Most of us have many epiphanies during our lifetime, or aha moments, as my mom called them. You know, those times where you suddenly realize your way of thinking about something was totally backward. Now, I am not talking about when you’re six years old and learn the difference between Washington State and Washington D.C. I am referring to the important things. The things that change your life. The aha moments that stick with you. Those epiphanies that you look back on and smile, and shake your head wondering how you could have ever been that ignorant.
One of my many aha moments happened the week after my twelfth birthday. It was another wonderful hot summer August day where all I had planned for the next eight hours was to ride my bike to Jesse’s house and play Nintendo till our fingers cramped, or until his mom threw us out of the house to go play outside, whichever came first.
“Bye mom,” I yelled as I tried to quickly rush from the side door to the garage to grab my bike before she gave me any chores. I got out of them yesterday because it had been my birthday, so I knew mom probably would want to double up today if she caught me.
“JJ, come back here,” Mom yelled from the kitchen. As soon as I took three steps toward the kitchen, I could already smell the burnt toast and strong coffee.
I walked into the kitchen and mom was standing over the stove with my baby brother, Corey, in one arm and flipping pancakes with her other hand. My sister, Tabitha, barely out of diapers, was playing with blocks on the floor. She left a trail from the old kitchen table we inherited from grandma to the couch mom once said was older than me.
“Here, come take Corey for a second while I finish your breakfast,” Mom said.
I walked to mom, gently took Corey from her arm, and began to bounce. Corey loved the bouncing for some reason. He always got this little smile on his face that was contagious.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry? Jesse’s house.” I never understood why mom would ask and answer her own question.
“Yeah.” I nodded my head.
“You need to eat something before you go over there,” Mom said.
“Jesse’s Mom always makes us stuff, Mom. I’ll eat there.”
“No, baby. You need to eat here. She doesn’t need to think you don’t eat here.”
I stopped bouncing and looked at my mom. “Mom, she doesn’t think that.”
“Yeah, yeah. I see the way she looks at me when I run into her at the grocery store.”
I smiled. “Mom, you say that about everyone.”
“JJ, sit down – your pancakes are ready.” I walk to the kitchen table, put Corey in his highchair, lifted Tabitha off of the floor and put her on my lap where mom had already set up plates and silverware.
Mom brought over a plate of pancakes.
“Wow, pancakes two days in a row.” I smiled.
Mom started to feed Corey his bottle. “Yeah, the community center gave us each two boxes of pancake mixes in our grocery bags last week.”
“Nice.” I nodded. “Much better than the two boxes of malt-o-meal we got last month.” I looked down at Tabitha and made a gagging sound. Tabitha started giggling.
“JJ, that’s not very nice,” Mom scolded. “We should be thankful for whatever we get.”
I rolled me eyes. “Even malt-o-meal” I looked down at Tabitha and made the gagging sound again. She started giggling again. “See, Tabitha gets it.” I laughed. I looked up at Mom and she had that stone cold look on her face. The face of disappointment I called it. I had seen it before. Once after I failed an English test and she had to sign it, another after I broke curfew last month, and then, of course, after dad had to get a second job working nights to help pay the bills. We didn’t have a lot of money, I know. I am not dumb. And it got worse after Corey was born. My parents would often have whispering conversations that would abruptly end when I entered the room. Mom still worked a few nights a week at the fast-food place down the street when our neighbor, Lonny, could watch us. The kids at school would sometimes say, “hey, your mom made my fries too salty last night” or “your mom supersized me last night.” I still wasn’t sure what that meant. I was upset and told my mom one time and she seemed to know what it meant but wouldn’t tell me.
“JJ, that’s not funny. We could be going hungry right now. Some people would be glad to have malt-o-meal.”
I could tell from mom’s face and the tone of her voice that I better shut up now. Tabitha looked up at me, like she was daring me to say it again, so she would have another excuse to giggle. I smiled down at Tabitha as I started to tear up a pancake and feed her.
“I know, Mom. I get it.”
“I hope so, JJ.”
