Tuesday, May 22, 2012

If The Shoe Fits

My mother once ordered a pair of shoes from Fredericks of Hollywood. They were black velvet stilettos with cut-out toes and straps that snaked up her ankles.

Filling out a form from a catalog she snitched from her gynochologist’s waiting room, she then attached a note to Frederick’s. “Please deliver the package wrapped in plain brown paper.” After that, she crumpled the catalog into a baseball-size wad and set it on fire. I come by my craziness genetically.

Mama was paranoid that Mrs. Brewer, her next-door neighbor, might drop by, find the catalog lying around and tell everybody in town. And since our mailman delivered to the entire neighborhood, well ... you do the math.

Daddy had recently become a policeman so he and Mama planned to attend their first Policeman’s Ball at the National Guard Armory. For two weeks after she placed the shoe order, Mama went to a local department store and sifted through dressy dresses in hopes of finding a match. She was naturally plump but had recently added a few extra pounds. We hadn’t seen her in anything but navy blue or black since Dr. Cone told her to go on a diet, which she didn’t do.

The Policeman’s Ball was two nights away when she found the sleek black dress of her dreams: Size 14 with silver sequins trailing down the arms and wide seams that could be let out if she gained any more weight. It was love at first sight.

She primped all afternoon on the day of the Ball. At five o’clock, I went to her room. “Mama, when are you gonna fix supper? My stomach is growling.”

She cocked one eye at me, the other remaining stuck between the vise-like grip of an eyelash curler. “I’m not cooking tonight. Heat up some fish sticks if you’re hungry.” She squeezed the curler over her other eye.

“Fish sticks? Mama, I’m starving to death.”

She gave me the parent stare she had made a point of perfecting before I was born. “Then eat some potato chips. That'll keep you from dying.”

My brother and I were feeding fish sticks to the cat when Her Majesty swooped down the stairs in a pretty good imitation of Loretta Young. There was no resemblance to the woman who had driven us to school that morning.

My brother’s eyes got big as Coke bottoms. “Holy Cow,” he exclaimed. It was a good thing he didn’t say Holy something else. That would have landed us both in the bathroom trying not to swallow a mouthful of Ivory Soap.

Mama looked so glamorous that we could only stare. It was my first lesson in what my mother regarded as urban renewal.

Her smile was wide and her teeth sparkled in contrast to the bright red lipstick she wore. Fishing for a compliment, she asked, “Do I look okay?” We quickly responded with the adulation she hoped to hear. She was preening at the foot of the stairs while we gawked when Daddy made his entrance. One glance at him and Mama’s big smile turned into a scowl so fast it was like a magic trick.

“Harold,” she gasped. “White socks? What on earth were you thinking?”

Daddy, decked out in a black tuxedo rented for half-price at J.C. Penny’s, looked down at his feet. His pants were an inch too short, but except for his poor choice of socks, I thought he looked like a movie star.

“What’s wrong with white socks,” he asked. “They match my shirt.”

I thought Mama might swoon. Her eyes rolled and she heaved a dramatic sigh. “Go put on black socks right now, Harold, and make it snappy. We're already late.”

Daddy pinned an orchid corsage on her shoulder strap and then they strolled out the door. Mama took baby steps as though walking on ice in her new shoes while Daddy’s steadying hand never left her waist. They were young and happy, like kids going to their first prom.

The next day, Mama rewrapped her shoes in plain brown paper taking pains to hide the Frederick’s logo. She then placed them up high on a shelf in her closet where they would never again dazzle the eyes of her children or dance till dawn with the love of her life.

Long after I was grown, she admitted to having blisters, bunions and swollen feet the day following her enchanted evening at the Policeman's Ball. Smiling conspiratorially, she added, “But if the shoe fits, it’s probably orthopedic.”

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