Story of My Life: Shifting Out of Neutral
Over the years, I had come to love the classic simplicity of black, gray and beige. But do the colors we wear mean more than we think?
I’m usually too fixated on my laptop’s screen to notice my compatriots at Starbucks, but two girls dressed in the joie-de-vivre colors of girlhood made me pause—one in a flamingo-pink shirt, the other in electric blue pants and sneakers as green as fresh grass. Listening to them, I couldn’t help but remember what it was like to be 13 or 14, remember—as I sat there in blue jeans and black—what it was like before the color leaked out.
As the girls whispered, my mind’s photo album flipped back to myself pre-college, pre-work, pre-marriage and before becoming mother of two sons, to a time when I wandered the mall with Ferris Bueller’s mentality that leisure rules. I’d browse through stores and inhale the crisp scent of new clothes I couldn’t afford, or visit a beloved purple jacket I’d put on layaway, a longing for something about to be.
Now I was in the middle of the middle years, and so many big milestones had passed: choosing a career, getting married, buying a house, having children. I long ago turned my focus to my sons’ interests and dreams, content to fill days with school performances, sports games and our extended family’s events. And though I could now afford more things, time spent coordinating clothes wasn’t one of them. I’d come to love the simplicity of black.
Sitting over my coffee, I glanced out the window and tried to recall the last time I wore red, the color my mother always said looked best on me. There was a pair of red Reeboks in college, a red suit jacket during my first years of work in Boston, and a ruby dress that I wore to a holiday office party, which resulted in a date with a cute guy.
But I slowly stopped wearing that cardinal color, or anything bold for that matter, unless I was in the Caribbean, or suddenly 10 pounds lighter, or in just the right mood. That was the real difference: mood. Recent years had offered so many opportunities to grapple with gray, from the challenges of childrearing to deaths that hit closer and closer to home.
Looking back, I could spot signs of fading. The girl in red had toned down to a late twentysomething who wore an occasional colorful shirt or scarf, and then was further muted during the early years of motherhood, when efficiency ruled: black, white, gray, beige, and always a little black dress. A convenient wardrobe that had morphed into a habit.
As I drove to my younger son’s basketball game that afternoon, I remembered something my mother had said a few weeks earlier, when I was on my way to visit her in upstate New York. “I’m wearing brighter colors lately,” she announced. “You won’t believe it’s me.”
“What kind of colors?” I asked. My mother was in her 60s and had worn dark colors for as long as I could remember.
“You just wait until you see my closet,” she said proudly.
Sure enough, it was full of vibrant hues. “Are you going on a trip? Has something happened? What have you done with my mother?”
She laughed. “No—just thought it would be fun to add some spice.”
Maybe after all those years of working and raising my siblings and me alone, this was my mother’s way of finding a new side of herself. She had been out hiking and on road trips, things I’d never seen her do.
The night after I got home from visiting my mother, I stood in my closet staring at rods full of neutral clothes and wondered what happened to the tomboy teenager I once was, what happened to the girl who got thrown from a horse and a Yamaha dirt bike, the latter my own fault.
I had begged my high school boyfriend for weeks to try it. I wanted to feel the bike’s weight in my hands, feel what it was like to have the wind, not on my cheek as I peeked out from behind him, but across my face. It was our second time out. He was on his brother’s bike, and I on his. “Let’s go a little faster,” he yelled over the engine noise. “Remember, when you shift from first to second, make sure your foot doesn’t slip it to neutral.”
Only that’s exactly what I did, right as I gave it gas. The bike flipped. I flew into a tall patch of grass, wind knocked out of me, but unhurt.
Seconds later he was crouched beside me, his helmet off. He looked frustrated, but didn’t reprimand or say I told you so, only thank God the bike hadn’t landed on me.
“I’ll walk the bike back to your truck,” I said.
“Walk back?” he smiled. “You can’t just quit because you got stuck in neutral.”
And here I was, more than 20 years later, in a closet dominated by neutral and with a dawning realization that I’d spent most of my 30s telling myself why I shouldn’t do something instead of thinking about how I could.
That week, I spent an hour at the mall and came home with a cabernet-colored blouse, purple running shorts and an emerald-green cardigan—not to be worn all at once.
The day I wore the cardigan a friend said, “You look great!” while we waited at the bus stop. It was a day I said “yes” to an assignment I’d worried might be over my head. That evening, my husband said, “I love that green on you.” I wondered what I must have looked like before. Is it the color or how you feel when you wear it?
A couple months later, I pondered that question again when a priest in a deep amethyst robe delivered an interesting take on Christmas. Instead of telling the story of Jesus’ birth, he gave a simple sermon about how all birthdays are a celebration of the number of years someone has been a light on this planet. I sat there on that hard wooden pew and thought about that, thought about the grayness of getting older and wondered if it had to be that way. If our light, like our health, naturally diminishes as we get older, or if we can continue to keep it illuminated through our choices.
Fast forward four years. Much more than my closet has changed. I went to graduate school for a Master of Fine Arts degree, spent a week with my family in Peru distributing shoes to those in need during our first service trip, and went out dancing with friends again. In the process, I discovered that paying more attention to the colors I wear (even when I choose black) reminds me to think about what’s possible.
Green is my new favorite. I wore it for my first half-marathon, which I ran in part for the challenge, and perhaps to show myself, as well as my sons, that if you’re fortunate enough to grow older, life gives you many seasons to bloom.
Christine Koubek writes frequently for Bethesda Magazine. Her essays have also appeared in The Washington Post and Brain, Child. She lives in Gaithersburg and is the cofounder of Secret Sons & Daughters, an online publication for adoptee stories.