A color-free childhood

Despite her mother's penchant for white, she pushed for a dab of color.


My room was blue, like the sky. I could jump on the bed and imagine myself flying.

When my parents moved in, the whole house had been full of color. They spoke of this like they spoke of growing up in the Great Depression, as something to overcome. "Rose!" my mother would exclaim. "Half the rooms in this house were rose!" One by one, they painted each room white. They were about to tackle the blue room when they needed space for a new baby. Me. The smell of paint made my mother feel sick when she was pregnant, so the room stayed blue.

The kitchen also had color, despite their best efforts. Our next-door neighbor worked at Sears and was allowed to take home improperly tinted paint. Their house was always a wild hue. For several glorious years it was a green so bright that Amazon tree frogs might have blended in with it unnoticed. When the afternoon sun hit their house, the green reflected onto the shiny white appliances in Mom's immaculate white kitchen. It was like being in Oz.

Mom installed light-blocking shades, which she began pulling down at 3 every afternoon. There was no place so colorless as home.

When I was 4, my brother left for college and Mom embarked on a frenzy of home improvement. In retrospect, I see she was trying to distract herself from missing her eldest son. At the time, it was a royal pain. Upholstery pins poked out of every chair; the house always smelled like a solvent of some kind and – worst of all – my blue room had to go. Mom told me that blue was for boys. But she had compromise in mind: As a girl, I needed a pink room. I loved my blue room and protested fiercely. But Mom won out. As she opened the paint can, I expected the bright Barbie pink that little girls adore. That's not what was inside. Imagine a single drop of cherry syrup mixed into a large glass of milk.

"It's white," I said.

"It will look darker on the walls," she assured me.

It did not.

In fairness, these events happened in the late 1960s and early '70s. While a small portion of the country might have been swathed in love beads and listening to Jefferson Airplane, most of America was not. Much of the country was in a cultural stupor. We thought Velveeta was cheese. We passed up lovely old houses with real front porches for split levels. My family wasn't all that unusual with its walls all painted the color of Wonder Bread. What was unusual was the true horror with which they regarded colors.

I'll never forget my mother's reaction to "The Purple Ladies." Polly and Dolly were elderly distant relatives. These sisters earned the nickname "The Purple Ladies" when they showed up at a cousin's wedding all in lavender, from the rinse in their bouffant hair to the pumps on their feet. In between were not-quite-matching silk dresses with wide sashes, the kind of frocks that belonged on an MGM soundstage. I was especially impressed by Dolly's gloves, which stretched elegantly toward her elbows and had bunches of wax grapes hot glued to them. My mother dropped her jaw when she caught sight of them. "She'll ruin the wedding pictures," she said.

"Mom, she's a work of art!" I gasped.

She turned to my father and fervently whispered, "Tommy, your daughter likes the grape gloves."

He looked at me and laughed. "I guess I know what to get you for Christmas," he said. In fact, I did not receive grape gloves for Christmas that year. My parents bought me a parka. Beige.

I sneaked color into the homestead whenever I could. In high school, I painted my ceiling blue with cumulus clouds drifting through it, then painted the panes of a faux greenhouse over it. My mother declared, "Well, I'd better plan on dying here. Because no one will ever buy this house."

When my husband and I bought our own house, every room was off-white, which I considered no improvement over the ancestral home. I suggested we design our bedroom based on "the great green room" of the children's classic, "Goodnight Moon."

"I'm sure I can match the color," I said. "And I could make orange-and-green striped drapes just like in the book."

My husband replied: "I was thinking beige."

"Beige? This is just your first offer, right?"

The bedroom ended up a deep sage we both like. When Mom saw it she said, "This is exactly the color my bedroom was in the old house. We changed it to white, of course."

"So I take it you don't like the color."

"Well, I don't think I could sleep in this room," she said. "But it's your house."

It is, and I sleep just fine.

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