art into my writing so that a reader could not only know my loss, but also see for herself Sarah’s creativity and talent.


Kerry Leddy is a psychoanalyst and writer in Potomac, MD. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Zone 3, Washingtonian Magazine, and Voices. She is the co-author of Wearing My Tutu to Analysis and Other Stories (Columbia University Press, 2011) and editor/author of The Therapist in Mourning: From the Faraway Nearby (Columbia University Press, 2013). She is currently working on her memoir, Ghostmother.