Shoeless in the Streets on My Sixth Birthday - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Shoeless in the Streets on My Sixth Birthday

Shoeless in the Streets on My Sixth Birthday

By Ria M. Coyne


Because life as a shorty shouldn’t be so tough.

By Ria M. Coyne

The first time that my mother threw me out was in 1968 on my sixth birthday.

I don’t remember what I did that set her off — was unkind to my younger brother? Refused to eat food that I didn’t like? Looked at her the wrong way? — but whatever it was, she expounded at length on my unworthiness to exist, much less to be a member of our family. She said that I had earned lifelong exile for the current offense, whatever it was, and for everything else that I had ever done that was on a long list that also included my heartless laughter at her pain that time when I was a baby and she stubbed her toe and dropped me on the couch.

She also said that my father loved her much more than he loved me, and that if I told him any of what she was saying, he would believe her, not me. Then she dragged me down the 33-foot-long hallway from our living room to our door, shoved me out, slammed the door and yelled that I should go away and never come back.

I was not wearing shoes.

She dragged me down the 33-foot-long hallway from our living room to our door, shoved me out, slammed the door and yelled that I should go away and never come back.

I had never been out in the hall barefoot before. The tiny floor tiles were cold, and the spaces between them felt odd. As crashing ensued inside the apartment, I stood and thought for a bit. Although my mother had been quite definitive in her long, loud disquisition, I found a loophole: She had not mentioned my godmother. I knew that my godmother loved me.

So, I walked down the two flights of cold marble stairs, curved from years of footsteps; through the lobby; more small tiles; out the front door onto the smooth, painted concrete steps; down to the pebbly concrete courtyard. Before each step, I looked extremely carefully for broken glass or other sharp objects. My godmother lived across the street from my school and church, so I knew how to get to her house. I waited for the lights at the corners and looked both ways before I crossed the warm asphalt streets. Some of the sidewalks were relatively smooth; others were cracked and buckled.


The walk seemed to take a long time — no doubt due to my mincing and my roiling emotions. Where was I going to live? Was my mother right — was I worthy to live at all? If not, should I cross against the light? And what would I say to my godmother? She was the moral compass of the neighborhood. Would she be disappointed in me? How disappointed would she be in me? I couldn’t think of anything better to do nor anywhere else to go, so I knocked on her door.

When she opened it, she was much more upset than I’d ever seen her before or since that day. My mother had just called to say that she couldn’t find me because I had “run away from home.” My godmother was terrified that I had been or would be kidnapped.

I was dumbfounded. My mother had lied. And it was a whopper.


The author (left), a sibling and a friend.

Source Photo Courtesy of Ria M. Coyne

I had been raised to never, under any circumstances, contradict an adult. But my story, pulled out of me by my godmother’s many questions after she had calmed down a bit, did not match my mother’s story. And my godmother did not believe me — which may have been even more upsetting than my mother disowning me.

I told my godmother exactly what had happened. She said that it was not possible that my mother could have said those things: No mother could say those things. We went through the story several times. She asked why I would make something like that up. She said that I had never lied before. I told her over and over that I was not lying. I think that the truth gradually dawned on her, but she did not want to believe that the ugly scene could have actually occurred.

Because she had called my mother in the middle of questioning me, my mother arrived fairly soon after with an elaborate, entirely false version of the event. I said nothing to affirm what she said. I’d already endured more than enough beatings, and I knew better than to contradict her. We stayed the minimum possible time to be polite, and then with a covert death grip my mother hauled me home while muttering threats. Although she had refused my godmother’s frantic offers of temporary footwear for me because I’d “made the choice” to go barefoot, she did let me go slowly because the rough ground was so painful to my tender feet.

I don’t remember the rest of that day. Nor the next time that I was disowned and thrown out. Nor the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. The lesson finally took hold 11 years later, but that first time was the day that I truly learned never to trust anything that my mother said or did. It was a painful, but valuable, lesson.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories