53: Barefoot

53: Barefoot

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

Barefoot

Our mothers are our first teachers, and we teach others the same lessons we learn from them.

~Caroline Kennedy

My mom was a dedicated churchwoman whose favorite story from her childhood during the Great Depression had to do with the county supplying her big family with shoes one winter, since the children were going to school barefoot. Mom was a good student, but she was embarrassed that the big, clunky shoes screamed “county issue.” She was relieved when the final bell rang, and she went to pick up her little sister. She found a crowd of jeering students laughing and pointing at the child who sat on the steps with a beaming smile, hugging her new shoes to her heart and loudly thanking Jesus and the county for them. My mother always ended the story by saying she was grateful for the shoes, but she never forgot her classmates’ cruelty.

Mom had a unique perspective on being charitable that I didn’t really appreciate until one cold, winter day when we picked up my brothers at school.

“Who is that child?” Mom peered through the windshield as a skinny, greasy-haired angry-looking girl herded a crew of raggedy children across the street. “They don’t even have coats. It’s freezing!”

“That’s Becky Ingler. She always looks mad like that,” I replied. My mother eyed the straggly group as they moved along the sidewalk. My brothers jumped into the back seat as Mom eased away from the curb.

“Where are we going?” I asked as she inched along the street, keeping pace about a half-block behind the Inglers.

They entered a crumbling, old storefront. “They live here?” Mom mumbled, then looked at me. “Tell me about them.”

I didn’t know much, but my brothers did, including that the Inglers didn’t have a father, and sometimes they smelled funny and everybody laughed at them. My mother nodded thoughtfully. Something was up, and it made me a little nervous. “I think I’ll visit them tomorrow,” she mused, turning to me, “and I want you to come with me.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “I don’t want my friends to see me go into that place!” Mom shot me a look. “I mean, you know, it’s not that I don’t like them or anything, but they’re just . . . you know.”

My mother nodded and replied softly, “Yes . . . I know.”

The next day, I followed Mom as she made her way across the cracked concrete to the Inglers’ front door. A tiny, exhausted-looking woman appeared, and Mom smiled and offered her hand. “Hello, Mrs. Ingler. I’m Mrs. Tovey from the church. I’m just visiting some of our neighbors to get acquainted.” Once inside, my mother studied each of the children surrounding a scowling Becky, who was reading from a tattered book. She rudely ignored my nod.

A rusty coal stove in the middle of the room emitted a thin, grayish film that floated through the air. A big, messy bed sat in one corner where a toddler napped, thumb in mouth. Mrs. Ingler listened to my mother discuss some of the church programs, then smiled politely, thanking us for our visit. As we left, Mom told Mrs. Ingler she sincerely hoped she would see her again soon.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, almost choking on the despair that hung in the air as thick as the coal residue. I could not fathom why my mother was so interested in the Inglers, but I soon learned.

Mom’s old sewing machine whirred for two days and nights as she collected coats from the church donation barrels, local secondhand stores and our own closets, patching, taking in and letting out seams. My mother was a talented seamstress, and I admired the way she turned the shabby hand-me-downs into stylishly tailored winter coats. I said as much, still feeling guilty about how I had criticized the Inglers for . . . well, for nothing at all, really, just for being less fortunate than we were. “I’m glad you approve,” she remarked, “because I need your help to deliver these coats to the Inglers this afternoon. But we need to do this carefully.”

“Wow!” I said. “They’re lucky to get these.”

“No,” said Mom as she faced me. “We’re the lucky ones to be able to help them, but that’s all it is, just luck. We could just as easily be in their shoes, or in no shoes at all, and then we’d be the ones needing help. We want to make sure these coats are given freely, without the Inglers having to pay a price for them.” I didn’t understand, and she continued, “I don’t want these coats to cost them their pride or dignity. We aren’t able to help them because we are somehow better than they are. We’re just luckier right now.”

I thought about Becky. She had a rotten attitude, but she also had a lot of responsibility, caring for her siblings and helping her frail mother in really bad living conditions. I knew the kids at school gave her a hard time because of how she and her family looked on the outside, without ever really seeing what was inside—a girl who was doing her best to keep her head up while living through a nightmare.

Later that day we went to the Inglers’ again. “I hope we haven’t come at a bad time,” my mother apologized as we entered the smoky, little room.

The kids were all on the bed, watching a little television set perched on a nightstand. “I know this might be an imposition, and I hope you won’t mind,” Mom smiled at Mrs. Ingler, “but we have some winter coats here that are in decent condition from the church, and I just wondered if you might know of children who could use them. It seems a shame to let them sit in the donation barrel during this cold and maybe you know some kids in the neighborhood who could use them. Maybe even your own might like them. It was just a thought, so . . .” My mother lifted a blue girl’s coat out of the bag.

Mrs. Ingler gazed at the coat, and then glanced at Becky, who was eying the garment with interest. “I’d be happy to help.” Mrs. Ingler gave my mother a knowing look. “And I appreciate you thinking of me for this. Thank you.”

“Oh, please, don’t thank me. You’re doing us a favor,” my mother laughed.

As we left, I glanced at Becky, who was examining the coats. She smiled, and her face was transformed into a Becky I hadn’t seen before. I smiled back.

Over the years, I thought about how my mom accomplished this act of kindness, and about her gift for caring about people. She cared about the whole person in everyone—the outside, which might be poor or sick or homeless or barefoot, as well as the inside, which might be frightened or desperate or overwhelmed.

My mother is gone now, but her legacy lives. The lessons I learned from her have helped me many times to remember that it’s important to see the whole person and to relate one to one, reaching out in love, not judging, and remembering that everyone can end up barefoot sometimes.

~Luanne Tovey Zuccari

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