Small things make a big difference in a child’s life.

I was an orphan. And I was shoeless. If my mother had been alive, she would have managed to see to it that I had shoes and clothing. I remember Mama cutting our old, worn clothing, picking out pieces of material that were still usable, and sewing new things for me and my brothers and, of course, for our father. But Mama had passed away when I wasI was an orphan, and I was shoeless 5 years old, leaving three orphans in the hands of an already overworked and overburdened father. Father didn’t have the headspace to consider that the clothes that Mama had sewn for me when I was 4 or 5 might not fit me when I was 7 or 8.

In Moscow, in our large yard, which is shared by a compound of several buildings, two girls—one with long blonde braids and the other with short red hair—are holding a rope. Each girl is holding one end of the rope and turning it, making it fly up high and then return to earth, while girls line up to take turns jumping over the rope at the precise moment when it lands on the ground. I get in line and wait for my turn. Finally, my turn comes. I approach the rope and try to jump. Ah! But I am partially flat-footed. I can’t jump. The other children shoo me away.

Next, I try to join the children who are playing hide-and-seek. This doesn’t work out either, as I am “it” all the time, and I can’t run fast and catch anyone. So the boys whistle me out of this game. Even at the sandbox, that refuge for those who are too small and clumsy to join more sophisticated games, I am persona non grata. It happened when, by accident, I broke a little red-headed boy’s beautiful sand mold, and he chased me, yelling, “Orphan, there is no one to take care of you,” and stuck his tongue out at me. That hurt me deeply. Somehow, I still hoped that my mother would show up in my life.

I climb the five dark flights of stairs back home. Our building has six flights altogether. I do not know how to count the flights, but I know that if I put my foot out in the darkness, and the foot feels that there are no more steps, then I have reached the last flight and I have to go back down one flight of stairs, and I then I will be home.

Once at home in my family’s room, I occupy myself either by sitting under the table and sucking my thumb, or by doing something that my mother used to do, so that I can be like my Mama. I take a rag from a pile in the corner, go to the kitchen, climb up on a chair to reach the water faucet and wet the rag. I go back to our room and begin to wash the floor. It almost feels as though she is here, ready to come in and tell me not to wet the floor.

I happily swish, swash and swoosh the wet rag all over the blond wood parquet. I am just about to crawl under the couch, wet rag in hand, when I hear the door hinges screech. The door opens, and there, standing on the threshold, is our Aunt Mania, my father’s sister, who lives many tramway stops away at the other end of Moscow.

My aunt closes the door behind her, walksI happily swish the wet rag all over the wood in, and leaning against a wall, she sighs loudly, “Uuhchh.” Then she takes two steps back to the door, leans on the doorpost and speaks to my mother’s soul. “A heavy burden you left me, Risa. It is hard for Berl, and it is hard for me.”

Next, Aunt Mania walks over to the couch where I am crouching, wet rag in hand, my face turned up to her. She sighs again, “Uuhchh,” puts her hands on my shoulders and pulls me up to my feet. The rag falls to the floor, abandoned.

Aunt Mania sits me down on a chair, and then sits herself down on a chair facing me, lifting her legs onto another chair. (As her legs are apt to swell when she is tired, she needs to rest them by putting them up on a chair.)

Aunt Mania sighs again, “Uuhchhh,” and begins to tear the newspaper wrapping off the package that she has brought. I am all eyes. I see one piece of newspaper pulled off the package and laid neatly on her lap, then another, and yet another. Finally, the thing that is wrapped inside the newspaper appears. (I was not accustomed to express my feelings or to talk about how I felt. But I can tell you now that I was beside myself with surprise and joy.) It is a pair of hand-knitted slippers that she had worked long and hard to crochet. The slippers are gray, and they have a beautiful blue trim all around the edges. A little blue bow decorates the front; an elastic hidden inside the blue trim makes the slippers easy to pull on and keep on.

My aunt hands her beautiful present to me. I pull the slippers on carefully. Oh, how wonderful they feel! How graceful they look!

Aunt Mania lifts her feet off the chair, lowers them to the floor and stands up. I put my feet on the floor and stand up as well, the lovely slippers on my feet. She draws me into her arms. “Tzurais gezunterheit,” she says in Yiddish. And suddenly, I have an overwhelming urge to smile, something I haven’t done for a long, long time. I beam a big happy Cheshire-cat grin that spreads from ear to ear, from top to bottom, lighting up my whole face.

Aunt Mania has to hurry to go to work, so she leaves. And I run down the five dark flights of stairs. Suddenly, my slippery slippers give way, and I begin to slide down the stairs, but I save myself by holding on to the banister.

Once outside, I feel something magical happening. So what if I can’t jump or outrun anyone, or if I don’t have flowery molds to build sand castles. I am not barefoot anymore; I have wonderful slippers that Aunt Mania knitted especially for me.

“Are they Cinderella shoes?” I askI feel something magical happening myself. “Or perhaps these are the magic slippers of a dancing princess from a story that my mother told me a long time ago, when she was alive?” The wind blows through my short cropped hair as I run. I fly, all over the big yard. It feels so good!

I don’t remember how long the slippers lasted. Maybe a day, maybe two days, or maybe many days after Aunt Mania gave them to me. All I remember is how I came home one day, pulled the wonderful slippers off my happy feet and saw that the bottoms of these magical slippers now had big holes.

The hand-knitted slippers had a brief physical life in my child’s world. But spiritually and emotionally, Aunt Mania’s slippers were a magical crossing for me. On that day, I crossed over from thinking that I would never be able to run to believing that I could fly like the wind.