Spirit of inauguration past

Cold as shards of ice, the morning of Jan. 20, 1961, was one of the happy handful in my childhood when the radio named my school among the long list that were closed. For a seventh grader, a snow day was always cause for celebration. It also happened to be the president's Inauguration Day.

The television brought the freezing Washington weather into our Manhattan living room. I adored all the players in the splendid cast: the glamorous president-elect taking the oath of office wearing neither hat nor coat. The sparkling new first lady. Aging Robert Frost holding his poem in shaking hands, so blinded by the winter sun that he could hardly read his own words. Regal Marian Anderson singing the national anthem.

But the real impact of the day was at the polar extreme of both luxury and fame. After the ceremony, my mother suggested a winter walk. We rode down the elevator, then with scarved heads bent to ward off the winds from the Hudson whistling down the side street, headed west toward Broadway. The snow had been partially cleared from the sidewalks, so that we trod through a small white tunnel.

Manhattan's Upper West Side was not what it is today, with every brownstone a gold mine. Then they were called tenements.

As my mother and I struggled through the cold, a little girl of about 6 slipped in front of us. Her black hair hung hatless over a thin coat. But it was her feet that drew my eye. On them she wore a pair of patent leather party shoes, their shine dulled from wear. Cardboard filling peeked through cracks in the plastic. She had no socks, and her skin was puffy red beneath the thin strap across her instep.

I don't recall exactly what passed between my mother and me. Maybe she had the same idea. I beckoned to the girl to come with us, and she did. But either she could not, or would not, speak English. The only thing she told us was her name: Maria.

On Broadway we walked to Miles, a branch of the popular shoe chain. The astounded clerk brought out thick socks and furry boots. Maria did not answer when I asked if they were comfortable, and I led her around the showroom waiting to see her nod or shake her head. She only smiled.

On the way back, Maria held my hand; in the other hand, inside a Miles bag, she carried her soaking Mary Janes. Icy particles crunched bluish beneath our boots.

Before one of the shabby buildings, Maria dislodged herself and ran inside. My mother and I continued on to the avenue, and once upstairs I returned to the glamour of Camelot.

Today, the gesture of buying an anonymous child some boots seems as unreal and mythical as John F. Kennedy's inauguration. How did Maria's family greet her new shoes and incredible story? Why was my mother not wary of taking a small child blocks away from her home without permission? And what did our single gesture give Maria besides a few months of warmth?

Kennedy lived barely another 1,000 days, Miles shoes is long defunct, and both Maria and I are middle-aged. But I wonder if she, like me, remembers holding a stranger's hand when Jan. 20 rolls around on the year of a presidential inauguration. And does our tiny story exemplify in some small way the grand ideal JFK articulated on that very day, to ask what we could do for our country?

Helen Schary Motro is a lawyer and writer living in Israel and New York. Her forthcoming book is 'Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada.'

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