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I remember the sharp stab of rocks on the bottoms of my feet. I’d leapt from bed as soon as I received the call, and rushed out the back door. No keys, no purse, no shoes.
I ran a half block down a gravel alley. The quick sting of hard edges snapped me out of a sleepy daze this early summer morning.
A neighbor looking out the window might have seen a middle-aged woman in shorts and baggy T-shirt, hobbling, weaving and flinching like a cartoon character crossing hot coals.
Finding my shoes never crossed my mind. I’m a barefooter. The quicker I can take them off the better.
Mammaw always said, “That child’s gonna get hookworm if she doesn’t put some shoes on.” I didn’t know microscopic larvae lurked in puddles and wet grass, awaiting entry into a cut on the skin of my feet. I pictured a fat little worm with a hook for a head, working its way between my toes and hitching a ride.
“Go put some shoes on,” my mother often said, just before I jumped into the station wagon. This was before the pervasive NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO SERVICE signs on restaurant and store windows. Most summer days I walked with a sister or a friend to a little neighborhood store. The squeaky screen door slapped shut as I headed to the tub of iced Coke, Dr. Pepper and Nehi grape and orange. My bare feet were hot and dusty. I remember the black floor, smooth and cloudy with wax, a cool reprieve.
When I first began practicing yoga, nearly 20 years ago, the teacher instructed us to lift our toes, spread them, then lay them on the mat, one by one. My feet had found their proper home.
A blazing summer, fifty years ago. I spend a good portion of every day jumping rope with the rest of the girls — run in, run out, red hots, “Cinderella, dressed in yella’, went upstairs to kiss her fella’, “One-two, buckle your shoe, three-four, shut the door, five-six, pick up sticks.” The rope slaps the asphalt at every half turn, keeping time.
One afternoon, I represent my school at a city-wide jump rope competition at a park across town. I arrive and take note that most of the jumpers are taller than me, their long legs clip-clopping like horses, their feet in dirty white Keds. This contest has nothing to do with tricks, just endurance. The girl who jumps the most times wins.
I wait my turn and watch the rangy 12-year old before me jump 500 times before swiftly running out and clutching her side. Her friends comfort her with water while I skip in.
My bare feet are silent against the pavement. I jump with a little flourish the first couple-hundred times, turning around, double bouncing, then I settle into the slight hop that requires the least energy. Just past four-hundred, the rope turners hand off to new girls. Their wrists are tired. The balls of my feet are on fire, so I flat-foot it for the next hundred. The crowd begins to chant: 498, 499, 500!
I keep jumping, my bare feet barely rising high enough to clear the rope. If I step on the rope or trip it, I’m out. At six-hundred I begin to plan my exit. Six-fifty. Six-sixty. Six-seventy-five, I jump and run out. I get the blue ribbon. The rope turners rub their wrists. The tall girls lumber away. I sit in the back seat while my mother drives us home, and I pull up one of my feet to take a look. The pad of my left big toe is split open and red. I dread the stinging whoosh of peroxide that surely awaits.
I remember the sharp stab of rocks against bare feet two years ago, a lifetime after winning first prize. I’m an older woman now whose naked feet haven’t beaten against pavement for many years. I cringe at the pain, but rush down the alley.
I jump in the car and drive my gathered family through deserted streets and run barefoot into a big hospital for the second time in my life: the first time was 34 years before when my water broke and my daughter was born. This time we are all born again into mystery and loss. I remember knowing that we have to hang on to our great big love, no matter what. I remember the cool floor beneath my bare feet.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.