New shades of meaning

Naomi Silver-Moon was almost two months old when she came to live with us. I loved pushing the baby carriage and showing her off, and very soon she was taking an avid personal interest in cars, dogs and people. She herself inspired a bit of curiosity, for by now the sun had brought out the beautiful bronze tones of her complexion, quite unlike my own. Passers-by greeted us warmly but intently. Neighbors were obviously surprised and a little off-guard to realize that we had adopted a racially mixed child. I am sure they were not unkindlym surprised but at times one could see a question welling up in their eyes.

I learned to anticipate this little bit of confusion and find ways to make it easy for the wonderment to be answered. To us, adopting a child of mixed racial heritage did not seem unusual. But for someone who had never thought about it, we allowed that it might take a little getting-used-to, for you seldom saw a black or dark-skinned individual in town, except for the leathery-tanned farmers. The only nonwhites were on TV.

In a small town news travels fast. After a week or two had passed, it seemed that the new idea had been absorbed quite well, and there wasn't any terrible mystery or confusion to be resolved. The Natales had a darling little girl, and whether or not she ''matched'' them was fading as a major topic of concern. A neighbor winked and quipped, ''Well. Our little Naomi seems to have integrated Cross Plains very painlessly.''

Naomi has an older brother, Eli (my son by birth). By the time they were school age, we had moved to a large metropolitan area. They were now six and eight and went by bus to an integrated school which had an ethnic studies program. Skin color was not a taboo subject.

During one class, children were invited to compare the shades of their skin, and to notice that at different times of the year the shade might change. They noticed that a ''white'' child in the summer had a skin shade close to that of a ''black'' child in winter. And that a Mexican, a Pakistani and an Indian child had interesting shades, too. There were many different tones of ''white'' observed, too, which seemed to surprise many of them.

With Naomi, all this promoted some continuing discussions at home about the whole subject of color. Holding a white sheet of paper to my arm, she pointed out, ''You know, to be very true about it, Mom, there isn't any such thing as white people.''

Physical observations became very interesting to her, and she made a project of noting the various colors of people shown in hair, skin, and eye combinations. She learned the amazing and intriguing fact that some grown-ups changed the natural color of their hair on purpose. She began to imagine what I would look like if my hair were the color of hers, or hers the color of mine. She drew pictures of us to explore the idea.

One evening the children discovered a color-sample book from the paint store -- one of those thick charts that contains hundreds of chips illustrating various nuances of each color. I watched the two of them sit together trying to find their matching skin shades on the chart. After fifteen or twenty minutes of deep consultation, the chart was brought into the kitchen where I was making supper.

''This chart doesn't have all the colors in the world,'' Naomi explained with a very pleased expression, ''but at least we can come a lot closer to finding out what our actual real colors are. I am Deep Coloradom and Eli is Smoked Sevillem . Let's take it next door and see what Andy is. He thinks he's just plain brown.''

That night when I tucked her in, she suddenly seemed like the little two-month-old bundle we had first known. I thought about the curious people who had met her at that time, and the ones who had this treat in store for them. Before I kissed her good night, Naomi explained that her teacher had reminded the class that in math, as well as in other subjects, you should always try very hard to get things exactly rightm . ''That's called doing it accuratem ,'' I was told.

The next morning, the chart was resting on the breakfast table. They had taken account of ''Mom.'' They had decided that my color was Ditsey Beigem . Honest.

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