On My Mind

When Dad is Colorblind: A Love Story

October 25th, 2010 by Julie Silver

Until very recently, my father, who is completely color blind, had been wearing the same brown leather belt for thirty years. And unless you are browsing the gently worn shops or the Salvation Army store, you would no longer be able to find this particular style of belt for sale. On a fashion scale, it fell somewhere between what one might have worn to a groovy 70s wife swapping party and what Gordon Lightfoot probably wore while he was inhaling bong hits and composing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. My hard-working father would not have been physically involved in any of these scenarios, but in a romantic way, this two and a half inch thick belt buckled him to a time and place, despite keeping both at arm’s length.

Dad got dressed in the earliest, darkest hours of the morning and it always looked like an ensemble that he hadn’t merely thrown together. He tended heavily toward plaid. As a student anxiously picks the perfect outfit on the eve of a new school year, I imagine my father laying out his old blue jeans lengthwise and draping them on the bedroom chair next to one of the many, many plaid shirts he had held up next to the jeans to see what worked. He wore plain white undershirts beneath plaid shirts. This combination made me feel warm and protected as a child, embarrassed as a teenager, and finally comforted as an adult. With the belt, he looked like he should be holding a hatchet and standing next to an ox named Babe.

In our tony little suburb of Newton, Massachusetts where professionals dressed like professionals, my Dad went his own way. While other kids’ Dads shopped at The Men’s Wearhouse on Route 9, my very own lumberjack of a father looked more like he drove the hard highways of Northern New England, shaking hands and looking people right in the eye, selling equipment to other hard working men, and maybe even chopping down a tree or building a fire. And while other kids’ Dads looked like they were going to an office, my Dad looked like he was going to a log-rolling competition.

Not once in my childhood did I ever go shopping with my Dad or hear him say things like “I need a new _____”, or “Let’s go to ____ to buy some ____”. I never saw my Dad spend money on himself. I only saw him earn money. In 1974, my mother who handled the household finances gave my father a blank check to use in an emergency. Any time he opened his wallet to give me a few bucks, I would see that old check from 1974, ink fading, edges tattered, waiting in vain to be filled out and signed. But it was never to be. The unused check had taken on the smell of cash and the bend of his wallet, which had left an equally permanent outline on the back pocket of my father’s old blue jeans, confidently held up by that brown belt.

During the Spring of 1978, my mother took a rare trip by herself to see her parents in South Bend, Indiana. I was 11, my sister was 13, and my Dad was 38. No one was really on their A-game for the ten days my Mom was away. She had only been gone a few days and the house and family were already showing signs of neglect. Chores had been ignored, dishes were dirty, food was scarce, morale was low. One Saturday my Dad took my sister and me to a Woody Allen film, “Interiors”, a film so dark that it ends with the mother committing suicide. My Dad fell asleep while I ate milk duds and memorized dialogue, barely blinking.

The one thing I appreciated about having my mother in another state was the fact that she couldn’t monitor my clothing choices. I was a tomboy, but my mother wanted to dress me like the girl I simply was not. Every morning, I would get dressed, walk downstairs in my ripped up jeans, high top Nikes, and hooded oversized sweatshirt to a loving look of disappointment. You’re wearing that, my mother would say as she poured herself a cup of decaf. No Mom, I’m not wearing that, I would mutter under my breath as I climbed the stairs towards my daily morning wardrobe change.

I wore my hooded sweatshirt almost everyday while she was gone. One particular day, I wore my favorite football jersey to school: The Patriots’ quarterback, Steve Grogan, #14. I was in heaven wearing that jersey. My Dad slowed down the car to drop me off at school that day. (Having my mother in Indiana was beginning to take a toll on him as well.) I ran to my classroom with the confidence of a starting quarterback running onto the field for her first team huddle. Then came the blitz. My best friend, Terry Hassol saw what I was wearing, ran up to me and yelled, “It’s picture day, Julie. You’re wearing that?” She was wearing a cocktail dress. I felt like I had been sacked in the end zone.

Recovering from the hit, I ran against the rush to the office and called my Dad who had just arrived home from dropping me off at school.Dad! It’s picture day at school. I am wearing a football jersey. You have to help me. Dad, you have to pick out a different shirt for me, OK? And then bring it here now!” There was silence on the other end of the line. “Go to my room, Dad, and pick out a nice shirt,” I hollered. My Dad had no choice but to comply. I was panicked. “Dad, pick any color shirt you want but it has to be here now.” “Jesus Christ, alright already,” he said.I’ll be right there.”

The school secretary laughed into her attendance rolls as I hung up the phone. I ran to the front of the school and paced for ten minutes before I saw the station wagon pull up to the school. My Dad did not get out of the car. He made the hand-off and sped away. I looked inside the wrinkled brown bag to find an old, faded light blue turtleneck that to this day I believe he found in a pile of dirty laundry.

I see that 6th grade picture of myself every time I visit my old school. There is a wall of group photos that go back to the 1950s, and it’s interesting to see the changes as you walk down the long hallway. There I am, the only girl in my class wearing a wrinkled, pale blue turtleneck. I stare at that unshowered, eleven year old girl, wishing for just that day she had dressed like one. I would have looked better in plaid.