Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Red Shoes

As our usual practice, my mother and I had a long talk on the phone. I always tell myself we'll only spend twenty minutes talking. But, it never turns out that way, no matter how hard I try.

Our conversations are the anti-therapy therapy. You feel oddly fulfilled by the words exchanged, but in the end you are wondering what the heck just happened. The trail of circles left behind is a constant reminder that you've said so much, yet you've said nothing at all.

Still, speaking with my mother always triggers something from my past. Whether I want to remember or not, I'm usually forced to wrestle with the images, at least for a little while . . .

* * *

This street was the kind of street you would drive down without looking around. The houses, tiny nondescript squares with a patch of grass in the front, all looked the same.

Almost.

Some homes had window boxes filled with flowers, plastic deer centered perfectly on the lawn and a path of smooth stones with messages that guided visitors to the front door.

Other homes had peeling paint, broken gutters and bent aluminum mini blinds peeking out of a window or two. Dirty toys littered the front patchy brown lawn and an old car sat as a permanent fixture in the drive.

It was a clear case of the have and have nots.

Except, all the occupants of these homes, the families, their children, were have nots. Some just had more hope.

This is where I grew up.

Back then I never realized we were a have not.

I remember watching my mother pay for groceries with special "coupons." I remember the brown cardboard box that held our cheese (which made the best grilled cheese sandwiches, by the way). I remember the whispers exchanged between my parents, the tearful pleas on the phone with family. I remember answering doors and calls with the requisite "My mom and dad aren't home," while they quietly waited in a back bedroom. But, none of it meant anything to me. I just didn't get it.

I didn't know we were poor. Until the third grade.

My mom enrolled me in a private Christian school. I was a scholarship kid. I didn't know that, either. A few days before school started we were to meet with the principal. I remember walking into his office. His secretary reached across her desk, shook my mother's hand and then peered down at me. She shook her head. A nearly imperceptible shake, but I do remember it. My smile faded into a puzzled frown.

I was wearing the wrong clothes. I was a little dirty. My mother was young. Her heavy White Shoulders perfume, red lipstick and bosom hugging v-neck spoke volumes.

This woman had our number. We didn't belong there.

Of course, I didn't know that either. Not until later.

Not until the red shoes.

Playground. Two weeks later.

The day I finally figured it all out. . .

The honeymoon of the first days of school had faded into regular routines. It was the end of the week. I only remember because it was library day; the day we were marched down the hallway to the tiny room with seemingly endless shelves of books. Only two weeks in and Library Friday was my favorite day.

After lunch, we headed outside to the playground. I sat on the steps and pulled out one of my books.

"Why do you always wear those red shoes?" a small voice asked. I'll never remember her name. I won't remember because the weight of her question pushed my eyes to the ground--to the red shoes.

My faded red canvas shoes. I had worn them every single day since the first day of school.

"They are my favorite shoes," I retorted. The response came so quick I was left wondering if it was even me who spoke it.

My mom bought them at a garage sale at the beginning of summer.

They were my only shoes.

I looked up and looked around. For the first time. I saw the haves.

The leather shoes with shiny buckles and thick soles. The ironed collared shirts and pleated pants. The perfectly coiffed hair and gemstone jewelry.

For the first time I noticed my pants (hand me downs from my cousin--a boy my age), my shirt (garage sale), my hair (pulled haphazardly into a pony tail).

I couldn't stop looking around, drinking in each image and choking on the painful knowledge of who I was . . . of who I wasn't.

The bliss of ignorance had come to an end.

* * *

I don't like red shoes. I am totally cool with garage sales. And I still hanker for grilled (government) cheese sandwiches. And I had to add "Canvas" to the title because

63 comments:

Casey said...

Wow. That was excellent and it really brought back my childhood. It sounds like we lived very similar lives. We shopped at Goodwill or K-Mart and I always wore hand-me-downs from my older brother's or from my mother's friends. I never knew the difference until the other kids started poking fun but even then I felt the need to defend my situation because I knew how hard my parents worked to provide for us. I ended up working full time to put myself through college and was the first person in my family (parents included) to go to college. I'm glad I was raised without money, it taught me the value of the dollar. Now that I have some in the bank, I still find myself scrimping and refusing to spend it on frugal things. We've already started saving for my kids to go to college but they're going to have to learn responsibility as well. It really makes for better people in the long run.

anglophilefootballfanatic.com said...

Oh, my goodness. What a horrible realization to come to for you dear. That sounds like my dad's experience. I also know it makes you appreciate everything you have now, and everything you will be able to give J that you did not have. I'm proud of your spunk in the answer.

Mr Lady said...

Zouch. I totally felt that. I always knew, and I'm kind of grateful for that.

