Updated: Oct 19
Have you ever put something on and knew it was right? Like when a fantasy character first puts on the chosen one’s amulet, when the wizard finds the right wand, or when Madonna told her boyfriend, “Don’t worry, this belly button is going to take us to the top.” It’s beyond feeling cute. It’s when you slide into a portion of your identity.
Too woo-hoo for you? Just bear with me. I have a story to tell.
I had two instances of feeling instantly at home. When I first dyed my hair red. I left my aunt’s salon with a confidence that I’d never possessed before. When I returned to school for the Spring semester, people who had previously looked past me were asking, “What’s different about you? You look great.” I’d say, “I dyed my hair red.” And they’d say, “It wasn’t red before?”
The other was when I put on a pair of boots.
I had a pair when I was little. Somewhere in the family archives is a photo of me standing on my Ninnie’s dining room table next to my grandfather. I wore a set of Daisy Duke Underoos and a pair of cowgirl boots.
I grew up around cowboys, farm people, and country music singers. Nearly everyone wore boots – particularly the men. My mom didn’t want to buy me any because they were expensive and I would grow out of them too fast. I also loved the super-girly ones with embroidered roses, fringe, and rhinestones, which she deemed, “Not for real cowgirls.”
This is true. Whenever I see “cowgirl” photos of sexy women in tiny hats and short, shorts, I always think, “Y’all have never once seen a real cowgirl.” Real cowgirls can wear cutoffs and tank tops, but then they would have to change before climbing on the back of a horse. Can’t really wear cutoffs in a saddle. And who has the time to change clothes?
I was not a “real” cowgirl, either. I loved horses. I didn’t love being outside. And my mother was always making me work with her in her flower shop and at the flea markets. So while my brother would catch and saddle up a horse himself whenever he felt like going for a ride, I didn’t even know where they stored the tack.
But I loved boots. My father had small feet – he was also short, but no one could tell because of the boots and the hat – so when one Christmas Santa brought him a pair of black Justin boots with a snub toe and an embroidered calf, they also fit me perfectly. These were his weekend boots for when he sang and played with the Ghost Rider Band. I would wake up early in the morning and sneak out of the house in his boots, sometimes even hiding them the night before so he couldn’t find them.
Eventually, knowing I wasn’t a real cowgirl and looking for something that would set me apart from my household, I started wearing a pair of lace-up Doc Martin knock-offs. I wore them every day. Shorts, jeans, dresses, school, church, flea market, parade, whatever. I wore them until the heels cracked and I was repairing them with this industrial glue my mother used called E6000. My next pair were also combat-boot style. I wore those until they tore apart. The pair after that were brown chunky heels.
And then I stopped wearing boots all together.
I was a professional at this point, with a real job. I had to stop playing around and start looking like everyone else. I wore strappy dress shoes, kitten heels, classic leather pumps, and dressy sandals. For years I slowly assimilated. My sneakers were Converse, my heels were Nine West, and everything in between came from Target.
In 2010, I lost my mom. Six months later, in 2011, I lost my job. I was angry and lost. I sat in the welfare office with a guy who would rather be anywhere else waiting to see if I would qualify for benefits. I needed insurance for W. and food stamps because I had $30 in my pocket, and that was about it. I was running this list in my brain about what I could buy that was cheap and we could eat off for a while. I was not guaranteed an unemployment check and even if I was, it would take weeks to get to me. CD was in law school and not working. Instead, he was hustling to get a paid internship and the only one he found was in Nashville for the IRS. To add insult to injury, we’d be living in two different cities. It was not the best time. And here I am with this guy who is sitting behind a desk, barely even looking at me. He’s just entering my information.
I had this moment of clarity: this world I had been trying to assimilate into – this professional, middle-class, Kentucky blue-blooded world – had just kicked me out.
I didn’t have to wear “professional” clothes anymore. I didn’t have to smooth out my accent. I didn’t have to sit with my knees together. I didn’t have to use the word boutique when I described my family flower shop. F*%k them all! I could even feel my posture change in that room. I spread my legs wide like a man and leaned forward, my arms resting on my knees. I would have spit on the floor if I’d had some dip. I could hear myself responding to questions with “Nah” instead of “No”. Hubs was heading to Tennessee, and–God help me–so would my spirit.
