I’ve probably viewed “Wizard of Oz” one thousand times in my thirty-six years of living on this planet. I can quote entire sections of the movie – and every single song – verbatim, and take every opportunity to do so, much to the chagrin of my husband and children, who moan and groan and roll their eyes as I fa-la-la-la happily along with the munchkins or mournfully reach for those high notes along with Dorothy.
Up until a few years ago, when Maw Maw developed Alzheimer’s and lost touch with reality, she’d call me each and every time the channel guide revealed it would soon air.
“Ambie,” her husky voice, made harsh through decades of chain smoking, would sound over my answering machine, “Wizard of Oz is on tomorrow night at nine on channel sixty-four.” Though I reminded her time and again that I owned the movie on DVD, she never failed to alert me anyway, almost like she wanted to hand me a present to unwrap, to relive the shock of joy it brought me in my childhood, before DVD’s and cable TV.
One year, as an adult and mother of two, I even dressed as Dorothy for Halloween, complete with a ridiculously frizzy wig, blue checkered dress, and faux ruby slippers. Reverting back to childhood, I even swung by Maw Maw’s house on the way to take my kids trick-or-treating. I knew she’d get a kick out of it, maybe share a few laughs over how silly I looked with those limp braids hanging clear to my behind.
Her reaction, though, wasn’t one of humor. Her blue eyes went wide when she saw me and a smile of slowly spreading wonderment made its way across her face. She couldn’t take her eyes off of me for a few seconds and I saw her eyes were moist with emotion when she finally said, “Don, get the camera! Would you just look at Ambie! Isn’t it wonderful?”
What was supposed to be a sort of gag costume took on a whole new life as Maw Maw insisted I pose for picture after picture, as if I were going to prom and not hitting the streets to collect candy. Eventually, I had to cut the photo session short, citing my impatient Buzz Lightyear and fussy Honeypot, who were more than ready to hoard the sweet goods they knew they had coming.
As I was leaving, she made me do one more turn so she could take it all in again, her smile still spread from ear- to- ear. Suddenly, I’m taken back to all those evenings when my sister and I crowded into one recliner, our freshly-bathed and pajama-ed bodies smooshed together, her holding the bowl of trail mix and me holding the chocolate milk. Maw Maw slipped in the VHS tape of Wizard of Oz – not store bought, but home-recorded, complete with commercials through which we may or may not fast forward. My sister and I would look at each other and squeal in anticipation of the yellow brick road and the Good Witch Galinda and the flying monkeys and the forest full of talking trees. Sometimes we’d watch it twice in one weekend, never growing bored, the story always fresh and novel.
And Maw Maw would watch it with us too, her iron in one hand and can of starch in the other. I don’t remember her gazing at us with any sort of special affection as we sang along and munched our snacks. But the emotion in her face as I gather my children to leave tells me she must have. Her raspy voice on my answering machine, announcing Dorothy’s return to Oz, gives her away. And as Dorothy longed to see the other side of the rainbow, so I realize we both long to go back in time, before high school and arthritis, college and Alzheimer’s; before the hard slap of life’s waves carried us further from that little cocoon we’d fashioned for ourselves in Maw Maw’s living room so many years before, just Dorothy, Maw Maw and her two little girls.
It was a hot Sunday morning in Louisiana, the kind that made my long hair stick to my shoulders and my sun-dress slide uncomfortably over sweat-slick skin. I sat in the back of my grandparents’ Crown Victoria as we made our way to church in silence.
Paw Paw was the silent type by nature, so there was nothing out of the ordinary about his lack of chitchat; but, normally, Maw Maw would at least make a few comments about somebody’s garden or some other mundanity as we drove along.
For this reason, and the fact that Maw Maw smoked a few more cigarettes than normal, in rapid fire succession, before we left the house, I could tell she was nervous.
“Why’re you bringing your hair dryer to church?” I asked her before we left, as she packed a small bag.
“Because Paw Paw and I are getting baptized.”
“What’s baptized?” I asked
Maw Maw paused, as if giving the question thought, and then said, “It’s when you get dunked under water to show that you’ve died to your sins.”
I blinked at her in silence, my face apparently displaying my lack of understanding.
She smiled at me and said, “It means we’re starting a new life in the Lord.”
I had noticed that my grandparents were different since I moved back to Louisiana and started visiting more regularly. They hosted some kind of party in their home once a week where lots of people came over and Maw Maw made her best food, like potato salad and gumbo and crawfish etoufee. It was weird to share my grandparents with outsiders. My only experience of them before had been as my Maw Maw and Paw Paw; but when these church people came over, my grandparents seemed less the revered authority figures I’d always known and more like humble students, wide-eyed and eager, sitting close to one another on the couch as they pored over the Bible with diligence.
However, since all the church folks were nice enough and my grandparents included me in everything, even buying me pretty new dresses to wear to weekly church meetings, I kept a good attitude and even grew to look forward to time at church. I’d also noticed that Maw Maw seemed gentled by the sermons she’d begun to listen to as she cleaned house, as if she saw the world differently when she was finished listening. As much as I loved my feisty grandmother, this softer side was appealing to me because it felt like another, mysterious, layer to her that I had discovered.
After we settled in to the cushy pew at church, Maw Maw passed me her roll of breath mints to keep me occupied during the long sermon. I didn’t understand much of what the preacher said, usually; but that morning my ears perked up because he was talking about baptism. Concepts floated out before me that I’d never heard of before:
Finally, it was time for my grandparents to be baptized and so Maw Maw squeezed my hand and they rose from the pew, leaving me to sit alone. After the congregation sang a few stanzas from a hymnal, the lights dimmed and the preacher came out wearing a long white robe.
Instead of standing in front of the pulpit, he was in a large tub of water. He asked my grandparents a series of questions, then he dunked them in the water, in the name of Jesus Christ, first Maw Maw and then Paw Paw.
The whole scene fascinated me to no end and I leaned forward, gripping the back of the pew in front of me. It wasn’t just the ceremony of it, or even the novelty of watching my formidable grandfather submitting to a dunking by another man.
A lump rose in my throat as I studied my grandparents’ faces. They were both crying openly, unashamed; and yet they had the most radiant smiles too. I’d never seen them smile like that, not even when we kids did something funny or when they got tickled with something on TV. I’d never seen anyone baptized and I’d never seen anyone equal parts happy and sad, crying and smiling. Something inside me began to warm, like a small fire in my belly. Whatever was happening to my grandparents was different and it was good and I knew one day I wanted to have it too.
In loving memory of my beloved homing beacon and the woman to whom I owe my life, Wilma Dean Perrilloux.
I’ll see you in glory, Maw Maw. Love, Ambie Pambie