You Know the Old Woman in the Shoe
Readings on Poverty
There is something that has always touched me about the imagery in the nursery rhyme about the old woman who lives in a shoe. She is this old woman in poverty who has too many children and “doesn’t know what to do”. Sometimes I think I see that old woman when I’m out and about, living my life. This poem is a poem about who she might be in real life, in the modern world. And as you read it you’ll realize that it’s also a statement on people in poverty, people that we don’t always look at carefully and sometimes intentionally avert our gazes from, people who we want to reach out to but then don’t. You know this story.
She is the woman you see on the bus sometimes
Her dress is a little tattered
but you probably don’t notice because you aren’t paying attention to her
The bags she carries are a little too heavy
She is a little too heavy
When she slowly climbs the three steps to board
The entire bus sinks a little under her weight
It’s not that she’s fat, although she is a little bit
It’s just that she’s heavy with the weight of her life
She shuffles down the aisle
Only a little way
Until an open seat is there
Where she settles down heavily
Her stress spills out around her
Like the fat squeezed above and below the straps of a too-tight bra
Maybe her children are with her today
And she smacks them absentmindedly whenever they act up
Or maybe she is alone
Sitting stoically in her seat
Facing straight ahead with a look that is angry and hardened
And makes you a little afraid to look too closely
So you glance instead at the small hole on the outside corner of her shoe
And at the stain she picks at silently on her dress
And you aren’t really paying any attention
Until you see her hands and suddenly feel a sense of shock
She isn’t all that old
Her face, her posture – you thought she was fifty or sixty or eighty
But her hands are only two or three decades old
Your gaze slowly climbs to her face
She’s still looking straight ahead and doesn’t notice your stare
Through cracked crow’s feet
And a tight-lipped grimace
She is looking nowhere
Is she worrying about her children?
Is she thinking about her job?
Does she still dream of something better?
You notice that her eyes don’t shine
There is no moisture there
And you wonder if she can even cry anymore
And what she cries about if she can
You want to reach out and hold her hand
Offer her the satiation of the lotion in your purse
You want to close your smooth skin over hers for only a moment
To bring her attention to what is still young about her
But the bus slams to a halt
The woman lifts herself heavily from the worn out seat
And the bus sighs with lightness
As she steps off and away
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