Tennessee Mountain Stories

If Clothes make the Man, what do Shoes do?

I overheard someone recently comment on a grown man going barefoot and how that must have brought shame on his family.  It got me to thinking about our changing opinions because it wasn’t too many years ago that shoes on the mountain were only considered a necessity in the wintertime. 

But then I remembered the story about Gladys Pell and how the first time she saw her future husband he was barefoot in church.  We pondered why that embarrassed her because her own family was anything but wealthy.  Maybe the sentiments are the same – only divided by fifty or sixty years.  Maybe after so many years of having to do without proper footwear it’s become one of those things that we can’t imagine doing without.

Chinese woman with feet re-shaped by years of binding.

Chinese woman with feet re-shaped by years of binding.

Shoes are a huge fashion statement these days and I have to admit that I like shoes.  I don’t have a  great many and I sure don’t spend the money on them that some folks do.  But I have often said a little prayer of thanks when I’m out in the mud in waterproof boots.  And the technology behind tennis shoes or hiking shoes today is unbelievable and I’ve thought many times about the soldiers who marched hundreds of miles in rough brogans – or even without shoes; of the farmers who followed a mule and a plow day in and day out wearing hard soles and no fancy insole support.  At least we aren’t like the Chinese of 1600 – 1800 who bound up their girls’ feet creating something inhuman – I read an interview where a woman explained you started binding feet at about 3 or 4 years old, ‘when you could reason with the child about the pain.’  I could cry right now just thinking about it.

Loretta Lynn’s iconic Coal Miner’s Daughter lyrics mention “…we didn’t have shoes to wear but come wintertime we’d all get a brand new pair…” Now there’s some creative license in a song but I’m wondering if she was a little optimistic in that explanation because new shoes for a passel of kids would have very nearly required a miracle for the average coal miner.  More likely the younger children wore hand-me-downs.

Hand-me-down shoes may have been an easier gift in yester-year when households had a shoe last  and skill to make repairs.  My great grandmother, Emma Stepp, possessed such a skill.  The story is that she could very nearly make shoes – and if she could have gotten ahold of all the materials maybe she could’ve created them from the ground up.  We have a story about her visiting with her sister one of the poor relations (which is rather a joke in itself as they were all fairly impoverished) and learning that one of the children had no shoes for the coming winter she asked her sister if she could find an old pair of shoes at home.  The next day Grandma delivered a fine pair of shoes for the child.

Cultures around the world are different and there are certainly places where good shoes are still scarce.  A girlfriend shared with me her experience on a short-term mission trip to deliver shoes.  Instead of just dropping boxes filled with footwear the missionaries sat beneath the people and fitted them with the proper shoes.  I would never have thought her proud but my friend told me how humbling the experience was for her and I can certainly understand that. Yet in bible times washing feet was an honored custom for visitors whose feet were tired and filthy from foot travel on dusty terrain. 

Isn’t that amazing to think how our perceptions have changed over a few thousand years?  We’ve gone from routinely washing another’s feet to shame at the sight of a grown man barefoot.