Oh, the exhilaration of the walk home from school on a brisk autumn day! We shuffled through piles of leaves along the road and crunched acorns as we walked. Flocks of birds resting on their way southward often twittered from the sparsely clad limbs overhead. The clear blue sky and the portent of frost in the air let us know that the wild fall grapes were at their peak. We would drop our books beside the road and scale the embankment where the vines grew. We would fill ourselves with the tantalizing tartness of the cranberry-sized grapes while squirrels chattered accusingly at us.
As the days grew shorter and the mornings colder we knew that one day soon a package from Sears, Roebuck and Co. would await us when we got home. It didn’t take x-ray vision to know the contents: our winter long stockings and overshoes. We would groan but we didn’t dare verbalize our thoughts as Momma showed the stockings to us, crooning about how “pretty they are this year.” They were an abomination to us, an injustice we had to endure all winter long. How we hated them! Each of us were given two pairs in the fall. By daily washing we would have a clean pair each day.
Stockings didn’t lend themselves to an active life. They sagged at the knees and fell around the ankles. And the garters necessary to hold them up cut into our legs. But most of all was the humiliation. They were so old-fashioned! Our friends wore snow pants over their skirts. The pants were removed like a coat at school and put back on when it was time to go home. Our mother would not hear of them for us. They were a fad! They were an extravagance we could do without. Moreover, pants were not “ladylike,” as if baggy stockings were the epitome of femininity!
Momma was a nonconformist of the first order. If “everybody is doing it,” we were going to be the exception. Whatever the fad, she would not succumb. A few years ago I was promulgating to my teen-aged sons one day about the importance of doing what is right even when it means standing alone. When I stopped and listened to myself, I realized that I sounded like my mother. Only now it seemed so virtuous!
When the first rays of spring sun swelled the buds on the maple trees and they began to show red, we would start our pleas to shed the stockings and put back on our socks. When Momma grew tired of our badgering she would announce peremptorily, “If you mention this again I will make you wear stockings until the end of school.” We never doubted that she meant it, and so we didn’t challenge her threat. We knew that eventually she would announce that it was warm enough for us to make the change.
Overshoes were not quite the abomination that stockings were because everyone wore them. They were rubber boot-like things that one pulled over the shoes to keep the feet dry. They were mainly an inconvenience. They were hard to put on, and a lot of trouble. They got mixed up in the pile at school and at the end of the day each student scrambled through the mass to locate his or hers.
Another thing about galoshes, as our parents called them — I thought it a silly word, about as silly as the product itself — was that they dulled the shine on my shoes. I worked hard on Saturday to perfect that shine. I learned a trick from our oldest sister, Sgt. Winifred L. Anderson, USMCWR (United States Marine Corps Woman’s Reserve). The trick, she said, was to apply a little saliva as you whisked the shining cloth rapidly across the leather. “Spittin’ shine,” they called it in the Marines.
As much as I hated the stockings and galoshes they were an inevitable part of my life, and they probably did ward off the elements. Or at least until February when late winter rains came and thaws started. By that time my stockings would have holes in the knees and my overshoes would have leaks in them, probably from some of the tomboy antics I persisted in doing. I often heard my parents complaining that it was always my overshoes that required the patching, while my sisters’ remained intact. The patches didn’t often hold.
After the three mile walk to school in my leaky galoshes my feet would be wet and cold. Miss Owen often took off my shoes and stockings and put them by the stove to dry. If my feet were really cold she would warm them gradually in a pan of water she heated on the stove. Sometimes she would forget that I was barefoot and sent me to the blackboard to work an arithmetic problem or write the spelling words. The floor felt frigid away from the warmth of the stove. Before the end of the day my shoes and stockings had dried enough for me to put them back on and return to my desk. Often the drying out routine had to be repeated when I arrived home.
I suppose there are lessons we learned about life from wearing long stockings and overshoes. For one thing, upsides have downsides. If you want to enjoy the first snowfall of the season, to walk in the woods and listen to the gentle falling of the snowflakes on the dry leaves, you must submit to the atrocities of appropriate protective clothing. Furthermore, with maturity comes privilege. One year when we were older, the long stockings were replaced with colorful knee socks which we were allowed to select ourselves. Unpleasantness does not persist forever.