Iwatched a toddler lick a shoe the other day.

He scooped up the red and blue flip-flop, left by a stranger on the pool deck, and gleefully licked it top and bottom before anyone could stop him.

The mother in me was appalled. The shoe lover was empathetic.

I so understood. Been there. Almost done that.

Before long, skinny feet forced my preteen self into a woman's size, before I twisted my ankle slipping off a pair of platforms at age 10, back to the dark red Mary Janes I wore as a 3-year-old, I have had a sole-deep relationship with shoes.

For some folks it's mountain biking, coin collecting or a favorite sports team. For me, it's footwear.

A pair of yellow moccasins so buttery soft that I bought them in two other outrageously impractical colors.

The creamy pumps with darker faux lizard insets that were half a size too small but so gorgeous I had to wear them.

The black ankle-straps with higher heels and pointier toes than anything I'd worn before or have since. Nothing good ever came of those shoes. I remember them fondly.

The fuchsia skimmers and the long gray boots. Two pairs of purple pumps and those bubble gum pink Chuck Taylor high-tops.

No Manolos or Jimmy Choos -- I'm not sure if they existed before kids and a mortgage, but I sure can't afford them now. Indeed, for me, part of the joy is in the hunt for a bargain. I have stalked the right shoe, in the right size, at the right price, across entire regions, using my best telephone manners to cajole harried clerks to please, please, please check in the back. Oh, for the joy of a sale, plus a discount coupon, topped of by a surprise 20 percent markdown at the register.

Have mercy.

And once I have found that special pair, a relationship can develop that spans jobs, fashion trends and foot-swelling pregnancies. When downtown Richmond sidewalks gnawed down a beloved pair of black pumps, I had them repaired -- again and again -- until the shoe doctor convinced me it was time to let them go. A pair of beige sling-backs wait now, in desperate need of resoling, and the cost will easily top what I paid for them 10 years ago. But I wore them to two of our sons' baptisms, so they'll be getting a second chance.

I am also a student of what other women wear. How someone strides gracefully in a pair of heels that I couldn't stand in without tilting. How white sandals are so summery on someone who wears a size 6, but, in my size, would look as if Moby Dick were eating me from the toes up. One friend is so tiny she shops among the girls' shoes. And what treasures she finds: raffia flowers, beaded bugs, and rhinestones of every color. On her, everything looks precious.

In recent years, I have shopped less and admired more. The Internet lets me look without touching. And I've observed a rule that for every new pair that walks in, an old pair must exit. And so this spring, as new rose slides made themselves at home in the closet, I searched for what they would replace, finally coming across a pair of navy loafers.

I asked someone who loves me enough to be honest whether the future would find me tossing the pink pair and wondering what I was thinking the day I bought "those."

She could have mollified me with words like timeless and classic. But she didn't.

Yes, you will hate them, she said. But for now, enjoy wearing them and feeling all mod.

And for this shoe season, I have.