1957 Violet House

When my parents moved us from our apartment in Clifton to our first (and last) house in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, St. Catherine of Siena elementary school was still under construction. So this meant that I had to go to public school for second grade. It was a brief hiatus in my otherwise uniformed education; and in hindsight, it offered me an edifying taste of permissiveness that I wouldn’t re-experience until high school. Though, by then, that permissiveness was closer to anarchy.

In 1957, the year in question, I didn’t consciously register the fact that Miss Berry’s classroom was freer than Sister Mary Clare’s back at St. Andrew’s. No one spelled it out for me. The relative license of public school was subtle in the mid-50s, but it did begin to seep in, first in the person of Miss Berry, soon to be Mrs. Armstrong. She looked like the “Breck girls” in the shampoo ads that then set the standard for conventional prettiness, which I mistook for glamor. Her blond shoulder-length hair and her brightly striped dresses spoke to pleasures that I could only imagine came with being ‘engaged.’ Certainly they were nothing like the black and white habits I was used to seeing in front of the blackboard in the short two years I’d been sitting at a child’s desk.

This was the year that I was introduced into the eros of color – and not just in the form of a twenty-something second-grade teacher, who was clearly in love.  I was primed for the seduction early. My first grade pencil case was cordovan leather. Like my father’s brief briefcase, it carried the status of serious work. Its power didn’t rest in the pencils it carried, it emanated from its confident red. I had started making sense of my world by color, whether it was the dark maroon plaid dress that I thought made me studious or the green iridescence that changed Japanese beetles from creepy to collectible, albeit in jars filled with formaldehyde.

So when Miss Berry gave us the most ordinary of assignments and asked us to draw a house, I didn’t hesitate to make mine purple – violet, actually.  I still remember the rich, dense crayoned surface I laid down on the paper.  More than that, I remember being told in no uncertain terms by the boy working next to me that there was ‘no such thing as a purple house.’

He had never seen one, of course. Nor had I. But I was convinced that there could be, since I knew that houses were painted all the time and not made out of ‘color.’  I also felt that there should be such houses because I was convinced that there was (and is) no more compelling color than that which he’d disparaged as ‘purple.’ It was really the velvety aubergine of pansies, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to say so, nor did Crayola.

I realize now that we weren’t really talking about color at all but about the possibility of color, the possibility of the unseen-before.  It’s not that I was a child who was prone to fantasy or determined to be contrary. Just the opposite. I have to think that my own ordinariness was simply overpowered by the sensation of violet, which was strong enough to make an act of faith in what-could-be.

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