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, to remember, as I sat there in blue jeans and a black top, 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-career, pre-marriage and mother of sons, to a time when I wandered the mall with Ferris Bueller’s attitude that “life moves pretty fast,” so I should stop and look around once in a while. I’d browse through stores and inhale the crisp scent of new clothes I couldn’t afford or visit a purple jacket I’d put on layaway. It was a time of wondering what could be.
Now, I am in the middle of the middle years, and so many milestones have passed: choosing a career, getting married, buying a house, having children (a few of those more than once, except my husband). I’ve long since shifted my focus to my sons’ interests, appreciating the flexibility to organize work around school performances and sports games. And though I could now afford more things, leisurely shopping isn’t one of them. I’d come to love the simplicity of black, the color of choice for many women my age.
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 my first few years working in Boston and a ruby dress that I wore to a holiday office party that resulted in a date with a cute guy who had joked, “Can I have this dance with the lady in red?”
I slowly stopped wearing that color, though—or anything bold, for that matter—unless I was on vacation, or suddenly 10 pounds lighter, or in just the right mood. That was the real difference: my mood. Recent years have offered many opportunities to grapple with gray from child-rearing conundrums to deaths that hit closer and closer to home.
Looking back, I could spot signs of fading. The reds had toned down by the end of my 20s to an occasional colorful shirt or scarf and further muted during the early years of motherhood, when efficiency ruled: black, white, gray, beige and a little black dress. A convenient wardrobe that 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 black, brown and burgundy for as long as I could remember.
“You just wait until you see my closet,” she said proudly.
Sure enough, when I got to take a look, it was full of vibrant hues. “Are you going on a trip? Or a date? 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 her way of finding a new side of herself. She had been out hiking and on long road trips recently, things I’d never seen my mother do.
Later that night, after the game, I stood in my closet staring at hangers full of neutral clothes and wondered what happened to the adventure-seeking teenager who got thrown from a horse and a Yamaha dirt bike, the latter my fault. Here I was, more than 20 years later, in a closet dominated by neutral colors and with a dawning realization that I’d spent my 30s telling myself why I shouldn’t do something instead of thinking about how I could.
That week, I sneaked in an hour at the mall and returned with a cabernet-colored blouse, purple running shorts and an emerald-green cardigan (not to be worn together, of course).
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, “Love that green on you.”
I wondered what I must have looked like before. Is it the color, or is it how you feel when you wear it?
A few 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 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?
It’s been four years since that coffee shop day. Much more than my closet has changed since then. I went to graduate school, spent a week in Peru with my family distributing shoes on a volunteer 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 color to wear. 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.