Shoes: A family story

I wrote this story loosely based on a true family story that happened in 1956. It is told from my brother’s point of view.

Allen looked down at his feet as he stood in line for the bathroom at school. He eyed the trailing shoe laces self-consciously as his teacher’s voice echoed in his mind: “Allen, tie your shoes!”

Allen couldn’t tie his shoes.  Although he was already in first grade and six and a half years old, his clumsy, chubby fingers still couldn’t make the series of ties and loops that resulted in a neat bow – or even a lopsided one – like all of his classmates. Well, all except for Gary, but Allen would rather die than compare himself with a dimwit like that!

Even his little sister, at age four, was already learning to tie her shoes, he thought with
embarrassment. She couldn’t really do it right, but she had already mastered
half of it, so by the time she was his age, she’d probably be a pro at it.

Allen shuffledinto the bathroom when it was his turn, trying not to let his shoelaces be seen by the other boys or especially by his teacher. She’d told him once, now she’d
expect him to come out of the bathroom with neatly tied bows on top of his
scuffed brown shoes.  Like he could do magic all of a sudden! He went into a stall and tucked the laces inside his shoes. When he walked out, he could feel them under his socks and it felt just like when he had a pebble in his shoe.

Only now he would have to put up with the discomfort, instead of taking off the shoe and shaking it upside down until the pebble dropped out.

The other problem with tucking the laces inside was that as he walked, they tugged at the side of his shoes where they were laced through the holes, pulling the shoes
open wider and looser, so that as he walked, the shoes gaped open and felt as
though they were two sizes too big.

Once he got home from school each night – after trudging home in his loose, clumsy shoes – he kicked off his shoes so that they tumbled under the bed. He was angry and
frustrated, and took it out on his shoes. Why couldn’t they make shoes without
laces? He hated shoes – hated the sight of them when he kicked them off, and
when he had to pull them out from under the bed in the morning to put them back
on. He liked going around with just socks or even barefoot, but his mother
usually yelled at him to put something on his feet. Now that October had
arrived, it was too cold to go barefoot or sock footed anyway, so he put on his
moccasins.

Allen liked his moccasins – there were laces on the top, neatly tied, but they were fake – they were just there for decoration and you didn’t have to tie them. He wished he
could wear them to school but his mother would never hear of it. She’d probably
say they’d get too dirty.

The autumn wore on and Allen was preoccupied with all the other more important things in a first grader’s life – Halloween, teasing his little sister, doing homework,
cartoons and the Three Stooges on TV, playing football with his friends, and
his model airplanes – so he forgot about his dilemma. His mom tied his shoes in
the morning, often telling him as she did so that he needed to learn how to do
this himself. Once he got to school, he forgot about being ashamed because by
now he was quite used to tucking the shoelaces inside his shoes once they came
untied sometime in mid-morning.

But soon it was Thanksgiving and everybody in the family started talking about Christmas presents. His parents decorated the house for the holidays and he loved to
watch his mom spray fake snow from a spray can through stenciled Christmas
greetings in many languages onto the glass of the front door. When she wasn’t
looking, he couldn’t resist running his finger through the very edge of one of
the stencils to feel the icy smoothness and see the sparkling white on his
finger. Real snow never lasted on his finger when he put up his hand to catch
snowflakes, and he wished he could keep the foamy glitter on his finger for a
whole day. But of course he couldn’t because he had to wash his hands for
dinner, so he enjoyed it for the few moments that he could.

In mid-December, the family went to buy a Christmas tree out in the country. Allen
loved the smell of pine, the sound of needles crunching under his boots, and
the softness of the long-needled firs on his cold cheek as they wandered
through the lot, looking for the perfect tree. Dad would always ask Allen to
help decide which tree to buy. This made him feel very grown-up. His little
sister usually had an opinion, too, but was generally overruled by her older
sisters and himself, because she was too small to make a decision about such
tall objects that were being considered for putting up in their living room and
decorating with tinsel, lights, balls, and a glowing angel on the top. Allen
shifted his weight from one boot to another in excitement, waiting for the
grownups to select the one that they would take home tied onto the top of the
car with string.

