How could anyone grow up in the fifties without watching Dorothy dance down the yellow brick road? My husband and I had tickets to see “Wicked,” but Dave revealed he’d never seen “The Wizard of Oz.” We compared notes on childhood TV viewing and, as expected, “The Wonderful World of Disney,” “The Flintstones” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” made both our lists. The absence of Oz was a surprise.
Dave grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts in a duplex on St. Nicholas Avenue, a neighborhood where, on nice evenings, Dave’s father, Colombo, and his friends strung a net across the road to play volleyball or coached the kids during pick-up baseball games. Sundays were spent with Colombo’s parents for suppers of slow-cooked sauce over pasta and peppers stuffed with anchovies, garlic, olives and breadcrumbs.
There was little contact with Dave’s mother’s family. Ma avoids speaking about her childhood: the alcoholism, neglect and abuse as she was passed from one aunt to another. I never learned why her mother didn’t keep her, and she says she doesn’t remember much. “To tell you the truth, darlin’, I don’t even want to go there…”
She knew she wanted a very different life for her boys and was fierce in her devotion to them. But she’d also learned to shield herself from hurt, and when her sons disappointed her, they knew it, for she withdrew, face closed, lips tight, sealed off from painful feelings. For years, Sylvestro gatherings included roars of laughter at tales of Dave’s efforts to win her back as he scurried about at age four or five, washing ashtrays, hoping to melt her with each swipe of his cloth.
Recently, those stories have not seemed so funny.
Dave was a smart little guy and he can list every teacher he had, the subjects they taught and what he learned in each class. When I marvel at his mastery of facts from geography to history to science, he says, “Didn’t you learn them in grammar school?”
Perhaps, but they elude me now. In fact, all of my second grade year is a blank except for hunching over the toilet, feeling sick every week-day morning. Mom says my teacher was mean to me, but my brain has blocked that memory. How amazing, the mental power to deflect or conceal.
Around the age of four or so, Dave developed a stutter and attended speech class for three years. It was a difficult time. When kids teased him, his older brother Steve came to his defense, but when, in sixth grade, the bully was Mrs. Wiley, his teacher, there wasn’t much a brother could do. Once, Dave had barely begun his oral report on rockets when Mrs. Wiley stopped him and made him start over. He re-stated the title, but the teacher interrupted again, her voice stern and unforgiving. In front of his classmates she said, “You’ll have to do better than that, David, or you’re going back to speech class with the second graders.” Apparently he’d not mastered “r’s” to her satisfaction.
I’d have pled illness for weeks after such humiliation, but Dave says, “That kind of experience shapes a person, shaped me and heightened my sensitivity to others. I know how it feels to be teased, how it hurts to be different.”
Anyway, our date to see “Wicked” was approaching. We rented the classic film for our trip to Oz, prepared pasta for dinner, poured some wine, and inserted the DVD to watch Miss Gulch of the beaked nose and glinting eye pedaling her bike furiously, with Dorothy’s dog Toto in her basket.
We twirled our spaghetti as Dorothy fled with Toto to a haystack behind the barn. Why oh why are there cruel people in the world? Where can you go to escape them?
Somewhere over the rainbow is where. As Dorothy sang, I sensed movement at my elbow and turned to Dave. His hands covered his mouth; his eyes were wide. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He was crying.
“My god, honey! Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.” He snuffled, took deep breaths and said something about the song.
I hit the pause button and onscreen, Dorothy froze, mouth open, eyes dreamy.
“Give me a minute,” Dave said. He went to the sink, washed his face and returned to the couch. He took a deep, chest-filling breath and said, “Okay. I’m ready. Let’s try this again.”
I reversed the DVD and Dorothy stepped back. I pushed “play” and she resumed her post by the haystack. “Somewhere over the rainbow…” she sang, and the couch shook as Dave burst into tears.
My husband is a psychologist and once he’d composed himself, he was intrigued. The song was a trigger – why?
Thank goodness for Google; few questions need go unanswered. He looked up the first televised broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz” and called his mother. When she answered the phone, he blurted, “Ma, why do I cry when Dorothy sings ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow?’”
“Hey darlin’. I don’t know. That is odd.”
“It first ran on TV in 1956. In the fall. I was four. Think.”
“I have no idea, David.”
“Try to remember, Ma. What happened around that time, traumatic enough that I would repress it?”
“Well. Hmm. That might be the year I had a D & C. You and Steve stayed with your grandmother. The doctor said cancer was a possibility, but you knew nothing of that.”
He might not have known, but a small boy so tuned in to his mother’s moods, a boy prone to washing ashtrays to make things right, such a boy would have sensed fear. Might have thought it was anger. Might have thought he’d done something wrong. Did Dorothy sing as Dave tried to bring his mother back, tried to make her well with his washing?
“Besides, I was fine, so that can’t be it,” said his mother.
For forty-five years, Dave avoided the movie, his brain protective, directing him, “Don’t even go there…”
“You never seemed troubled by it…” his mother added. “Except, now that you mention it, when I came home from the hospital, you’d developed that stutter …”