Does anyone remember having their feet measured by a scary looking metal device that resembled something used in a lab experiment? I remember as a child having a shoestore attendant cradle my foot into that contraption and start twiddling the sliding arms to assess its size. Of course, it didn’t hurt, but it was a bit disconcerting the first time.
It’s called a Brannock Device, and it was designed by its namesake Charlie Brannock in 1927 while he was working in his father’s shoe business, the Park-Brannock Shoe Co. in Syracuse, New York. Young Charlie wanted to impress his father Otis by finding the most accurate way to measure the foot, so he came up with this very technical looking apparatus, and went on to become a millionaire businessman thanks to it.
If the Brannock Device scared me, imagine how it struck Margaret Clayton as a child. She was born with a left foot three sizes smaller than her right. Three sizes is a big variation, so every time a shoestore attendant came at her with a Brannock Device, Margaret braced herself for their reaction, which was usually one of incredulity.
Young Margaret was made to wear an orthopedic boot as a little girl to help her adjust to the difference, but over time she developed a normal gait and had no trouble walking. But her feet embarrassed her. She hid them as best she could, not wanting new friends to figure out that she had peculiarly sized feet. And, of course, it meant that Margaret had to buy four shoes every time she needed a new pair.
Meanwhile, another woman, born around the same time as Margaret and in the same city of Brisbane, Australia, had the opposite problem.
Robynne Clifton was born with a left foot three sizes larger than the right. But she had more difficulties with it than Margaret had. As a child, Robynne too had to wear a big clunky book on her right foot, but to complicate the problem, Robynne contracted polio as a child and was left with a pronounced limp. She grew up coping with her unusual disability by joking about it and playing the fool. Unlike Margaret, Robynne is quite the extrovert. She longed to wear elegant party shoes and show off her feet. She became a professional singer and a bingo caller, and didn’t let her big left foot bother her except when she had to buy two pairs of shoes every time she went to the shoe shop.
Even though they grew up quite near to each other, Margaret and Robynne never met. But Robynne never stopped searching for Margaret. She had this quirky but unshakable belief that there had to be someone out there with opposite feet to hers.
Margaret said, “She never stopped looking for someone like me. She searched the Internet, and even approached women she saw limping in the street and asked them if they had odd-sized feet.”
While Margaret was prepared to live quietly, hiding her feet as much as she could, Robynne couldn’t believe she didn’t have a match out there. One day, she phoned a Brisbane radio station and told the announcer of her strange request. She needed a friend, a woman around the age of 50, with a right foot shoe size 8 and a left foot shoe size 5. What were the chances? Well, you guessed it. Margaret, only four years older than Robynne, with the exact specifications required, heard the program and called in. When Robynne heard this stranger’s voice describing the size of her feet, she wept. She’d found her perfect match!
Since then, Robynne and Margaret have formed a shoe-shopping partnership, turning up at shoe stores and buying two pairs so they can swap the appropriate one with each other. On their first expedition they bought a pair of burgundy crocodile-skin shoes with a wide heel. They told the shoestore attendant they wanted a pair of fives and a pair of eights. Taken aback, he asked if they wanted fives or eights, and with great relish and much laughter they answered that they wanted both!
This is a beautiful story of two people who seem to have literally been made for each other. Margaret, the quiter one, has been affected deeply by Robynne’s outgoing personality. She’s learning to live a bit larger thanks to Robynne’s gregariousness. And similarly, Robynne is discovering the value of being more reflective before acting. As she says, “That’s why we were destined to meet… I think Margaret and I are going to be very good for each other.”
This charming story about one woman’s search for her especially complementary partner reminds me of something of the tenacity with which God searches for us. So much religious writing and preaching seems to begin with the premise that we are searching for God, but the Bible speaks not only of humanity’s search for the divine, but also of God’s search for us! As Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-American philosopher and rabbi, writes, “This is the mysterious paradox of biblical faith: God is pursuing man (sic).”
Heschel continues, “It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and he had chosen man (sic) to serve Him. Our seeking Him is not only man’s (sic) but also His concern, and must not be considered an exclusively human affair. His will is involved in our yearnings.
To reinforce his point, Rabbi Heschel makes much of God’s cry to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” when they hid from his presence in the garden (Gen.3:9). This question, God’s first to humankind, sets in motion he dynamic relationship between Creator and creation. Heschel continues, “It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of mind, but ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills the whole world. it is wrapped in silence; concealed and subdued, yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question, Where are you?“
In effect, the basis of religious faith is found in God’s question and humankind’s answer. Heschell says, “The way to faith is the way of faith. The way to God is the way of God. Unless God asks the question, all our enquiries are in vain.”
Robynne Clifton searched for 30 years for her perfect match. Her steadfastness mirrors the way of God. Sure, God doesn’t need us, like Robynne needed Margaret, but he has been putting his question — Where are you? — to us in myriad ways throughout our lives. All of our lives. God has been in search of us, and God doesn’t end the searching when we say ‘the sinner’s prayer’ or get baptized. God keeps asking, Where are you? Our answers to that question are our deepest expression of faith.
The Bannock Device looks scary, but it’s actually a quietly comforting thing to have your foot cradled in its metalic grip, and to feel the sliding wings gently take your dimensions.
We all have odd feet in some spiritual sense. We’re all a little misshapen. We all walk with a limp and feel a little ashamed. But God searches for us ceaselessly and when we answer his question — Where are you? — and allow him to apply his grace and mercy upon us like a scary Bannock Device, to measure our oddness, we realize we were made for him.
In fact, while we never felt like it, we come to realize that we and God have been a perfect match all along.