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 in an order form from a catalog she snitched from the doctor’s waiting room, she then attached a note to the Frederick’s people. 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 her neighbor, Mrs. Brewer, might drop in unexpectedly, find the catalog lying around and promptly tell everybody in town. And since our mailman delivered to the Brewers, well — you do the math.
Daddy had recently become a policeman, and he and Mama planned to attend their first Policeman’s Ball at the National Guard Armory. For two weeks after she placed the order, Mama went to local department store and sifted through dressy dresses in hopes of finding a match for her Frederick’s shoes. She was naturally plump and 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 had no intention of doing.
The Policeman’s Ball was closing in when she found the sleek black dress of her dreams: Size 14 with silver sequins trailing down the arms and wide seams she could let out if she had to. 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, are you gonna fix supper for us or what? My stomach is growling. She cocked one eye at me, the other one remaining stuck between the vise-like grip of an eyelash curler. Not today. Heat up some fish sticks if you’re hungry. She squeezed the curler over her other eye.
Fish sticks? Mama, we’re starving.
She gave me the parent stare she perfected before I was born. Do hush. Eat potato chips if you’re that hungry.
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 good he didn’t say his usual Holy something else, which 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 the first lesson I was to learn from my mother’s home-grown interpretation of urban renewal.
Her smile was wide and her teeth sparkled in contrast to the bright red lipstick she wore. Do I look okay? It was a rhetorical question and we knew it; she was fishing for a compliment and we responded with adulation. She preened at the foot of the stairs while we gawked, and then Daddy made his entrance. One look at him and Mama’s big smile turned into a scowl so fast it looke like a magic trick.
Harold, she gasped. White socks? What on earth?
Daddy, decked out in a black tuxedo rented for half-price, looked down at his feet. The 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 Melanie Wilkes dramatic sigh. Go put on some black socks right now, Harold, and hurry up or we’ll be 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, so 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 that enchanted evening. She smiled at me in a secretive way before adding, But it was worth it.