March 2010

In My Mother’s Shoes

Does inheriting her fabulous footwear collection make following in Nancy Daly’s footsteps any easier?


Nancy Daly's Shoes Photo by Alex Hoerner

In May 2007, my mom was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. Even though everyone pretty much knew there wouldn’t be a happy ending, talk skipped quickly over death and dying and centered on her shoes.

Nancy Daly’s shoes were legendary, her collection vast. Maybe not Imelda Marcos vast, but what Imelda had in quantity, my mom had in quality. Louboutin, Chanel, Prada, Dior, Choo were just some of the A-list residents of her closet—complete with feathers, sculpted heels, animal skins and fabulous stones. All colors and elevations were welcomed. So speculation was rampant as to where they would end up. Little did anyone know, those shoes were meant for me.

This came as a shock to those who knew my mother and me. I am the Birkenstock member of the family, the one with dirty unpainted fingernails, who talks too much about the virtues of greening one’s life. Boots, clogs and flip-flops are my footwear of choice. Nevertheless, when asked after my mom’s funeral where her collection would go, I plainly answered, “Into my closet.”

“What will you do with them?” I heard, implying my propensity for sensible shoes would negate any need for heels.

“I suppose I’ll have to dress up more.”

“Ooh, your mom would love that!” people said, implying there was hope for me yet.

My mother’s love of shoes came early. When I asked her high school girlfriends what they remembered, Irene said, “When we were freshmen at St. Cecilia’s in Tenafly, New Jersey, she wore taps, which drove the nuns crazy. At 14, she was making her own fashion statement—of course, she also had those beautiful legs to show off her shoes to perfection.”

Another, Joan, said, “Your mom came to a Sunday-night dance with black slingbacks. We raced the next day to Miles Shoes. We thought we looked great with our poodle skirts and slingbacks. Secretly, we called them our sexy shoes. Even in 1956, she was a trendsetter.”

Yes, that was my mom. Impeccable attire and amazing shoes were her uniform of choice when she fought the city council and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on behalf of our city’s forgotten kids. She was a driving force for establishing the L.A. County Commission for Children & Families, the L.A. County Family Preservation Program, the L.A. County Children’s Planning Council and the L.A. Commission on Children, Youth and Their Families.

She sat on the President’s National Commission for Children in the first Bush Administration and worked with two other administrations on policy issues relating to foster care and adoption. She founded two Los Angeles–based children’s charities—United Friends of the Children and Children’s Action Network. She was the board chair of LACMA and the Getty House Foundation and served on the boards of the L.A. Opera and the W.M. Keck Foundation. She has her name on the Founder’s Room at Disney Hall. As children’s activist Carol Biondi said at her memorial, she moved mountains in her Manolos .

My mother’s and my shoes fit our philanthropic personalities. She was the policy person...I am the grass roots. She advocated for foster-children’s rights while wearing Prada heels...I went off to eastern Chad in New Balance hiking boots to help Darfur refugees. Before her cancer diagnosis, we had planned to meet philanthropically in the middle. She and I had returned from Rwanda and Kenya, having seen some of the worst poverty and HIV effects imaginable. We were going to join forces and raise lots of awareness and money for women and children.

My mother was excited about joining me on my path after the years I’d spent following hers. We were in the worst slum in Nairobi taking part in HIV prevention programs, and my mom—incredibly moved yet ill prepared footwear wise—admitted her white designer sneakers were no match for the bacteria-laden mud. But in classic Nancy style, to lighten the moment she said, “I’m sure Prada makes a nice hiking boot for next time.”

My mom always intended her shoes to be part of her legacy to me. And I guess, even without knowing it, I have been preparing for them most of my life. I borrowed her shoes through high school, college and adulthood and even wore them when I married a year ago. Nancy never stopped buying shoes. In fact, weeks before she died, two pairs of Bottega Venetas were delivered, with heels so high she could barely stand in them in her frail state. She just looked at me, smiled and said, “Well, someday they’ll be yours.”

Upon her death, there were close to 250 pairs of shoes in her closet. I asked all of the women attending her funeral to come in their finest footwear. What better way to celebrate my mom? One wore jewel-encrusted Diors, another gray flannel peep-toe Louboutins not found in the States. There were stacked-heel Pradas, slingback Manolos and a pair of drop-dead Gucci boots. I wore the fancy Oscar de la Renta ones with the feathers. At her memorial a few weeks later, I delivered the eulogy in the black Bottegas she never got to wear.

When asked how I would fill her shoes, only one word came to mind: impossible. It’s not what my mother would have wanted. She celebrated me regardless of my inability to stand in four-inch heels. She loved that I found my own passion in her field, and she loved even more that I was involved on my terms.

The day before she died, she and I discussed how important our relationship was to both of us. We had a mutual-admiration society, introducing each other at events. I joked that she’d love me more if I put on makeup and dressed up a bit. I knew it could not be further from the truth, since she cherished who I had become and deflected any talk that it was all because of her.

Her huge closet was her center. It was her safe zone, where the girls in the family gathered. Her friends hung out there, and her granddaughters tried on shoes, dresses, makeup and jewelry. Her closet is comforting. In fact, I sat there waiting for inspiration to write this article. My daughter, only 10, picked out a pair of shoes, and now when she’s feeling sad, she puts on a dress and walks around in them.

As long as I have access to the contents of my mother’s closet, she is never far. Her shoes are now in my own much smaller closet, yet they’re available for me to slip into whenever I want. If I need strength, I know the perfect Manolos. If I want to feel more beautiful, I have the Bottegas. But I always remember where my mom ends and I begin. Wearing her shoes but walking my own path is exactly what my mother wanted to give me.LINDA DALY is more active in the community than she has time for. She relishes bossing everyone around in her LA magazine blog, Pretty in Green.