By Wendy Hodge
The leaves have changed, and we are knee deep in an Alabama bipolar episode. One day it’s jacket, gloves and scarf weather, and the next day a t-shirt is perfect. It has rained every day for the last two weeks, but now the sun is out and it’s glorious. There is frost on my car when I leave for work in the morning, and by lunchtime I will need the air conditioner to make it to Tiger Town. In other words, it’s Thanksgiving in the South.
As I write this, the sun is hanging low in the sky. My best friend and I sit on a porch overlooking a lake that is serene and golden. I’ve stared at the light on the water for so long that it no longer seems real; it’s a dream, glistening in the distance. And, as I sit in this rocking chair, a memory washes over me. It is so vivid I can smell the air around me and hear my grandmother’s voice.
We were at the edge of a small pond out behind the barn, and the sun was low in the sky. The air was cool, and the light danced across the water. We were discussing Thanksgiving. Actually, my grandmother was making a verbal to-do list: peel the potatoes, make the pies, make sure we have enough flour and sugar – this year we’re having those sweet potato biscuits you like so much, crack the pecans and get your granddaddy to pick them out of the shells for me.
I was content just hearing about all her plans – the gears that moved my world forward were working smooth as ever.
She stopped talking suddenly and sat down heavily on the seat next to me. Her face was filled with weariness. It hit me then that my grandmother Gussie was not, despite years of evidence
to the contrary, a machine that cooked and cleaned and farmed and gardened without so much as a yawn. She was human through and through, and she was tired.
I found this alarming.
She must have seen the concerned expression on my face, because she put her arm around my shoulder and smiled at me. “Don’t mind me,” she said. “I just forgot my thankful shoes.”
“My thankful shoes,” she answered. “In the morning, before I even leave my bed, I look down at my shoes sitting there waiting for me to start my day. They’ve been there resting all night, just like I have. They walked every step I walked yesterday. They went outside and inside. They went to town. They sat with me while I ate, and they carried my tired body to bed last night.”
I looked down at her old brown work shoes while she talked. They must have walked a thousand miles before that day, and they had many more to go.
“I learned a long time ago, Wendy Lynne, that at the beginning of each day I need to remind myself that no matter how busy or hard the day is going to be, I have two choices. I can see the bad in the day and put on my feeling sorry for myself shoes, or I can see the bounty in every little thing and put on my thankful shoes. For a minute just now, I forgot which shoes I was wearing.”
I sat there staring down at my shoes, letting her words wash over me. And I hear them still, sitting on this porch by the lake.
I am still learning to put on my thankful shoes. My grandmother was much better at it than I have ever been. But life is relentless in its effort to teach us the thing we most need to learn. A few years ago, when I was as low as I have ever been, when the rock I thought I had built my life on crumbled underneath me and I was faced with starting over, when gratitude was the last emotion I was feeling, my grandmother reached out from wherever it is that incredible Southern women go when they are no longer here with us, and reminded me to check my shoes before I start my day.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, and the sky was black with rain. Miserable weather; it matched my heart. I’d spent the morning preparing a meal I was too heartsick to eat a bite of.
We were out of flour. I walked the two blocks to the Fred’s store. The emotional weight I carried on my shoulders made every step feel like a mile. Once inside, I stared at the shelves of baking supplies until I managed to lift a bag of flour and carry it to the cashier.
Back in the parking lot, I turned to head toward my house. The rain hit my face, and the cold air made my hands numb.
I almost missed him. He was sitting on the curb. His clothes were a non-color, much faded and worn and dirty. His beard hung in jagged strands down to his shirt. His skin was dark brown, and he slumped there like a man defeated. I swear it was my grandmother’s voice I heard telling me to stop and reach out to this man. So I stepped toward him and said hello.
He didn’t look up but did whisper, “Hello.”
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
He flinched, and I wondered if I’d been too direct.
“I’m starved, and I don’t want to go home yet. Would you eat with me?” I waited, holding my breath. It felt very important that I do something for this man.
I was about to give up, when he raised his head and looked right at me. His blue eyes were cloudy, but there was a light shining there.
“I could eat,” he replied.
We walked to the Burger King next door and ordered sandwiches and fries and sodas. We sat in a booth and ate every bite. All of this was done in complete silence. Neither one of us said a single word. But it was not an uncomfortable silence. In fact, I was more relaxed than I’d been in days.
Finally, with not a bite left between us, we walked out into the rain again. I turned and looked at him to say goodbye, and he stood there with silent tears streaming down his face.
“Thank you for eating with me,” I told him.
He just looked at me as I turned to leave. And then he called out to me – “Ma’am… I knew it was going to be a good day. That’s why I put on my thankful shoes.”
I slowly turned back, with goose bumps on my arms. “Your what?” I couldn’t believe he’d said those words.
“My thankful shoes. My mama used to always tell me to be sure to wear the right shoes if I want a day to be thankful for.”
With that, he turned and walked through the parking lot and down the street. I lifted my face to the sky and smiled into the rain.
“I hear you, Gussie,” I whispered into the air.
And so, on this day on the porch by the lake, I look down at my thankful shoes. I am wearing them today because my grandmother taught me how. There is so much to be thankful for. It doesn’t require a list or even naming them in any conscious way.
All that’s needed is an eye to see the bounty in every little thing and in every single person…. and the right shoes to carry yourself through every day you’re given.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.