On the way home, Allen listened to his sisters talking about all the presents they had
hidden at home and what kind of paper they were going to wrap them in. Even his
little sister had made something for his parents. She didn’t have any money,
but she could draw and she would make little story books for them.

Allen was jealous of this because he couldn’t draw and wanted to give his parents a
present. He thought about the treasures in his room and what he could give up –
he’d found a couple of neat rocks before it snowed. Maybe they’d like one of
those.

Naw – what would his parents do with a rock? Hey, maybe they could make a paperweight out of it! He decided to take out the smooth gray one and use some of his model airplane paint to make a design on it. That would be a good present. Moms and
dads always liked stuff you made, even if it wasn’t very good.

The next day, he pushed a chair in front of his door so no one could come in. He picked some of the colors he wanted to use for painting his rock. He put some newspaper on
the floor of his bedroom and carefully set the rock on it. He started with a
streak of red and loved the bold way it looked on the drab gray rock. Green –
yeah, for Christmas! He tried to paint a Christmas tree, like the one they’d
bought and decorated. It was kind of lopsided, but it looked better when he
added more red and blue for the ornaments, yellow for the lights and white for
the angel. He had some silver too so he added some streaks for the tinsel. The
colors ran together because they were still wet, but he thought it still looked
okay.

Then he pushed the newspaper under his bed with the rock on it to dry. The newspaper scrunched up against something, curled back and the tip of it grazed the top of the rock, smearing the paint. What was under there?

Then Allenremembered – his shoes! Oh, how he hated those shoes! Now they had ruined his painting! Angry, he kicked the end of his bed, stamped his feet and ran out of the room.

In the playroom he saw his little sister watching TV. He went over to the TV and turned the knob to another station. His sister started to wail that she was watching it
first. He didn’t care, he just turned to the Three Stooges and flopped down
onto the couch.

His sister didn’t give up. “AL – LEN!” she screamed. “Not fair!” And she ran from the
room, yelling, “Mo-o-o-mmy!! Allen won’t let me watch TV!!”

Allen hated his sister. What did she know about anything? Her show was stupid, she was stupid.  He hated her, he hated all the four- and five- and six-year-old girls in the
whole world! She had left her dolls on the floor, and he kicked them. Then he
picked up a Barbie doll with a black ponytail and pulled off all her clothes.
Then he swung her around and around by her ponytail so that when he let go, the
doll went flying across the room and made a thump as it hit the closet before
falling on the floor, out of sight behind the box of blocks in the corner.

When his sister came back, she screamed even more when she saw what Allen had done with her dolls. His anger rose as he taunted her and called her the absolutely worst name he could possibly think of: “Poopie-snot-pee girl!” As she wailed and
cried in protest, he laughed and said it over and over as he backed out of the
room.

He didn’t get caught that time. Most of the time he did, but his mom was probably out taking two of his older sisters shopping. The oldest sister was there, but she never
did anything to stop them from fighting until it became so loud that she couldn’t
stand it anymore and came out of her room and yelled at them. This time she
didn’t, and Allen went back into his room, slammed the door and threw himself
onto his bed.

He wished his mom were home right now. He felt like crying because now his present was ruined and he wanted to give his mom and dad something really, really, really special that they would never forget. He wanted to give them the best present they ever got in their whole lives. He thought about his stupid, dumb little sister’s drawings being taped on the refrigerator, and his mom and dad laughing in delight when she read her dumb stories to them. She couldn’t even write – she just scribbled a bunch of
letters that didn’t make sense, drew some pictures, and then “read” her story
to the rest of the family, who thought it was cute. Ugh!

He thought about his painted rock, and how his shoe had been the reason that it got
ruined. Allen leaned over the edge of the bed and peered into the dusty
darkness underneath. There he could see the shadow of his forgotten school
shoes, left undisturbed until school would start again in January, or at least
until he had to wear them to church.