I happen to LOVE red canvas shoes, btw. I also happen to HATE gub'ment cheese. Maybe we could have traded? :)

Lori said...

what a vivid picture you painted. And now you can look back and see how far you have come. How much you have overcome and take the time to thank those who helped you along the way. Remember to look at those times in your life and realize that it has made you stronger.... it has made you the woman you are today

womaninawindow said...

OK, you did it with this one! And how the expectation of Red Shoes is in direct conflict of what is born of this experience, I'm going to have to say, Brilliant! Love this. Lived this. Expect I knew very early on and I ran with my toes hanging out the bottom of my worn through soles thinking, "F* you! I'm fast anyway!"

And I was.

Jay @halftime lessons said...

This was great writing...nice job!!
Jay

Rachel said...

Beautifully written.

Wow honey. Thank you for sharing this.

conversemomma said...

This is better than anything I could even dream of writing. This is everything I dream of finding when I hunt and search. This is me eating any negative word I ever said. This is me saying, teach me, teach me, teach me, oh wise one.
Love you to bits for this and for so much more.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Great story--from on have not to another.

Tracey said...

My dad always made decent money. Had a good job and a SAHW. Until he came down with a weird sickness that left him unable to work for about 6 months. And then, a few years later, Hodgkins disease stripped him of whatever health reserves he had.

My mom got a job at Burger King.

My dad was always in the hospital.

We "got to" have sleepovers at a neighbor's house on school nights without warning...

Our lunchboxes went unused as we suddenly "got to" have free hot lunch.

I never noticed how different things were, really...

Until I found out our family was chosen for the church's giving tree 2 Christmases in a row... My favorite charity and WE were one of their subjects...

Pregnantly Plump said...

This was such a well written and poignant post. I hope that your time at the school wasn't always that way and that you were able to make friends and thrive there with your "favorite" red shoes.

Kathryn said...

Wow. It always amazes me when I find we have yet another thing in common.
Beautifully written.

April said...

As a child I thought the idea of school uniforms was horrendous. Now, as a parent who struggles with money issues (although doing much better than others), I wish those kids could remain more sense of being equal for just a bit longer.

flutter said...

This broke my heart and made me see you, this new person to me, in a sharp and beautiful focus.

You are made of beautiful stuff.

Timah said...

I love your writing here!

I never wanted for anything growing up, so I thought we were pretty well off. It wasn't until I got to boarding/prep school (on scholarship) that I realized what well off really meant - and we were not it. I also looked at the lives of my schoolmates from very affluent families and sometimes found myself feeling sorry for them when sharing stories of childhood. Sure. They'd spent summers in French villas, but they didn't go to festivals with Mom and Dad or play freeze tag with cousins. I'm grateful because I learned that, while having money does help, it can't replace the love and values my family provided me.

SecretAgentMama said...

These glimpses into your life--your upbringing--make me really comfortable and happy that we have crossed paths.

Lori said...

Again, I will say that you have such a way with words. I can only imagine what a great teacher you are! (I say ARE b/c once a teacher, always a teacher!)
I can relate to your story a bit because I grew up poor but I didn't realize we were poor. I didn't really catch on until jr. high when my friends had designer clothes and I didn't and BOYS entered the picture. At 16, when my dad bought my first car for $250- that was a big clue too! ha! But, I do appreciate what I have now and how far my family has come. Kudos for the excellent post!

Huckdoll said...

Oh wow...you are an absolutely amazing writer and reading this was such a treat.

I can totally related to that feeling you have about speaking to your mother on the phone though ;)

Indy said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I have been to your site before from CC. I will definitely be back. I love this post. I'd love to hear more about your childhood. I didn't want the story to end.

Threeboys1mommy said...

I've heard nothing but good things about that government cheese. ;)

the mama bird diaries said...

What a heart wrenching memory. So beautifully told.

Sue said...

THanks for sharing. That was very well written!

Kristen said...

Again, what a way with words you have!

Thank you so much for sharing this story with us. Such a personal account, and so beautifully written. I felt as though I was on those steps with you.

I often wish I could go back in time to the age of grade school. What I would tell myself now that I know. :)

Zoeyjane said...

I don't have much to say. I think we lived in similar means growing up, and to be honest, it's programmed me. To this day, I feel panicked, having more than a couple of pairs of shoes, a fridge full of food, one coat. It just always has seemed like enough, since that's what we did.

Does that make sense?

Elaine A. said...

My mom used to take the government cheese that my grandmother would get because she could never eat it all. And you're right, excellent sandwhich. ; ) And, she used to reuse the boxes it came in to store receipts and other stuff.

I really liked reading this post, it's very well written.

Karen MEG said...

What a wonderful piece of writing this was. That loss of childhood innocence... so profound.

Are You Serious! said...

♥ You drug me right in! It was a great read! I never realized we where so broke either until I was much much older! :)

LceeL said...

