Even on our black and white television I could see Dorothy’s red shoes, dazzling, and I wanted some. I’d dance down the yellow brick road, sashaying with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, the happiest little girl in Oz. I just new I’d impress when the Wizard’d see me in those red shoes. Didn’t really know many colors back then, just the ones from the Crayola box with the words, Basic Five printed on it; it didn’t really matter cause I couldn’t draw anyway. Still, I knew red, so pretty on shoes.
We six children went shopping with mama, three on a side, like obedient little ducklings following the lead as we floated downtown Syracuse’s main street. Seeing Dorothy’s shoes displayed in one of the finest department stores, I pulled mama back imploring, Buy them for me. The way she looked when she uttered, No, shamed me for even asking. So life went on with no red shoes.
Then one night, while the cold winter wind howled, we were collected, all but one, and left in my parents’ room—alone. We jumped ourselves silly on their bed, punched their pale blue chenille quilt with our feet, which felt funny ‘cause never was allowed. Remembering little sis’s cough I stopped just quick enough to say, Maybe Patty’s dead , before bouncing nearly ceiling high. My daddy re- entered, not looking mad, too tired to scold. Instead, he held each child real gentle and whispered instructions, Go kiss yours sister for the last time. That’s when I knew that I’d guessed right. But how’d I know? Started sucking air that ached real bad as I thought, Somebody’s surely playing tricks on me. When they placed me before her I was all giddy and speechless as I bent to kiss her face one last time. She looked like Snow White waiting for her prince to come. But our kisses didn’t seem to work because she didn’t wake. She just lay real still, looking so sweet and, as always, her being really good.
Next morning, right on death’s heels, grown folks endlessly streamed through our home, acting so kind to us little kids, even ones who’d been mad since summer when we’d made bouquets for mama with their finest roses. I didn’t want it to stop—no, not ever. Felt like being at a Saturday matinee on Westcott street, just sitting in the audience, eating popcorn, sipping soda, watching monsters on the screen, having fun getting scared—knowing if I’d just cover my eyes for the too scary parts, my older brother’d walk us all home—later, with daylight fading, home in time for supper, nothing broken, nothing changed.
But it did change the night death slipped into our home, stole Patty away, changed us all, each in a different way, bound us together tighter than tics on the memory of her loss.
The funeral day came and they bundled us up real tight, and let us skip school. Entering the small wooden church with the simple cross that even though it stood so high still looked so frightened, we passed confessionals where people left their sins, found our pews with kneelers as hard as rock, and gave Fr. McCarthy our full attention as he reminded us how Jesus loved little children. Why’d he say that? What’d he mean? What’d we done that caused taking Patty from us? It felt pretty wrong.
After a long time of praying we stumbled back to the long black rented car, rode much too far away and ended up on a fractured road by a lonely farm in the middle of winter in Upstate New York, searching for Patty’s new home. I pressed my face against the window and felt cold, saw death everywhere: stiff grass, brittle trees, huge dark black clouds, nothing fresh—nothing pretty, a wasted ride on a freezing dreary day. Bored, I settled into a crowded backseat lined with children, who, of course, looked just like me, tried not to complain and started swinging my skinny legs, inside my proper woolen charcoal coat that my older sister had worn just the year before. Finally settled, I glanced down and that’s when I caught the shimmer of something very bright forcing me to remember: I had new shoes, new red patent leather shoes.
Next, a piercing tortured scream shook our car. Even now after so many decades have past, I’m still not really sure, did that desolate shriek come from my mother or me?