A Shaky Strut Gives Way to Solid Strides

When I was a child and the summers were long, I ran barefoot most of the time, through the rolling fields of grain and the dirt roads around my home. Shoes were to be kept for school, something I was glad to do. Mother had us walk to school barefoot when we could and put on our shoes upon arrival. Shoes, and leather to fix them, cost money that a strapped prairie family could ill afford to squander.

As I grew older, I longed for fashionable shoes, like those I saw on the sleek-legged ladies uptown. Heels that would pump up my short frame and allow me to glide elegantly through life.

I begged and pleaded with my mother for a pair of black high heels, and even agreed to pay part of the money. Finally she relented, and I became four inches taller. I was off to my first high school dance.

I had borrowed my sister's lipstick and rouge and had powdered my face for the first time. Mother's blue bottle of "Evening of Paris" perfume was dabbed behind each ear. I left with a gang of giggly girlfriends, trying to strut in my new shoes.

At the dance, we waited anxiously in groups: girls on one side, whispering and pointing; boys on the other side, shuffling and trying not to make eye contact.

Oh how I longed to glide in the arms of the best-dressed boys. Surely they would notice me now, as I had grown taller! As the evening progressed, Danny, the richest boy in town, asked for a dance. I was dazzled and barely able to speak, but I nodded shyly as he took me on the floor.

At first I felt self-assured, just as in the song my grandmother taught me: "There's the kind of walk you walk, when you're feeling ample." But as I was gathered in Danny's arms, his eyes didn't meet mine. He was busy surveying the room. Finally I saw another girl look jealously our way. Danny smiled. "Good, she finally noticed me," he said under his breath. But he was so busy watching for her reaction, he was not watching his step.

As his shoes came down on my unsteady feet, my teetering frame gave way, and I landed, sprawled out in his arms. My ankle burned, and I was close to tears. Danny helped me unceremoniously to my seat and dumped me there.

As I sat with foggy eyes, staring down at my feet, I saw someone approach. He wore the shoes of a farmer's son, carefully cleaned and well used. I looked up slowly, and before me stood a boy I hadn't really noticed before. His manner was shy and timid, and in his hand he held a bag of ice.

With Ben's help, I made it into his father's car and was driven home. Ben kept complimenting me on my dancing ability, even my swoop into Danny's arms, which he had seen only in the movies before. Soon my tears were turned to laughter, as I imagined the scene in my mind. Ben had been watching from the sidelines. He claimed he didn't know how to dance, but he wondered wistfully if I would be so kind to teach him.

AT the next formal affair, Ben and I were absent. Instead, we went to his cousin's wedding, a barn-raising event with a fiddle and friendly faces. I cast aside my four-inch pumps for my sturdy flats. Despite being shorter than Ben, I felt pretty good in his arms doing the Virginia Reel on that enchanted prairie night. There were many other dances we shared as time went on.

Eventually, I headed for the city, for my path was there, and Ben married a lovely woman who was a dear friend of mine. Together, they stroll hand in hand, walking tall across the wheat fields that surround their farm. Still, Ben takes her for a spin around the dance floor now and then, and she has always boasted what a good dancer he is. I like to think I had something to do with that.

As I walk through life, 5-foot-4 and proud of it, I remember that girl and her prideful fall from grace. I walk with dignity now, believing in who I am, not strutting like some peacock, all feathered up.

I stumbled onto something I needed to learn that night. Something about the way we walk through life. May each step we take guide us toward who we really are. May our falls from grace be as graceful as Grace Kelly! May we see the comedy in trying to be something we are not. And may we not judge others until we've walked a mile or so in their shoes.

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