I told a group of writers that summer that I was working on reclaiming my accent. Being mostly southern writers and one of them from deep, deep Appalachia, responded, “Lose your accent? I couldn’t lose mine if I tried.” But I had. After years of being giggled at when I said things like, “fixing to”, “y’all”, or “riiiiiight”, I had scrubbed my voice clean. I’d lost my colloquialisms, my elongated “i”’s, my Dolly Parton twang. I wanted them back. On the weekends, I would scrounge up gas money to get me and W. to Nashville where Hubs was living in a quasi-studio apartment. Every person I met was the friendliest person I’d bumped into in years. I felt welcome there. I spent the summer listening to country music and fixating on when I would get a pair of boots. I’d fantasize about a sleek black Ford F-150 and a pair of brown embroidered boots. But we were so freaking broke.
The summer was over, and I was applying for jobs, and I almost had one at Old Navy and then BOOM! I was pregnant. Not only would no one hire me as a pregnant lady, but the boots would also have to wait.
And then my dad died. I was four months pregnant at his funeral. He just couldn’t function without my mom. After a few months, all of us siblings received part of his retirement benefits, and I had just enough money to get a back-row used blue Ford Explorer in time for the new baby to arrive.
And still, In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, CD’s going to get a job with the IRS, and I’ll lose this baby weight, and I will save my money and buy a pair of boots in tribute to my father.
Some people get tattoos. Some people keep their family's ashes in an urn on their mantle. One friend of my dad’s kept sending me Facebook messages with images of my dad photoshopped into the heavens. People grieve in their own way. This was also when I first disappeared from Facebook.
Once we’d moved to Atlanta, got settled, and finally had a little money, Santa gave me a gift certificate from Horsetown, a boot store on the edge of the suburbs near Canton, GA. In the store, I told the guy helping me out about my dad, my granddad, and the legacy of rodeo people I’d grown up around. I said I wanted Justin boots and even showed him a photo from the internet. They were everything I’d envisioned. I wore them around the house, and the new leather soles slid on the carpet.
I’d made a promise to myself that I would only wear boots from now on. I didn’t like heels or have any need for them. The exceptions would be athletics, the dead of summer, or any travel that required me to walk long distances (I tried to wear boots on a trip to New York, and somewhere in the middle of The Met I became overwhelmed with regret.). I wear them with pants and dresses. I wore them under my graduation gown when I accepted my Master’s degree. I wore them every day on the FSU campus because it was the only thing that made me feel strong and confident. I wear them every time I teach students.
I have them re-soled every six months, or I try to. My cobbler always chides me for not bringing them in sooner. I rub them down with leather conditioning oil so they don’t crack. They are officially ten years old and I love them just as much. I have purchased backup pairs, but they aren’t the same. They don’t look the same. They don’t feel the same. Perhaps by giving them the honor of tribute, it’s imbued them with longevity, like a pet that is so loved that it extends its expected lifespan.
I am now in a new professional world – an academic one – and around Christmas, I spent some time on the Macy’s website looking for a dressy shoe option for work – something comfortable and professional, and–dare I say–academic. Then I told myself, “What the f*%k are you thinking?” and went right to the Boot Barn website. I headed to Horsetown, which is now Cavander’s Horsetown West, and purchased some black embroidered Ariat booties. And yes, they are perfect for what I wanted, but I am still sliding my old faithful brown ones on every morning.
It’s not just footwear, but a representation of where I came from, and the fact that I wear them on college campuses, in downtown Atlanta, and in places like The Met, means I am not concerned about what it says about me. When I wear them, I am my most me, and I can accomplish anything. I can be all about books and boots.
If you are a Pinterest Person, check out my Books and Boots-The Look board to trigger your brainy inner cowgirl.
Also, the essays and short fiction inspired by a childhood of being a brainy non-cowgirl can be found on the Stories tab.