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First person A summer downpour brings soaked shoes — and memories

  • Audrey Child of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Audrey Child of Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

One day last summer, I parked in front of the Housing Authority building in Amherst where I had a late-afternoon meeting. For some unplanned reason, I had a half-hour to kill. Rather than sit in an empty meeting room, I decided to go down the block to Rao’s for an iced coffee. I took my umbrella because the sky looked darkly ready to deliver its promised summer deluge at any minute. I had just picked up my coffee when, sure enough, it started to sprinkle and quickly accelerated to a full-blown downpour. Since I had my umbrella and it was only a half-block to my meeting, what was the worst thing that could happen?

Sipping my coffee as I watched through the large windows, I thought about how wet I might get. The rain was coming straight down, so no worry. Even if the hems of my pants got soaked. I was wearing nothing that couldn’t be thrown into the dryer. Well, except for my shoes. No, not the sturdy all-weather sandals that take me daily on rambles through the woods and meadow. Not the ones that have already proven their worth in the rain; instead, these were the black strappy ones I wear when I up the ante and try to look grown-up.

As I sat there watching the rain, I remembered how anxious I was about taking care of my shoes when I was young and I realized that particular childhood anxiety was with me to this day. I didn’t think of the problem myself. There were ingrained warnings from my mother: “Don’t get your shoes wet, they’ll be ruined.” “Be sure to stuff the toes with newspaper, but don’t put them by the radiator; they’ll be ruined.” “Put on your boots; you don’t want to ruin your shoes.”

My mother was a lover of shoes — especially delicate heels — so her warnings came with some emotional attachment. She had very narrow feet that she passed on to me. It wasn’t easy for her to find shoes that fit, let alone that filled her requirements for style and color. She had to pay a premium price for shoes that fit her rare size, and so, given that our budget allowed for just the basics, any shoes she bought had to last.

The problem was timing: When I was young and growing up, we lived in Henry, Ill. The war years, as in World War II, brought rationing and shortages. Shoe leather went into boots for soldiers, and gas couldn’t be wasted on 30-mile shopping trips to Peoria, where our double- and quadruple-As were available. In addition to the difficulty of finding shoes that fit and were beautiful, the ones we did find didn’t last. Mom was right: Getting shoes wet did ruin them. Wartime shoes, made with leftover leather by untrained factory workers, and held together with inferior glue, fell apart much more frequently than pre-war shoes. Even though the war lasted only four-and-a-half years, I carried the warning to keep my shoes dry into my grown-up life, along with all the other frugalities from a post-Depression era childhood. Things still have to be really worn out before I let them go.

Naturally, I adopted my mother’s love for shoes, except for the heels. Getting to buy my new school shoes at Block & Kuhls, the biggest department store in Peoria, was a rare treat for a girl used to having only the necessities. They carried the brand advertised in American Girl magazine that my friends and I started reading in seventh grade. Every year, the September issue had one style that was perfect — perfect color, perfect new look. Not the basic brown tie oxfords, but shoes that had straps and buckles and cut-outs, and that came in colors like cherry red or marine blue. I had to have them. And, since I couldn’t wear the styles at the local department store because they were all too wide, those shoes became the one extravagance I was allowed.

So when it came time to head out into the downpour on that stormy afternoon last summer, I was confident my umbrella would keep me dry enough — even though I knew, as I looked at the torrent flowing down the sidewalk, that my shoes would be soaked. My first step into ankle-deep water gave me those familiar qualms in my stomach. But not for long: Soon I was feeling like a reckless little girl as I splashed up the street. Mom would never know.

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