I am four and my mother is braiding my hair so I can look like Dorothy. I think all children have this need for affectation; there was my Ariel phase and my Belle phase but there is most importantly my Dorothy phase, not even a phase but a birthmark, something of skin. Judy Garland’s eyes pucker and her red-apple cheeks rise with the heaves of her chest and I rush to the mirror to emulate this motion. It is my way of translating ideal pre-adulthood, girlish but leveled. Even now, 20-something years later, I am captivated by Dorothy’s unique presentation. She is somehow both ageless and juvenile, both vulnerable and inviolable. We have grown together, symbiotically; through tragedy but with the gleam of something rainbow-tinged.
A great aunt likes to tell a story from around this time. How I would come to my great-grandmother’s house and ring the doorbell and when she answered I would say, before anything else, “Hi, I’m Dorothy.”
I am six and there’s a package for me at the door. Mom comes in—milk-soft in the eerie preservation of memory—and hands it to me. It’s from my aunt and it’s a letter and when I open it out falls a handful of poppies from her garden. Orange flaps of skin with disproportionate stems, like thin fibers propping paperweights. “How do they stay up?” I ask, and mom tells me they grow in thick and have each other.
I have no memory of the first time I watched The Wizard of Oz. I am told I was two and that it piped me down from a fit. It is perhaps funny to tract movies to soul, but I cannot separate the striated muscle in my chest from the bits of filmstrip that bring Oz to life. That I do not recall our first introduction means that I can pretend it’s always been there.
I get poppies in the mail because they are another artifact of The Wizard of Oz, with which I am now I tangentially associated. Every birthday is Oz-themed. Every Halloween costume is blue gingham. Mom rummages garage sales for treasures—Baum books, Garland-gilded plates, Cowardly Lion Hallmark ornaments—and grandma orders pricier items, like collectible Glinda Barbies, from catalogues. For one winter month I am allowed to display these things in a window sprawl at the local library. I take to standing there and telling passersby that the collection is mine. Owning something, like becoming something, is another stripe of childhood pride.
The poppies smell like clean soap and I imagine them crunching under Dorothy’s slippers as she crests the hill before the Emerald City and falls victim to the witch’s flower potion.
Mom is “sick” now. Changed from the operation. I say sick because there is no other word for her transformation that makes sense to me. When we visit her in the hospital, she tells me to remember to feed the horses. We’ve never owned horses.
“If I only had a brain,” the scarecrow sings. If she only had the right one.
After the hospital is the rehabilitation center. They call it The Lighthouse, one of those fake, saccharine names that looks handsome on a placard. It conjures up images of foggy lakes, boats lost on grey water, a yellow beam of light to mark the shore. But mom’s lighthouse is none of those things. It is a hall of mirrors, each door masking its own unfortunate story: Of accidents and illness, of sanitized surfaces, of IV bags full of unknown, milky substances.
One day, they let her visit the house I now live in—grandma’s house—and when we’re alone we decide to bust out the Crayolas and color side-by-side. It is from a bygone era, one where we sit at the table in the old house and draw. She was an artist by trade and by heart and I was jealous then of how easily she could bring life to lines and soul to surface. Watching her color, the only art she can claim post-trauma, fills me with gelatin sadness, thick through every orifice. She’s got a Disney Princess coloring book open to a Cinderella page and I wince at how she wrongly made the midnight ball gown purple and the glass slippers magenta. The pumpkin coach is crimson, the ground beneath it marigold.
“Like the road to Oz,” she says when she shows me, and winks. I am relieved. This was on purpose. She’s still in there somewhere.
Much has changed but there is still the Oz poster on my closet door, a relic of the childhood that has whizzed by in rapid succession, straight through the good stuff and into a murkier permanence. My room is now in a basement and my mom is gone. Dead. Outdoors, the world twists grimly around me. There is a garden full of things that aren’t poppies—day lilies and dragonhead and tulips and lamb’s ears—and a vibrant wood, almost sickly green in the wet summer.
But I stay indoors. Almost always indoors.
In the dark of my room, certain markings on the poster stand out: Margaret Hamilton’s cackling face, turrets of emerald cityscape in the background, the proud font of the MGM logo.
I used to put Post-Its on the witch’s face so I could sleep at night. Now, I torment myself with it. I force myself to feel her careening presence, to remember her final melting words: “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” I force myself to feel anything.
“Hi, I’m Dorothy.” I think it until my brain rots.
My college roommate has never seen the movie. I forgive her because there are classics that have surpassed me, too: Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, Snow White. But I know I have to show her. We are growing close and this is more revealing than any conversation.
We put the DVD in and a sepia Kansas is summoned to life. It’s funny to see that familiar, colorless country when I’ve grown accustomed to cityscape. Our apartment, for instance, is nineteen stories in the sky, in a fold of atmosphere where you can taste every shade of blue.
As we settle in, I realize it’s been ages since I really watched it. I am almost uncomfortable in how it floods back to me: the familiarity of the farmhands, the pitch of Toto’s barks, Dorothy’s pigtails popping from her head like a mattress spring. When she sits on the iron bike and belts “Over The Rainbow,” I am met unexpectedly with a violent distortion.
“If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?”
As an untouched child these were merely pretty words. As a motherless 20-year-old they are a prying reconnaissance.
Dorothy lives with her aunt and uncle and so did I. That was the post-death habitation plan for an unwanted kid and her sister. I tried in every possible way to be normal. I didn’t talk about my dead mother. I didn’t talk about much of anything. Those spacious years between her passing and the eternal now are consciously vacuumed. I don’t need them. Middle school, high school, early college—nothing sticks. I have pledged myself to the moment. Old feelings are easily rekindled but not easily processed. They come to me sharply, unwanted. I am a broken thing.
And so I romanticize my pain. I make myself interesting both because of and despite it. You know more, I tell myself. You see the world in shades and not in the primary colors of easy people. You are an indigo child, like the ones of New Age lore: Born of the stars, possessed of preternatural senses. You find it hard to love and be loved, but love is for a lesser kind. Love is for people who need to feel special, and you already are.
This is what I say. Over and over until I might believe it.
In my grandparents backyard is a memorial garden with stones that bear the name of both my mother and her dead brother. I do not know if they are buried there or are scattered ashes or there at all. We don’t talk about these things in my family. We don’t talk about them, except in staid details and forgettable fragments.
I thought once that maybe Mom hadn’t really died and was instead carted off somewhere top secret. Experimented on. Made right again.
She is dead—at least according to the death certificate I paid $2.99 to own digitally—but she is somehow more present than any living thing I know. Always, always on the mind.
I think the memorial garden is stupid so I’ve never even walked through it. I see it from faraway, regard it like an ugly thing: Wrought iron bench, bundles of violet catmint, a pebble pathway, threaded together by grapevine and discarded apples from a nearby tree.
I hate it for what it isn’t. It isn’t her.
And yet despite these ugly coils—the resentment and the burden—I am proud of how I’m strung together, of how I go on. I think of Dorothy in her Kansas yard, dreaming of worlds she cannot yet touch, and I am happy for having touched them. For getting out. For steering the tornado to my own Oz, or at least to a yellow brick road that might lead there. I haven’t made it over the rainbow—I don’t know that I ever can—but there it glistens in the periphery, beckoning.
I was Dorothy then. I still am.