The year I turned 13, I spent all my birthday money on a pair of Nike Oceania tennis shoes. They were white canvas with an aqua blue swoosh. All the rage. Sadly, I outgrew them about six months later, and did not get another pair of tennis shoes until the end of my junior year of high school. They were no special brand, and I bought them in the shoe department at the Family T G & Y where I worked part-time.
Those no-name white, leather tennis shoes carried me all through college. Finally, my senior year, I bought a pair of green Nikes at the mall. They were cheerleader shoes and were marked down half price.
I wanted to go out for basketball in high school, but, my parents couldn’t afford the uniform, the most expensive part of which was the $40 Nikes.
I’ve had shoe trouble all my life, which probably contributed to my foot trouble. When I was 23, I had foot surgery for bunions and spurs. I always wondered if bad shoes were a contributing factor.
Last weekend, my sister went with me to Bridgy’s baton twirling contest. We marveled at all the beautiful young girls with all their beautiful costumes — and opportunities. We briefly talked about all the things we wanted to do when we were young, but didn’t get to do because we were so unbelievably poor. Becky was a great runner and always beat the fastest girl in her class. She wanted to try out for the track team in high school, but there was no money for track shoes. That girl she always beat won a four-year track scholarship to the University of Southern California.
Today, was the track meet at Sully and Bridgy’s school. The kids love to run and have won lots of pretty, colorful ribbons over the years. Earlier in the week, I bought them new shoes for the event. They were happy and excited and grateful. They’re always grateful. My good kids.
When I picked them up this afternoon, I couldn’t wait to hear how they did. As their classmates came filing out of the classroom, I noticed they were all wearing old shoes. Or, at least not new ones.
I stared at their feet as they walked by me. I was so confused. Why was everyone wearing old shoes? Do I care more than the other mothers or do the other mothers know something I don’t know? That perhaps, one needn’t buy brand new shoes for a track meet. Maybe the still-good shoes they wear every day are just fine?
There is a lot you miss when you grow up in poverty. You don’t know where things begin and end. You know that holes in the soles of shoes is a bad thing, but between that stage and brand new, it’s all a little gray and murky. When you grow up poor, you’re never quite certain of what is good enough, so you buy the very best that money can buy so you don’t get it wrong. You don’t want to cost your kids a win or a dream or a ribbon.
Turns out the kids did pretty good in their races. Sully took first in five events. That’s crazy, right? It was a beautiful day and he was focused. Bridgy did well, too. Not as good as least year, but she did alright. I was so happy for them. When we got home Sully said, “I think these shoes helped me win, Mom.” It was his way of saying thank you. It touched the part of me we both routinely beat up for always overproducing.
Poverty makes a fool out of you. It happens in ways only the poor who have achieved some modicum of success can understand. But, it also provides many gifts, like an acute attention to the smallest details of life. Every thread, every tread, holds some meaning and purpose, and in the end, I know that all the years my sisters and brother and I spent without the right shoes paved the way for Sully’s big win.
Parting Thought: Springsteen’s last stanza of Born To Run. His early stuff meant something to me.
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
But there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Oh, Someday girl I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
Baby we were born to run