I remember how my mother cried that night. I hated it when she cried. Anything in the world could happen, and, if my mother was fine, I was fine. But when she cried, my stomach felt sick and my heart beat fast. My newborn brother lay across my mother’s lap in the front seat of our 1965 blue Volkswagen as my father drove us through the darkness. I sat silently in the backseat, wishing it was just another regular night of eating supper and watching television. But I mostly wished that my mother wasn’t crying.
I was 10 years old, and the fall semester of school was about to begin. And therein lay the problem. My parents had no money to buy me clothes and shoes. My friends had gone shopping with their parents and had asked to see my new school clothes. I dodged the request, saying that I couldn’t go shopping until my father got the car repaired. That wasn’t too much of a fib. I knew I could always count on our Volkswagen to be in need of repair, and my friends didn’t seem any the wiser. I figured I had bought myself some time to see what my parents might do about my clothing dilemma.
“Please don’t cry anymore,” I heard my father say to my mother. “This is the best we can do this year,” he continued. “She will be fine in these clothes. They are good clothes, and we’re going to get first choice at what has been brought in. She can go through all the boxes and pick out whatever she wants.” My mother turned her face to the car window and looked out into the dark night. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to yell, “Stop the car!” and then get out and run until I found a tree to climb. A 10 year old up a tree didn’t need school clothes or shoes or notebooks or pencils.
We pulled up to the front of a small building. My father got out of the car and motioned for us to follow. As we walked down a hallway, someone in an office spoke to my father and told him to let them know if we needed any help. Apparently, my father had coordinated our night excursion ahead of time. I felt a small surge of comfort.
My father flipped a switch on the wall of a large room at the end of the hallway, and bright lights illuminated boxes and boxes of clothes and shoes. We found a cluster of boxes marked for children, and my father began pulling items out. I stood at his side, taking each piece to look at too. I didn’t know what I was looking for; I was imitating my father because I was scared.
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I realized that my mother was not behind us. I scooted around a few of the boxes until I found her sitting on a small bench at the side of the room, holding my sleeping brother. She had stopped crying. And the absence of her tears boosted my motivation. I went back to my father’s side and threw myself into our task. Somewhere in those boxes were my back-to-school clothes and shoes, and I was going to find them!
Before long, we hit paydirt — several pairs of corduroy pants in my size. My father held up a pair. They looked exactly like pants I had seen at one of the stores in the mall the last time we had gone to see a movie. My father smiled when he saw me smile. “Let’s look at each colour, Daddy,” I said as I peered into the box. I felt like a miner who had just struck a rich vein of long-awaited gold. We chose seven pairs of perfectly wonderful corduroy pants in my favorite colours.
Another box held girls’ sweaters and long-sleeved shirts. Soon, my father and I had selected enough sweaters to see me through the winter months and enough shirts to be used before the cold weather came. I was delirious with delight. Having never shopped from boxes in the back room of an office building at night, I was pretty proud of myself for having gotten the hang of it so quickly. And there was such bounty to be had! “Wonder which box the kids’ shoes are in, Daddy?” I asked.
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And then we encountered a bit of a setback. I was average size for my age, but my feet were small. And all of the shoes in the box were too big. My father looked dejected and shook his head. “Well, we tried,” he said with a big sigh. I looked at his face, swallowed the lump in my throat, and blinked my eyes hard to not show tears. “Wait, Daddy! Look!” I said as I put on a pair of bright-red, patent-leather flats with a shiny silver buckle. “I just put these back on, and they do fit! I just didn’t have the buckle pulled right. Daddy, these red ones are just perfect!” I said, smiling up at him. My father looked happy and relieved. He put his arms around me, gave me a big hug, and patted my back. “Then, I think we can call this a successful trip!” he said. I nodded my head, closed my eyes, and rested against my father’s strong chest.
On school mornings that year, I took a little extra time in the bathroom before coming out to eat breakfast. You see, the shoes didn’t really fit. In order to keep them on my feet, I had to stuff toilet tissue into the toes each morning. I never told my father about that. I didn’t want him to know I had fibbed, but, most of all, I didn’t want him to feel disappointed about not getting me shoes. Running and playing at recess often found me restuffing the shoes in a bathroom stall before going back to class. But that was fine with me. I had shoes; I had clothes; but, most importantly, I had parents who loved me. Parents who had gone beyond their means to be sure I had what I needed.
When, through the years, as a wife and mother, I have found myself unable to provide something for my own family, I have understood and shared my mother’s tears from that night. At times when I thought I wasn’t strong enough to meet a challenge, I looked back and remembered my parents’ strength and resilience. They always found a way to make things work, no matter how difficult the situation. And, when I have felt small and insignificant in a big world, I have found great encouragement about who I am as a person from recalling myself at 10 years old wearing those shoes stuffed with toilet tissue to school each day. The little girl who held her head high, worked hard in class for excellent grades, and ran around the playground just as fast as the other kids, kids wearing shoes that actually fit. Meeting the challenges of life is something I learned early and learned well. The truth is, you do what you have to do, and then you try your hardest to do even better. And you keep trying. Over and over.
Lea Gillespie Gant is the author of the children’s book “Never Say Goodbye,” has written for various publications, and lives in the mountains of Appalachia with her family.
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