My parents were very strict about our preparations for Sunday. For Mamma, it meant we must cook all afternoon on Saturday and be sure everyone’s clothes were washed and ironed crisply and neatly. For Daddy, it meant shining shoes and buffing them to a fare thee well.
My shoes in 1946 were not little strappy things nor were they slide-ons or wedged heels. For little girls, as I was then, my shoes were usually brown leather oxfords with shoe laces. I wore them the rest of the week running and skipping up and down the hills of North Georgia, scarring rounded toes on roots and rocks. They became thoroughly scuffed by Saturday so it took a lot of energy to buff them to suit my Dad.
Dad would gather six or eight of us kids around him and provide one flat can of shoe polish to share and one polishing rag. He would supervise to begin with, then drift away to something more worthy of his time.
I can smell the shoe polish right this minute. It wasn’t a bad smell, in fact I really liked it, sort of an expectant smell, getting ready for something special. What I didn’t like was getting shoe wax on my fingers. Invariably, no matter how I tried, I ended up with that dark brown shoe polish under my fingernails. So then, even after an older sister scrubbed my hands raw, I’d still have ugly nails for going to church. I wondered sometimes which was worse, scuffed shoes or ugly nails.
After spreading the wax around the toe of a shoe, then along each side, you tackled the turn around the heel. If Daddy had disappeared by then, I was mighty tempted to skip the heel. Who would be looking at the heels of my shoes? Daddy would. Yes, if I dared to skip a heel, Daddy would certainly notice. He told us very firmly that heels were, in fact, more important than toes. If someone saw your toes shining but your heels looking dull, you would be known at once as a hypocrite.
I wasn’t sure, at the age of four or five, what a hypocrite was. But it certainly sounded very bad so I learned to go ahead and buff my shoes all the way around.
Polishing, or buffing, was the fun part. We competed with each other to see who could raise the most sparkling shine, whisking a soft cloth back and forth over the leather. My older brothers said I shouldn’t have any trouble buffing my shoes because they were so little, so much smaller than theirs. But by the end of winter, my shoes were so badly scarred I needed to polish them twice to get a good reflection in my toes.
Every year in September Mamma ordered our new shoes from either Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Wards. One year when I was about nine I had two horrible sores on my right foot, so bad that I couldn’t wear my new shoes. I loved new shoes so much that I begged to be able to wear just my left shoe. But Mamma said I’d wear one out faster that way, and Daddy said with a twinkle in his eyes that I’d end up with one leg shorter than the other. Anyway, the only thing good about having sores on my foot was that for a couple of weeks I didn’t have to buff my shoes.
When I was eleven Daddy lowered a terrible ultimatum on me. He said I could no longer go barefoot even in hottest summer. My feet, he said, deserved my taking care of them so that when I was a lady they would be pretty. Even now, I love to kick off my shoes and ramble the house barefoot. But no more running over the hills knocking nails off my toes on stones and roots.
I’m thankful my Daddy cared enough about all of us to teach us to take care of our shoes and our feet. I’m glad he taught me to shine my shoes until I could see myself in my toes. But I’m also glad he taught us to take special care of our heels and, philosophically, pointed us to the understanding that character is portrayed by what you do when no one is watching.