One day when I was in my mid-teens, I was helping an older lady from our community. Leona was a widow and almost ninety. She lived alone and still took care of herself. But there was some yard work that was hard for her to do, so my parents would send me to help her now and then.
One day when I finished the yard work she needed to have done, she offered me some lemonade. I accepted it gratefully. I wiped the sweat from my face and sat down on her step to enjoy the refreshment. She sat in a lawn chair close to me.
Leona was someone who thought deeply about things, and when she spoke, what she said always seemed wise. This occasion was no different.
"Daris," she said, "do you know what I like to look at when I look at someone?"
I took a sip of lemonade and shook my head.
"I like to look at two things," she said. "I like to look at a person's hands and shoes. And do you know why?"
Again, I shook my head, so she continued. "You can learn a lot about a person by their hands and their shoes. Take you, for instance. I can see that even though you are a still a very young man, your hands are brown and calloused from hard outdoor work. Your hands show scratches and scars that indicate the work you do must be quite rough. Many boys your age have hands that don't show that kind of work."
Leona then pointed at my shoes. "I can see that you are wearing thick, heavy work boots. They are the kind with a steel toe. That indicates the work you do is tough, physical work that might entail a little danger."
She chuckled slightly as she continued. "I'm sure you've heard people say not to judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes. I say that is a good idea, because you've got a mile head start on them, and you have their shoes."
She smiled at me and finished by saying, "But seriously, the next time you meet someone, why don't you see what their hands and shoes can tell you?"
I noticed that Leona's hands were wrinkled with age, and her shoes were soft, older-person shoes. As I went home, I thought a lot about what she said.
A few days later was our community breakfast for the Fourth of July. As I ate, my mind was drawn to what Leona said, and I started looking at people's shoes. Most of the farm boys in the community had heavy work boots like mine. But many of the young men who lived in town wore softer tennis shoes.
There were ranchers in cowboy boots. There was a banker wearing shiny black dress shoes. There were women in high heels and others in sensible loafers. Some families with little money had shoes that were old and worn. Some shoes were meant to work hard, others were for play, and still others were for dressy occasions. The more I observed, the more diversity I saw.
As we ate breakfast, the speaker talked about this great country and how it was built by people from every continent and every background coming together in a common desire for freedom. He said our differences made us strong and resilient, and our similarities made us united. I thought about how the differences in who we were could be seen in something as simple as the types of shoes we wear.
It has been many years since Leona talked to me about shoes. She long ago passed from this life, but what she shared with me still lingers in my thoughts. It helps me to consider both the differences and similarities I share with people I meet. It also reminds me that those differences need not be hurdles to harmony, but instead can add variety to friendship.
But most of all, it helps me to consider what it might be like to walk for a time in someone else's shoes.