That was a lovely piece of writing. That had to be hard. To live. To write. To re-live.

Burgh Baby said...

I feel ya' girl. It's no coincidence that Alexis has eighteen bajillion pairs of shoes.

Fantastically written. You roock!

Rach (Mommy Learns to Blog) said...

What an awesome post. Your memory was so clear I felt like I was right there with you. Your writing is amazing.

Thanks for sharing.

Rachel H. said...

This was awesome...I could totally relate and it was very compelling writing.

I think this is one thing I have tried so hard for my kids not to feel...it's tough going through school and not having much. I just hope my kids remember the memories we've made, not how much we don't have. :)

Total sidenote: did you ever get a new camera? Or have you found one you like?

Tiaras and Tantrums said...

FABULOUS!
Kids can be so cruel!!
You turned out alright girlie!!

Nan Patience said...

Great post!

My parents didn't have much, either, but I didn't remember it bothering me. My parents managed to keep it to themselves I guess. By the time it mattered, they were doing better, and we got to go school shopping and get stuff we wanted (stuff everyone else had).

DysFUNctional Mom said...

That was heartbreaking. That moment of realization. We didn't have much either, so I can relate.
I remember getting some of my grandparents' government cheese and it was SO good. I always asked my mom if we could buy that kind at the store. heh heh

Stacie said...

you are a great writer...I felt you in this piece.

Becoming Me said...

Ohhhh there is a huge lump in my throat right now...beautifully written and brought me back to a time that I'd like to forget, yet am glad that I do remember...I just don't know what to say....brilliant.

Allison Says said...

Really wonderful post. Amazing how a non-conversation conversation (I have those anti-therapy therapy conversations with my mother as well) can bring back so many memories.

That's quite a memory, too. I really sympathize. While I knew I was a scholarship kid and I knew that I wasn't rich, I had a moment of realization like yours that I wasn't like the other kids in private school.

I agree with AFF, too: it really does make one appreciate what they have in life.

Kami said...

Beautifully written, I felt it all. You have come so far and for that you should be extremely proud. Have and have not is too defined by material goods...Those with love are the richest...

bessie.viola said...

This left a lump in my throat. Amazing post.

Danielle said...

wow! I had red canvas shoes too and loved them. We didn't have much money when I was little but I never really seemed to notice until we had more money. Then I went to a college with a bunch of rich girls and even being middle class I suddenly felt poor again. That was amazing. Great picture of your childhood.

Momisodes said...

This was such a beautiful piece. And it hit home in so many ways. I remember my own Red Shoe moment (only mine were brown). It's amazing how quickly kids are able to perceive these things.
Thank you for sharing :)

Karen said...

I saw it all through your eyes. And I'm sorry for the hurt you lived through. Why does childhood innocence have to ever be stripped away?

Nap Warden said...

Have not here. Man did I relate to this...

Flea said...

Hey! Substitute houses for trailers and I lived on your street! By the time I was a scholarship student at a private school, though, I was pretty well aware of what I was. Just not who.

I tell my kids now, when I hand them clothes from Goodwill, that if anyone asks where they got it, to say, "My mom got it for me." Not a lie.

Your words are worth a thousand pictures. :)

Melinda Zook said...

You know that is so tough on a kid to realize things like that. Our family was pretty much middle of the road. We were not rich, nor poor. We were just sort of making it (on credit I believe). What I remember hating the most was when I realized my mom didn't take very good care of me. As a young child, she basically left me to my own devices to get dressed, do my hair, get my things...I remember numerous times not being prepared for school or looking downright shaggily (on picture day!) because my mom really didn't make the effort to be sure I was ready for school or looked presentable...and I am talking at ages 7-13 when I still needed some looking after. It has nothing to do with money but more about care. It can really make you feel different but then again, I guess everybody feels "different" one way or another.

tommie said...

This is so wonderfully written...I grew up with just my mom. I don't think I ever realized how poor we really were.

Jonny's Mommy said...

I grew up in a similar atmosphere. I was lucky that I had a couple pairs of shoes, but there were days we had little to put on the table to eat. I remember the stresses of having little money. What is scary is now we are going through similar times. Some days my husband gets frustrated. He grew up in a much worse environment than me. But I always tell him that no matter how little money we have, we have plenty of love and that's what counts. Maybe it sounds campy but I hold on to that ... remembering that it isn't important where we live or what material things we have, but that we have each other. That's how it always felt in my family.

This was a great, thought-provoking post. Your writing skills are really shining through here.

Cecily R said...

Laski!!! I just resubscribed to your feed because for some reason I wasn't getting your updates!!! I've missed you!!

You have such an amazing way with words. I know you've heard it before many times, but it's the truth. Wow.

I didn't notice we were of the have nots until about the 6th grade. My mom handled it with such finesse that even then it really didn't matter. I really wish I could bottle some of her wisdom.

