05/03/2012 01:42 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

How to Become A Shoe-ologist and Better Understand Your Mother

I'm a middle-aged woman, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of my mother's closet. She's recovering from cancer surgery and I'm in cleaning mode -- my goal for the afternoon is to organize her shoes. From the very first pair, I become a kind of shoe-ologist, focused on learning as much as I can about who she is and the road she's traveled.

I reach for one of the several black felt shoe bags tucked into the far right corner. Inside I find the princess-worthy brocade pumps I played dress up with as a child -- pretending to be glamorous -- with her gray silk blouse buttoned over my flannel nightgown, her orange lipstick dotting my lips. I am 12 years old, my feet still small enough to fit into every pair she owns -- the clickety clack of high heels audible as I parade across the wooden floors of her bedroom.

I close my eyes and can almost smell the Chanel No. 5 that once infused both her closet and her clothes. It was the scent of my mother, the scent of my childhood. Carefully placing the shoes back into the bag, I draw the string tightly, afraid to let any of our history slip away.

Other treasures from years past remain, worn when my father was still alive and her life was about being prepared for the next special event. In those days, she'd emerge from their bedroom ready for a night out, her auburn hair "done" earlier in the day at the beauty salon. Around her neck the 16-inch pearl necklace with the jeweled clasp, and on her feet over patterned pantyhose, shoes that always matched her purse that held little more than a lipstick and ruffled hankie from her mother-in-law.

Now well into her seventh decade, there is a sea of black in a variety of textures: suede, patent leather, buttery smooth leather -- not a pair scuffed or misshapen -- all with heels of an inch or less. There are mules, slings-backs, and seamless loafers. A few half boots are tossed in, gracing the top of the pile like pumpernickel croutons on a bed of romaine -- leftovers from before she and my dad moved to California -- trading in frigid East Coast winters for an endless summer. In those days, my teenage years, she'd wear bold socks with patterns that would poke over the tops, and make me pray her pants would be long enough that my friends would not notice what she considered "art."

At the back of the closet, another shoe bag reveals a pair of black espadrilles with stacked woven heels, their long sexy laces dripping out of the end of the bag -- worn for a dressy occasion no doubt, when lengthening of the leg was desired. I pause for a moment to try and determine whether they are truly retro or brand new, looking strikingly similar to a pair that I wore in the 70s with a flowing purple calf length skirt, and several silver and turquoise bracelets around my wrist. How divine I thought I was.

Side by side I place each pair, as if ordering her closet will bring equal order to our lives, helter-skelter with the news of her cancer. Moving on to the colors -- each luscious as sherbet and wonderfully feminine -- there is lime green, banana cream, Bartlett pear, peach nectar. I have not seen her in most of these, not known where she has been when she wore them, or the people she met while they graced her feet. The 18 years we've lived in separate parts of the country is evident -- these shoes and I are strangers.

Nearing the end of the pile, I find sneakers, barely used. One with a playful checkerboard pattern and one with laces, gifts from my brother and sister-in-law who thought they might inspire her to exercise.

I've heard it said that shoes offer insight into our souls. Perhaps they really offer a snapshot of our lives, our loves, and our health. As I close her closet doors, I wonder about my mothers' recovery: how long it will be till she is back on her feet and which shoes she will choose to wear along the way.

I know now we are not that different, my mother and I. We have flats and mules, a sea of black, and a dash of color. As cancer survivors, we also have a sense of what makes shoes more than a fashion statement: how they serve every day to remind us of the importance of putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward with life.