It wasn’t easy missing three months of first grade. There was no kindergarten in those days so she never had been to school before going into the first grade. Adjusting to being in school then missing so much of it was hard but not as hard as that first day back wearing one pink slipper.
She grew up in a small town of about 200 people. The school was two rooms with six grades. Mrs. Harris had been the first through third grade teacher for decades. In a school that small you knew everyone. You knew who their families are, who the “poor” kids are and there weren’t a lot of secrets.
How did she end up in one pink slipper?
Her mom was one of the rare moms that had a career. Her mom was a nurse who worked in the school system. Her dad worked full time and her older brother had already gone on to high school. Someone had to make sure she was ready for school and get her on the bus.
Let me introduce you to Edna. Edna lived across the street and was very happy to watch the little girl in the mornings. Both of Edna’s children were older, her husband had passed away so she loved the company of this little girl. Edna’s house was one of the oldest in town, now it would be considered a historical building. It sat next to the river and in the branch of the roads that used to be the old Rt 9 and the “new road”.
Each morning the little girl would get ready for school and walk across the street to Edna’s house. In fact, most of her early life she came and went at Edna’s like it was her own home. Little skirts with black patent leather shoes and bobby socks. Add a Captain Kangaroo lunchbox to complete the picture. In 1964 she was exactly what a first grader looked like. Going to bed with spikey curlers in her hair was normal to give her the perfect curls.
Most mornings were routine. Have some corn bread Edna had made. Watch as Edna did her chores, her ironing and cleaning. Preparing meals for the day. She had her spot to stand and lean on to the counter in the kitchen to watch while Edna worked.
The house was old, there was no hot running water in the kitchen. Each day when it was time to do the dishes Edna would heat a big pot of water on the stove and carry it to the sink. Each day the little girl would stand in her spot by the counter and talk while Edna did this. But one day everything changed. A handle broke on the pot Edna used to carry the hot water from the stove to the sink. Like a wave in the ocean boiling water spilled from the pot and up the little girl’s legs. The whole front of the left leg and the half of the right leg that was in front of the counter all the way to the knees was scalded.
In those days a person didn’t just call the ambulance. Edna called the little girl’s grandparents who lived three miles up the road and the grandparents came to take her to the doctor. While they waited for the grandparents, Edna pulled the little girl’s little black shoes and white socks off, tearing a bunch of the skin of at the same time. One leg was badly burned the skin tore all the way to the bones and tendons. Seeing what she had done Edna then used Vaseline on the legs. Instead of helping it just kept the heat in. She just didn’t know.
That was the beginning of a slow road to recovery. The girl was taken to Doctor Carter, her family doctor, there was no emergency room visit, he soothed and treated the legs as well as he could. There was talk of taking the worst leg off just above the ankle because the risk of infection was so great. The girl’s mother wouldn’t even consider it. She was a nurse after all. Mostly she was a very stubborn Yankee. Doctor Carter had known the mom for years, he felt she should be allowed to care for the girl’s legs.
Every day, several times a day the mother would unwrap, anoint the legs with salve, rewrap them and message them. One time every child in her school made her a card, it was so exciting to get a stack of cards!
For three long months, the little girl stayed at her grandparent’s farm on weekdays and the grandfather would carry her from room to room because she wasn’t allowed to walk. In the mornings she had Grapenuts for breakfast, there were special store bought cookies just for her for a snack. In the afternoons she would watch Payton Place and What’s My Line with her grandmother. There was a comforting rhythm to the grandparent’s farm. There was a gift in being able to spend so much time there. She learned what life was like using a wood stove to cook, an old ringer washer for laundry and the peacefulness of farm life. Mostly she learned patience.
Time went on. Her legs healed. She was eventually allowed to go to school. But not with a shoe on that bad leg. Her mom thought the pink slippers would be special. She got them just for school. It was probably the girl’s first time knowing what embarrassment felt like. For the first few weeks the little girl wasn’t allowed to go out for recess, she stayed inside and watched out the window while the other kids played. More patience.
Eventually she could wear both shoes, she went out to play for recess and life went on. For the first few summers she couldn’t let her legs stay in the sun or she would feel the pain of burning but that too eventually passed. Her legs would never be attractive, they remained thick and unshapely.
For the rest of Edna’s life, she carried guilt. As the girl grew, grew up and eventually had a child of her own she would still stop to visit. There was never a time that they spoke that Edna didn’t ask how her legs were, did they bother her? The woman was 39 when Edna died at age 93. They had visited just weeks before and 33 years after the accident Edna still asked “do they bother you?” One of the woman’s greatest sadnesses was never being able to take that guilt from Edna.
They say pain has no memory. In a physical sense that is true. She knows there was pain but no longer feels it. In an emotional sense the pain of being different effects most people. Wearing pink slippers and having to watch others do daily activities through a window was difficult at the time but the lessons of patience and courage are lifelong.
Thanks to a doctor who was willing to take a chance and a mom who was willing to treat and care for her the girl’s legs carried her for years to come. They carry her now on long walks in strange cities and towns. They carry her on bike rides and climbs up and down hills. She drives and flies, rides trains and travels. Those legs give still her wings.