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You Know the Old Woman in the Shoe

Updated on November 8, 2011

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

No glean

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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  • Hello, hello, profile image

    Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

    A lovely poem and so well done.

  • Kris Heeter profile image

    Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

    Very moving. Your story telling brought back a very specific memory for me of that "old women" - someone I ran across while on a trip to a big city in California. It was right before Christmas and as you wrote, it made me " want to reach out and hold her hand".

  • Debby Bruck profile image

    Debby Bruck 6 years ago

    Kathryn ~ Truly observant and tenderness has shone through this piece of poetic story-telling. Have you seen this woman many times on the bus? It's rough living in the city and maybe a single mother. This hardens the spirit. Blessings, Debby