Surrender, Dorothy - Part 1
Updated: Oct 31
Lavender. It was a lavender robe with tiny blue and pink petals. Not silky, as the flowers would suggest, but rough cotton, plain, faded. I’m not sure what kind of flowers they were supposed to be. I was very young; flowers didn’t interest me. My mom did, however, in fluctuating amounts of fascination and terror at that age. The terror was largely due to her height. For years she towered over me, bending to kiss me goodnight like a building falling forward. I never did catch up to her.
I knew lavender because it was a new color of crayon to me at that time, discovered in a box of thirty-two at school and which I’d pocketed and kept in a secret sack of other such random stolen objects under my bed: the leg of a Barbie doll still outfitted with a white strappy heel, a desktop U.S. flag which I was planning to use to make an evening gown for another doll.
Mom’s lavender robe fell to her calves and then it was all white skin: curved, thick, hard. She would stand in this robe at the window in our basement apartment looking up through the bars of the cellar grate, smoking, the cigarette trembling slightly between her long fingers; her hands were then in the early stages of the arthritis. Sometimes she would stand there for what seemed like hours, nursing a gin and tonic until the ice had long melted, the blood red carpet stained with small piles of ashes like anthills. Day would shift into night almost imperceptibly, and her tall, lanky figure would become a silhouette against the window, charged by the headlights of cars turning off of Moore Avenue. I wouldn't often see her face during these times; she would stand with her back to me.
“Everything’s changing, Dottie,” she would say.
This was supposed to be my nap hour, but even then I couldn’t sleep at designated times. When awake, I would stare from the sofa bed, the steel coils pressing into my side as I watched her hand lifting the cigarette to her mouth.
At first, I thought she was waiting for him to come back. As I said, I was very young, only ten. I didn’t know better. Or worse.
“You have to keep an eye on the world.” Her voice was soft but cracked just a little at its center. She took a sip from her glass, ice cubes gently knocking together, and tapped the pane in front of her with her fingernails. “I didn’t have a window when I was your age. Dakota and I shared the attic. She was terrified of the dark.”
Dakota was Aunt Dakota. Both of them had been named after the states where they had been born; I wondered what would have happened if they had been born in Vermont or Utah. I liked hearing about Aunt Dakota because I never got to see her even though she lived just across town. They didn’t speak after my mom divorced, Aunt Dakota thinking divorce wrong. Well, theoretically, God thinking it wrong and Aunt Dakota supporting Him. She felt my mom didn’t take marriage seriously, especially with children involved. I was the children involved. I didn’t find this out until much later, in my teens, and even then they were still estranged, communicating only once a year through Christmas cards – Aunt Dakota’s with thin saints, Mom’s with fat Santas.
Her words are easy to recall, but the color of the robe was more difficult, especially now, standing here alone in the dark. There does not seem to be much color anywhere anymore.
Lord knows where that robe would be today. Packed away in some box, or perhaps auctioned on-line for an outrageous price. Both are possible.
Whatever the case, the detail, this color, is important to me. The lavender robe with the blue and pink petals: this memory of her is clear, and, more importantly, it is undocumented, private, mine.
It isn't Georgia Grant that I remember. Or even GiGi, as she later became, fashioned from her initials by the media – possibly in an attempt to make her sound less dangerous, more feminine. What I remember is the woman who had stood quietly at the window, watching over me while I slept. Clearly there were women before this one, and, of course, after. But I don't know them and now it is too late. I can only guess.
And even guessing time is running out.
I feel the swelling of my belly, leaning against the steel bars of my cell. It is better for me these days to think of it as a swelling, as if it is simply an allergic reaction. It is night; I do not know which night. There was a time when I would be able to tell anyone the exact date, the exact hour, the exact minute. Though I do have a window in this room, it is far above me. Out of range and reach. A black square. It cannot be used for escape of any kind.
I am trying to imagine what she would do, that woman in the basement in her lavender robe staring up through the cellar window.
I want to scream. But that is the last thing Mom would do.
It is chilly in here but I don’t feel like putting on my uniform, which, thankfully, is loose and shapeless enough that it hasn’t betrayed me. The chill is sobering, almost like a drug, awakening all of my nerve endings. There is a dripping sound from somewhere but other than that: dead cold silence. I think about going over to my cot and wrapping the rough army green blanket around me. But I cannot move from this spot. I am rooted, sedentary, hopeless.
No, not hopeless. Never hopeless.
I want to see my mom's face. The image is there, almost, then gone, dissolved into shadows. I want to see my mom’s face again as it was when she bent forward to take my temperature when I was sick, or when I woke on her lap after staying up half the night watching old movies on television, or the last time I saw her when she said, “Don’t worry, Dottie. It’s just arthritis – it won’t kill me.” And she was right. It wasn’t the arthritis that killed her.
“Dottie,” comes a voice. It is not my mom's, though I think for a moment that it is. Then I recognize the cigarette-strained voice of Martha from the next cell. Martha is the only one in our row who knows about my swollen belly. She is my nicotine-fueled confidante. I have otherwise kept my secret nicely hidden beneath the aggressively plain potato sacks we wear every day.
“What?” I say. I wrap the blanket around me, finally fending off the chill.
There is only silence, and I think that I just imagined the voice, but then I hear Martha humming. First it is quiet, then it builds like an orchestra of locusts on a hot summer night.
The tune is immediately familiar, but still, it takes a few seconds to place it. Once she hits the “wizard,” I know it. I laugh, the soundless laugh I have perfected in this prison. It is not good for anyone to hear you laughing, just as my mom once warned me it is not good for anyone to see you crying.
I will miss Martha, though I haven't known her long. I will miss her for this.
I join in softly, recalling the lyrics.
“We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Because because because ...”