We finished our breakfast. As I was drying the last dish, Mom asked where my old shoes were. For my birthday I had received a new pair of converse. They were awesome. They were so clean and had absolutely no holes in them. Best of all, my feet didn’t hurt when I walked. The left big toe had been pushing up against the inside of the shoe so much lately that it started to throb more and more, which is why I often took my shoes off as soon as I arrived home. I had asked for a Nintendo game set but received the new pair of converse for my birthday instead. I have to admit, I was genuinely happy about the shoes. I was sad about the Nintendo, but not having my left toe pulsate in pain anymore was the best birthday gift ever. Plus, I could still play Nintendo at Jesse’s house.
“The shoes are by the front door, Mom.”
“JJ, we should donate them.”
“Mom, they are so torn up. Nobody would ever want them.”
Mom walked to the front door and picked up the shoes. She started to inspect the insides and carefully examine them like they were a specimen in a science lab. I couldn’t help but wonder what she was doing.
“JJ, these are bad for you, but someone with smaller feet may want them. I should take them to the donation center.”
“Mom, you can’t be serious. No one in their right mind would want those nasty shoes. They probably wouldn’t even accept them at the donation center.”
She looked at the shoes again. “Well, maybe not.”
“I can throw them away in the trash,” I said.
Mom was silent again for a minute. She then walked over to me and handed me the shoes. “JJ, you can throw them out, but leave then next to the garbage, don’t put them in the can.”
“What? Why? I asked.
“JJ, just do it please.”
“Whatever,” I said as I shrugged my shoulders. “Can I go to Jesse’s now?”
“Ok, just be home by four because I have to work tonight.”
“Yeah, ok,” I said trying not to sound annoyed.
Mom kissed me on the cheek. “Love you baby.” She handed me a lunch sack. I already knew what was in it. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a banana, and possibly a few of those imitation cookies that kind of look like oreos but don’t taste like oreos. I didn’t have the heart to tell mom that Jesse’s Mom normally made us lunch and I ended up eating my lunch as a snack or throwing it away. Mom would kill me if she ever found out. Hmmm, maybe that’s why Jesse’s mom looks at mom weird at the grocery store. Nah, Mom is always saying stuff like that.
“Take your old shoes and remember, put them next to the garbage,” Mom said like she hadn’t just told me thirty seconds ago.
I took my lunch and old shoes and headed out to start the fun part of my day. I dropped my old shoes next to the garbage can. I kind of felt bad leaving them there all alone. Those shoes and I had been together a long time. I wore those shoes when I hit a home run playing baseball with my friends last year, when Corey was born and dad took me and Tabitha out for ice cream to give mom some alone time, and, best of all, when I first kissed a girl last month. I looked down at the shoes and smiled. I tried not to think about my old shoes watching me jump on the bike with my new shoes and take off. By the time I made it to Jesse’s house, my old shoes were a distant memory. The next few days all went pretty much the same. Helping mom with Corey and Tabitha in the morning, riding my bike to Jesse’s, going home at night to start my evening chores. I wished summer could last forever.
Saturday morning came and Jesse and I had made plans to meet up at park. I was less than a quarter mile from home when I saw a kid walking on the sidewalk in the same direction. I had to do a double take to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. I slammed the brakes on my bike and stopped near the kid. I startled him and he jumped back. He looked to be around the same age as me, maybe a year or so younger.
“Hey, sorry,” I said.
The boy stared blankly at me.
I looked down at his shoes and immediately knew they were mine. I knew every scuff mark, every hole, and every scratch on those shoes and they were definitely my old shoes. The kid noticed me looking down at his shoes and walked a few more steps back.
“No, no. Sorry, I was just looking at your shoes,” I said.
The kid’s eyes got really big like he was going to cry.
“No, hey.” I said. “They are really cool. I like them a lot.”
The kid cracked a smile. “Really?” He asked.
“Yeah, converse are the best.” I smiled. I saw the kid look at my shoes and smile.
“Your shoes are really nice.”
“Thanks,” I said and nodded.
I arrived home a little after five that evening. Mom, Dad, Tabitha and Corey were already around the kitchen table. After dinner, as I was helping mom dry the dishes, she looked at me with that disappointed look on her face again. “JJ, why are you wearing your old shoes? And where are your new shoes?” I told mom the story of the kid on the street and that look of disappointment melted away to a face filled with joy and tears.