A coolness rose from the morning dew as August ran out of days. School at Poplar Valley, Alberta, would begin in one week.
“Mom, when are we going to town?” Patience challenged every part of my seven year old life. At times I even frustrated my siblings, but everything interesting took endless time to happen. I agonizingly waited for everything and everyone. “Can we go today?”
When I heard an exasperated sister or brother say, “Mom, tell Amy to quit asking questions,” I knew it was time to practice the illusion of being patient. In this case, it lasted until I suddenly realized that our gigantic parcel could be picked up by the wrong family.
The Eaton’s catalog order for school clothing required decision-making as sophisticated as determining what the Queen of England wore for her photos in Life Magazine. As beautiful as the gowns were that she wore, my preference towards perfection was a pair of red running shoes. The red canvas design atop brilliant white soles with spotless white laces obliterated all other selections on the childrens’ shoes page.
The fear of someone else picking up our parcel pushed me to my limit. “Mom, what if the stuff we ordered doesn’t fit? We need time to fix them. Let’s go today.”
“We ordered large so you can grow into the clothes,” Mom said. Size had no bearing on the glory of having an article of clothing that no other person had worn. New clothing offered a position of superiority. We didn’t talk about it, but anyone wearing new clothes automatically felt “better than”.
As Mom and I drove the dirt road to the highway, a wider dirt road, I asked her, “Will there be anyone else in my grade this year?” I was hoping to share grade three with at least one other person. She said, “I don’t think so. There’s a boy from the Brockenham* family your age, but he’ll be in grade one.”
“What’s his name?” I asked. I had noticed the Brockenham kids in my countryside wanderings. They never wore anything new. They usually looked dirty and sad. Because they clung to each other, it was hard to talk to any of them. Having overheard my mom and dad one evening, I learned that they were poor. The father habitually drank alcohol, worked little and frightened everyone in his family. In an uncouth attempt to ask one of the Brockenham girls about it at a gathering, she promptly told me to mind my own business.
At one of the gatherings, I remembered someone shouting at an ‘Andy’ and seeing a lively and wiry boy race circles around the family, a streak of humanity kicking up dust. On his way by, he paused and greeted me with a full faced grin before disappearing into the folds of his beckoning family.
As she drove, Mom answered, “His real name is Andrew*, but he likes people to call him Andy.”
Mom and I returned home with the precious parcel from Eaton’s. As soon as the stuffed box was placed on the kitchen floor, its contents were doled out. Even my brother and sister showed non-grown-up signs of delight. I marveled over each article of over-sized merchandise.
The cream of the crop were sitting at the bottom of the box – my pair of red running shoes. The smell of new canvass, the softness of the rubber soles, the abundant white laces and the flawlessly shined eyelets offered so much more than their picture in the catalog.
Putting all else aside, I kicked off my old shoes with the backs so worn that they were slip-ons. I wove in the laces and pulled on each runner as though they were made of eggshell. I looked down at the gemstones that punctuated my life and wanted school to begin the next day. I would wear these forever.
“You have to save those for school. Wear your old shoes for now,” Mom said.
“I’m just going to try them out. I’m going outside, but I won’t get them dirty.” Mom gave me one of her looks that meant I could only get away with a little bit of being outside.
Throughout the week, when family members were absorbed in their own activities, I would slip on my red runners and head outside. Certain that I would be able to outperform anyone at the track meet in the spring, I ran, jumped, slid, and skipped my way through the rest of the week.
The first day of school meant I could finally fully dress in new clothing. In our home, the tiny Teacherage that housed teachers and their families, I ate breakfast and watched a steady stream of kids enter the school yard. Suddenly, I saw Andy. Instead of clothes that were too big for him, like the rest of us usually wore, his slim body appeared to be squeezed into tight pants and an odd-looking shirt.
I ran outside fully prepared to show off my new red shoes. Instantly, Andy raced up beside me bearing his silly grin. I realized he was wearing a girl’s blouse with buttons ready to burst open. “Hi Andy,” I said. “See my new shoes?”
Andy looked down and actually stood still. “Wow, ” he said quietly. I looked to see what shoes he wore. None. He was barefoot and his feet were filthy. Mom rang the school bell and we trundled into the schoolhouse.
My desk sat behind Andy, but in the next row. Fortunately, as the lone person in grade three, I didn’t have to pay much attention to the morning’s lessons. My attention would not stay away from Andy. Deep inside, a strange new feeling replaced my excitement over my new clothes. The feeling had everything to do with Andy’s bare feet and tight clothing. I needed to talk to Mom.
Recess worsened my sadness when I saw that none of the other boys would even talk to Andy. At lunch time, before I ran down to the teacherage to eat, I saw the Brockenham kids in a huddle sharing a few molasses sandwiches.
When I arrived at the teacherage, I quickly told mom about their lunches. She told me she had noticed, too, and had a plan. The huge, round, black furnace that sat at the back of the one-room schoolhouse was kept lit and well-stoked throughout our colder temperatures. Mom had a massive black, cast-iron pot that she would fill with water and put on the top of that furnace. About 11:00 a.m., she would have one of the boys get up on a desk and pour in packages of dried chicken noodle soup. It would be ready by lunchtime. We would all eat soup with our sandwiches.
“Maybe we could trade and share sandwiches so that the Brockenhams can have something besides molasses. We could pretend we like molasses sandwiches,” I suggested.
“We could do that,” Mom said.
I gobbled my lunch and ran outside to play during the remaining minutes of lunch hour. Again, Andy raced up to me and asked me what I was going to do. I could see that he was longing to be with someone other than his brothers and sisters. Having twelve brothers and sisters would make anyone to want to have other friends, I thought as he grinned at me.
“Come with me, Andy,” I said and motioned him to follow me to the teacherage. I decided Andy could have my old shoes.
I pointed to a bench outside the house, “Wait here.” I went inside to fetch the old, brown shoes with the heels worn down. There was nothing wrong with them, except I had outgrown them. If they fit Andy, we could pull those heels back up.
Carrying them outside, I thought I may as well give him a pair of socks to go with them. Worried about the time, I decided I’d just give him the socks I had on. I plopped down on the bench beside Andy and said, “I’m going to give you a pair of shoes, Andy. But you need to have socks to wear with them.” I untied the red shoes and slipped them off so I could give him my socks.
Andy picked up the red sneakers and stared at me. His eyes filled with tears. “Yer givin’ me these?”
My heart fell the equivalent of the height of the schoolhouse.
I handed him my socks and with all the strength it takes to tell the biggest lie in the world, I said, “Yes.”
I hardly remember putting on the old brown shoes and walking up the hill to the school house. I heard the school bell ringing and when I walked past my mother, she asked quietly, “Where are your new shoes?”
Before I could say a word, Andy raced up to the steps of the school, ran three circles backwards and did jumping jacks waiting for me to get out of the way.
“See you after school,” my mom, the Teacher, said. She had that mother look…the one that said she was proud.
(* These are not the true names)