It always came back to those blasted boots. As long as I could remember, the boots sat disapprovingly in a corner of my mind. Making me feel guilty. Muttering about my shortcomings. Boots can’t judge, you say? They certainly can. I was raised on the mythology of a family tale told countless times, a tale that cast its long, boot-shaped shadow over my growing-up years.
One of the women in my family–my grandmother or my aunt or my mother–always told the story. And although there were a few variations, it went something like this:
A very long time ago, my great-great-great-great-etc. grandmother Janet Moffat was a teenager. Her family joined the church somewhere east of the Mississippi, and like Mormons were prone to doing in those days, they were heading west. Just before the journey started, Janet was given a pair of nice new boots. Janet had been waiting ages for a new pair, and she vowed to take good care of them. They were her pride and joy at a time when she had few beautiful things.
When Janet and her family set out across the plains, singing with all those other pioneer children as they walked (and walked, and walked), she decided she’d rather step on prickers and sharp rocks and risk getting her toes squished by wagon wheels and oxen hooves than ruin her beautiful new boots. So she took them off and walked barefoot all the way to Salt Lake City.
A dance was held shortly after arriving in the promised land. All the girls excitedly wore their best clothes while joining the other young people to celebrate the end of their journey. Janet was thrilled that she’d finally get to wear the cherished boots she had saved all those months. But when she put them on—after carefully dressing and fixing her hair—they didn’t fit. Her feet had grown and swelled and flattened out during the long, dusty march to Zion, and they were much too big for those pretty boots.
I have seen those boots in real life, displayed proudly on top of my grandma’s china hutch, and they are rather pretty in an old-fashioned way. Sturdy boots with short, curved heels, pointed toes, and cloth buttons running up the front of the legs. But to my childish eyes, they didn’t seem worthy of the lengths Janet had gone to protect them.
The lesson, in my girlish brain, was that pioneers had to do hard things— and so did I. If I avoided doing chores or practicing the piano—or if I’d rather read a novel than my scriptures—I only had to think about poor Janet, trudging barefoot across the plains.
In my imagination, Janet had a long face with thin, lifeless hair hanging flat across her forehead. When her younger siblings would get tired or slow the pace, she’d look meaningfully at them and then at her bare feet as if to say, “What reason have you got to fall behind, hmmm?” Janet would resolutely head out into the barren plains with her bonnet pulled low every evening, picking up stinky buffalo chips. Janet never complained, never whined or wavered. She pressed onward, ignoring her feet as they blistered, calloused, and cracked. I imagine they bled and hurt at first, but then slowly grew tougher throughout the journey. She walked all the way across the plains barefoot and she never got to wear the boots when she arrived. Janet knew that doing the Right Thing required sacrifice. If it grew difficult for me to stay resolutely pressing forward on the Path—well, I just needed to be more like Janet and stop complaining, stop worrying about myself, and just move onward.
Throughout my childhood and into my teenage years, I thought of the boots when I heard any lesson on hard work or determination or gratitude. Janet and her cracked, flat feet and disapproving stare pushed me through Personal Progress, scripture study, and week after week of boring Sunday School lessons. But I was doing the right thing—I knew it—although I rarely took the time to question my reason for doing it, or even whether that mattered.
One day, when I was firmly in young adulthood, my mother told me something new she had recently discovered. “We found out more about Janet. Remember her?”
Of course I remembered Janet. How could I forget Janet? Her thin specter had followed me through college, marriage, and the birth of my first child.
My mother went on. “Her mother’s name was also Janet.”
Well that’s just lovely, I thought. Now there’s two of them.
“And so she went by Jessie instead. The story of the boots that were never worn is actually about Jessie, not Janet. Jessie Moffat.”
Jessie. How that one little change made all the difference.
I turned her name over in my head like a shiny coin, feelings its ridges and watching the reflections of light on its surface. Slowly, the image in my mind shifted. Jessie had sparkling eyes and unruly hair escaping her bonnet. Jessie danced along the trail, skipping over rocks in her bare feet. Sometimes she teased her siblings and her mother reprimanded her, but later she made up stories to keep them all entertained. In the evenings, when the day’s journey was completed, Jessie slipped away from the wagon train to find her own space in the wide-open grass plains. She looked up at the curving dome of the deepening sky and stretched her arms out to feel the vastness of the space. Jessie fell asleep every night missing what she’d left behind, worrying about what would happen when they arrived in the Valley. Then she would remember her beautiful boots tucked carefully into a corner of the wagon, and she would be comforted.
When she finally arrived, so excited to wear her beautiful, treasured boots to the dance—only to discover they didn’t fit anymore—she was crushed. Devastated as only a teenager could be, she realized her error in judgement cost her the chance to ever use her beautiful boots. Jessie would have soaked her pillow with tears that night.
The lesson of the boots gradually shifted in my mind, as well. Perhaps Jessie’s boots didn’t have to be symbols of denial, of forcing myself onward, of uncomplaining unwavering discipline. No longer did they remind me of resolutely pressing forward no matter what. Instead, the boots began to remind me of the young girl who had loved them, of her imperfections and the range of emotions she must have experienced.
Now they remind me of the brightness that can accompany even painful journeys when life doesn’t go as I may have hoped or planned. They remind me to enjoy beautiful moments when they occur, rather than putting them off thinking I’ll have the chance to enjoy it all later. They encourage me to accept my frailties and imperfections and have a good cry when I need it. And most of all, they inspire me to put on my boots and enjoy the journey. Jessie is rooting for me.
Bradeigh Godfrey is a part-time physician, all-the-time mother and a find-the-time writer. Her creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in several medical humanities journals including The Intima and The Examined Life Journal. One of her short stories recently received third place in the 2016 Sunstone Fiction Contest and will be published in an upcoming issue of that magazine. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and four kids.