|Painting by Renny Spencer|
I WAS PINK. That was the color my parents assigned to me. When I was born, I was given a name, Nadina Maria, and a color––pink. My older sister Lori was blue; my older brother Al was yellow. After me came green (Ron), brown (Leonard) and black (Richard). By the time Ray came along eight years later, colors were no longer dispensed, or else no one cared to remember his. The problem with the colors was that they labeled us incorrectly.
AT LEAST IN my case:pink. Pink––to my parents––meant feminine, soft and delicate. I was a tomboy! I hated dolls; I hated dresses; I hated waves in my hair tied up in ribbons. So many times I sobbed as Mom styled my hair with pinned-up curls. Dad would poke his head in the doorway. Oh, you shouldn't cry, it makes your face all puffy. Don't you want to look pretty?
NO I DID NOT. I wanted to wear jeans and play ball with my brothers. I wanted to wear football shoulder pads so I could show I was capable of taking hard hits. I wanted to wear fishing boots so I could catch tadpoles in the ditch. I wanted to wear a mitt. I wanted to run through the hot summers without wearing a shirt.
TO ADD SALT to the wound, every birthday and Christmas, for maybe my first six years, and regardless of how much I complained, no matter how much I begged for a puppy, I received a doll in a pink dress. Most of them were thrown out the back door, some were buried in the yard. The only one I kept long enough to remember her name––Rosie, sister to Lori's blonde, blue-clad doll Dodie––I kept buried in the third drawer down in my dresser. I never played with her, but I didn't hate her; it was not her fault that she landed in the wretched lap of a heartless, callous child. A sad life for a lovely doll.
ONE DAY, when I was three or four, I got a splinter in my finger. Dad said he would get it out. Oh no! That will hurt, I said as I locked myself in the hall bathroom. It won't hurt, said Dad. I promise. It will be over in a second; you will feel much better when it is out. Would I lie to you? If you let me take it out you can open one of your presents under the tree. Oh, no, no, I cried. I don't trust you; it will hurt; I won't feel better.
BUT STILL–– a present. Hmmm, maybe. I really liked presents. And how long could I stay locked in the bathroom anyway? I finally agreed. Dad dug out the tiny piece of wood with a needle that he heated over a flame on the stove; I screamed. I was then told I could pick any box with my name on it, which I did, a long skinny box, medium sized. Inside was––and how did I even think it would be something else––a doll. How could life be so cruel? I ran to the kitchen, really wailing now, and threw her in the trash bin. Seduced, deceived, betrayed––sold down the river.
I STARTED TO lose faith, began to think life would always be disappointing. Why even make a wish list if nobody read it. And then, the following Christmas, when I was just about to give up hope–– praying wasn't working, crying and begging weren't working, someone––God, my parents, Santa?–– took pity on me, and sent me a frog––a croaking, wooden pull-toy frog, a frog that I pulled around the house for months, inch-inching behind me, a frog that I loved with all my heart, a frog in beautiful green.
IT'S BEEN SIX decades since I first waged war on the color pink, and one decade since I have made peace with it. I never wore it, in clothing or nail polish or lipstick; I never adorned my house with it, in furniture or wall paint; pink flowers had no place in my studio garden. Other than to bring life to a dog's tongue, or to add accent to a sunset, and recently into my portraits, I have never used pink in my paintings.
MY MOTHER PICKED out all of my clothes until I left home at eighteen; she did, however, eventually, let me pick the colors. I recall, with utter joy, one special day shopping when she said I could pick out any color dress. I chose a metallic striped dress that contained every color in existence; my mother was horrified; I was crazy happy. She kept her word and I wore it until it fell apart.
I THINK MOM tried to understand that I was mismarked at birth, but she could never really relinquish the identity she had constructed for me. It was necessary to her well-being that her categorization of the important pieces of her life, and that included her children, were kept intact. I understood this from an early age and, even though I would have relished venturing across an honest childhood, it was never necessary to me that she know the bona-fide me. At some point in my adolescence I stopped having an opinion about most things discussed at the table; I stopped thinking my parents wanted to know what I was about.
BUT IT CAME up one last time. Mom was over eighty; she died soon after; the times we spent together had become comfortable, if not easy. Whatever remnants of resentment still lingered inside me quietly leaked out like air escaping through a tiny hole in a balloon. No anger, no regrets, I had long ago donned my true colors; pink no longer carried any meaning. The previous year, as a Christmas gift, I gave each of my grown children an artist's sketchbook, scissors and a glue stick, with instructions for creating an "I LOVE" scrapbook, for which there is only one rule: you must love anything you paste in the book. This would be my fourth book, and what I learned was that they create an intimate and revealing glimpse into one's life, a diary in pictures. I decided to share mine with Mom.
IF YOU CARE to Mom, go through this book sometime, over a cup of coffee. It's nothing important. just a year of clipping pictures that get my juices flowing. You might enjoy it. She said she would and I believed her. I remember wishing she had one of her own to offer in return.
THE FOLLOWING morning she called to apologize. Oh, Nadi, she said. I never knew you.