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My father was terrific when it came to foot care. When I was a child, I loved hanging around him when he was putting on his socks and shoes to go to work. He carefully rubbed antifungal cream all around and between his toes and to this day, the smell of Desenex is as evocative for me as Proust’s madeleine.

He came by his fungus obsession honestly. When he was a battalion surgeon in the South Pacific during World War Two, he and his company waited for months on an island, ready to rush to a battle at a moment’s notice to minister to wounded and dying soldiers.

It rained continuously, so the men sheltered from Japanese snipers in foxholes that often filled with water. In the tropical conditions they got fungus, especially on their rear ends. My father, in his letters home to his brand-new fiancée, my mother, described painting gentian blue on fungal infections all over his men.

But it wasn’t just athlete’s foot that called to him. He thought about feet in general. He was an orthopedic surgeon, after all. If any of his four kids got a splinter, it was Dad who, with elaborate care, got it out. He had scary scalpels, he had alcohol that stung, but I don’t remember the pain of the splinter being removed as much as I remember the comfort of his big hands. There was something so calming about the way he smoothed on the bandages, cutting the adhesive tape just so, then curving it carefully around my foot so no wrinkles would give me a blister. Last, he put on my sock, rolling it up and then putting it over my toes and unrolling it bit by bit so the bandage was undisturbed.

The author’s favorite hiking boots, complete with crampons.

He applied the same care to other people’s feet. When we went hiking, it was Dad who delayed us at lunchtime while he bandaged everyone’s new blisters, cutting delicate designs out of moleskin with the scissors on his Swiss Army knife, layering them up, then finishing the job with pieces of plastic from someone’s sandwich bag. This would allow the sock to slip smoothly over the sore spot, and not chafe.

Dad died on the fourth of July, 2000, the same day as presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. My mother, who often joked that she’d married him because he had such cute feet, had died two years before. I was the first child to arrive that day, so was alone with him in death. His feet were still warm, still beautiful.

He was such a perplexing father—so devoted, so distant, so unwilling or unable to disengage from his work life that we hardly saw him. If it had been left to him to disclose the presence of the regicide John Dixwell in our family tree, I might never have known the story.

And yet. What I learned about caring for feet, about trudging faithfully down the path set before you. Why would I wish any of it to be otherwise?

 

Posted on: Feb. 8, 2022

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