CC said...

Very well done. I could feel you a little bit there.

Angie @ KEEP BELIEVING said...

Amazing post. Poetic.

KEEP BELIEVING

Lisa said...

Powerful, powerful post. I'm sure many of those experiences made you the lovely woman you are today. But how sad that the haves and have nots had to be so obvious at such an early age.

anti-supermom said...

What a great, great story. You are a fabulous writer, I just had to say that. You made me part of the story.

Thank you for sharing~

Trannyhead said...

I want you to know that I wear form-fitted V-necks and have a huge rack. Though you probably already knew that. I draw the line at perfume, though - I don't wear any.

That's really awful. Kids can be SO MEAN, you know? And the worst part is thinking that some kid is going to be mean to OUR kids one day. I just hope that my kid grows up to handle it well!

Merisi said...

Hi, I came over from David's "Authorblog", congratulations on winning his "Post of the Day" award! :-)

I would guess that the kid who asked you about your red shoes probably couldn't even imagine that these were your only pair, and she was only curious.

You write with great skill, and like someone who stands on her own feet, firmly and confidently. All the best to you!

Moannie said...

Hi. New to you from David's blog and thank's once again to him for pointing us in the direction of bloggers unknown. God knows when the man sleeps.
Well done, beautifully written, and touching so many of us whose childhood was less than perfect. I have always known I was a have-not, it has coloured my life for sure, but it makes great posts.
Treasure your mother, how painful it must have been for her, knowing she could not provide you with the things that made you blend in with the 'haves'.

Sandi McBride said...

Hi Sweetie...did you know that even the haves are havenots? There is something missing in every family you visit. Never feel shame about where you came from, feel bliss at where you headed. As long as you knew your mother loved you (and she loved you very much...I have to data on your father, but I'm sure he loved you nearly as much...mama's love the most sometimes...not all the time, but sometimes...nothing is equal in this old world. I just wanted to hug that little girl on ground at the base of the tree, book in hand...I was frequently found book in hand, or nose in book! Wonderful post, and David sent me...
Hugs
Sandi

Eve Grey said...

Awesomely written. This perfectly sums up the look I saw on a little girl's face at my children's school the other morning. I wanted to hug her so badly. I thought about her after all day.

Suldog said...

Great little story, very touching. I'm glad I stopped by. I came over from David McMahon's place, by the way.

leslie said...

Congrats on making David's POTD! Well deserved. As a former Christian school teacher, you've taken me back to times when I see the "odd" student in my class - one whose parents scrimped and saved to send them to our school or one who was, like you, a "scholarship" student. And how even though the others were from "good Christian families" they would look on that one student as "different." Life is not fair, is it?

Marmarbug said...

Your story gave me goosebumps. Kids are so cruel. While we were not rich by any means I used to get teased for my name. It hurt.
I have been trying so hard to teach Bean to befriend people for who they are not what they have. I wish other parents taught their kids the same.

crazymumma said...

When I was 10, 11....we moved from our apartment to another apartment right as close as my parents could get to the good part of Toronto.

Finding out how awkward I was, how I did not fit was such a wake up call to how the world worked.

I sit here and I wonder if you like or not like having conversations with your mother. If all that comes back to you is unwelcome, or just part of the woodwork.

Hyphen Mama said...

I love this post. You wrote it so beautifully.

I didn't realize we were poor until far past 3rd grade. I should have figured it out when I got a bag of hand-me-down clothes from the overweight, poor girl in class. She kept telling me and everybody else who'd listen that I'd been given her clothes. I denied it and told everybody I'd gotten them as a gift from my grandma out-of-state.

I like to think I'm a better person because of it. I always hope my children appreciate a warm home... I'm pretty sure they don't.

Colleen said...

I lived off hand-me-downs for a long time, especially after my dad left. My mom would struggle to fill-in the gaps by purchasing necessities on lay-away at K-Mart, and by using coupons. We got handouts from people at church; in fact, on Thanksgiving they gave us this huge box of non-perishable food--I remember watching the Thanksgiving Day parade while marveling at all the food and colorful labels (this was back when generic food had black-white labels--and that was all we had in our pantry). My mom would scrimp and save for us to have one gift to open on our birthdays--most of our Christmas gifts were bought by my aunt who was very well-off (I didn't know this till I was in middle school). I still feel so indebted to all my family and church family that took care of us so that we didn't lose our home, so that we could eat, so that we had heat in the winter, so that we had clothes and shoes for our growing bodies; they watched us and fed us while we were young, free of charge, so that my mom could go to school. I am so grateful that none of them looked down on us for our situation and instead chose to help us out and lift us up (even though some of them didn't have a whole lot more).
I truly believe this has left me better-prepared for handling lean times, understanding the value of a dollar, and having compassion for those now facing similar situations.

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