He sighed, remembering why he hated them so much. It was almost Christmas, his seventh birthday was next month, and he still couldn’t tie his shoes. His sister Mary
had tried all kinds of ways to get him to learn – she offered him a reward,
candy even, she tried to patiently teach him, step by step. But nothing worked.
He’d get halfway through, then give up in frustration.

Allen pulled on the end of the lace closest to him. The shoe slid out and the newspaper made a crinkling noise as he pulled the lace upward and the tip of the shoe dragged on
it. He held the shoe up over his head, the laces dangling down onto his face.

Finally, he sat up and started fiddling with the laces. He made letter shapes out of them, an a, then a b, then – easy! – a c. He thought about how he knew his alphabet and how he could read books already. He could count all the way to a thousand, probably, and he could add numbers too! He was pretty smart!

But he couldn’ttie his shoes.

Then he got an idea – the most amazing idea of his whole life! Allen pushed the chair in front of his door again and got to work.

Six days later was Christmas Day. Before 6 a.m., Allen and his little sister were up, anxious to see what Santa had brought them. On this day, they didn’t fight; instead, they both went to their sister Mary’s room to wake her up. Of all their older sisters, she was the kindest to her small siblings.

Soon the three of them, quickly joined by their middle sister, age ten, had climbed halfway up the stairs, standing on tiptoe or jumping up and down to catch a glimpse over the screen their parents always put in front of the living room entrance to
keep them from sneaking in on Christmas morning. They didn’t dare climb any
higher, for fear of waking their parents upstairs, who would not approve of
their “cheating”!

It didn’t matter – the children’s noise woke them up anyway. Instead of being angry,
their mother scolded them light-heartedly, then laughed. What child could
resist such a temptation? Dad swept up the little sister under one arm, Allen
under the other and carried them, squirming and screaming in excitement, down
the stairs. He put them down gently and moved the screen aside.

Immediately, the children rushed into the bright living room, full of surprises and the
promise of happiness. They were joined by Mom, Dad, and the still groggy oldest
sister, who at age fourteen preferred sleep over anything else, even Christmas
morning.

Before long, the children were surrounded with discarded stockings, torn paper and ribbons, abandoned boxes, and piles of new and wondrous wished for toys, games, books, and clothes. Each had a list of gifts dutifully written, to remember who had
given them what. Thank you notes would be expected within a week or two.

Now it was Mom and Dad’s turn to open their gifts. Allen and his sisters sat in wonder, caught between the enticements of their own presents and the mixture of curiosity and
duty of watching their parents open gifts from aunts and uncles, cousins,
grandparents, friends, and of course, themselves. Some of these were really
boring – Mom got a new bathrobe from an aunt or their grandmother, Allen couldn’t
remember which. Both parents got lots of books that were totally uninteresting.
Finally, though, they started opening the presents from their own children.

Now all the children had stopped playing and watched with almost as much excitement as they had felt opening their own gifts. What would Mom and Dad think of their presents? They were all curious to see the looks on their faces and to hear
their heartfelt thank-yous.

The older sisters had all bought something at a store with their allowance or babysitting money. They were past the age of thinking that homemade presents were the best. But the two youngest didn’t have any idea of what to buy for their parents,
even if their sisters were willing to take them to a store. They didn’t understand money and thought a quarter was a lot to spend. Their gifts were always opened last – “Save the best for last,” their parents said.

Allen knew his present was the very best of all. It would be a total surprise, and he had
worked hard, so very hard on it. He could hardly contain his bursting pride as
his mother began opening his box.

The paper slid off his mother’s lap and onto the floor as she lifted the lid of the shoebox Allen had found in the basement. He watched with disappointment as his mother’s smile faded and her look of excitement turned to puzzlement.  She stared for a moment at the contents of the box, while the children stood up to see what she was looking at. Mary smiled and gave Allen a knowing glance and nod.

There in the musty shoebox were Allen’s brown shoes.

The laces were tied.

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