“Size 7 if you can, but really, anything will do.”
Noticeably ashamed and even more embarrassed about the ask, she walked out with the same uneven pain, now made a little worse that her secret had been discovered.
I hope I never have to ask a stranger for a newer pair of old shoes.
Tattered by the years and scissor trimmed around the flattened soles, she still brushed them each morning and treated them like the blessings they were for carrying her through the day. Her only pair for as long as she can remember, I had done the unthinkable and asked if they were comfortable, knowing well enough they were now so worn, they were probably permanently injuring her feet and needed replaced with money from someone else.
But humility. A woman from the south learns early on the decorum of it. You always meet the needs of others and never ask for yourself. I’d met with her a few times and each visit hurt me to see her walk like that. She had no money for clothing or shoes. She was budgeting just enough to keep the lights on and some food in the pantry. So I had to ask the question. If not for her, to relieve my own pain.
But compassion. A man in the business of helping old southern women past their humilities and into a new pair of shoes was worth breaking the southern Georgia rules she’d lived with most of her 89 years.
“Size 7 it is, with a low heel and a sturdy new sole,” I told her. “You need say no more, and nobody else will know. We will never speak of this again, okay?” I assured her and she agreed with a nod.
I never shopped for women’s shoes before. A couple times with my Mom, sure, but this excursion was a secret mission to find a fit and style that would last an old woman the rest of her years and in which she would very likely be buried. That thought alone made the trip to the store on a Friday morning an emotional one.
I could have shopped Goodwill for a bargain, but this pair was to be an investment that comes in a new box stuffed with the clean white tissue and plastic wrap intact upon delivery for her to open and waft the new leather scent which she would do for at least an hour before trying them on.
She’d lived a hard life. Worked for 60 years at the same job, probably in those same shoes, and retired on a social security income that barely paid her monthly rent and left $123 for everything else. But she always said she was doing fine and was in no need until I’d spied the pair of shoes that her withered ankles were poured into and the gait that wasn’t because she was old, but because she was prideful and in pain.
Black goes with everything. Well stitched, sturdy thick soled like waitresses wear when they’re on their feet for an entire shift, and $62.30 with tax after the coupon, it was less than the cost of a single lunch for two and much more satisfying.
I showed up at her door unannounced, hung the bag on the handle and went to work.
When I see her again, I will say nothing of the shoes, just as I had promised.
A woman of her word, I expect she will do the same.
Some secrets are best kept and shared in silence, and then only with a few tears. Because dignity is still a virtue.