The Color Purple

In 1987 or so, my parents separated, and a sympathetic widower allowed my mother, my two older brothers and me to move into his empty house and be caretakers. The house was the last of two on a dead-end road. It was hugged around the side by a healthy cluster of trees, the cusp to hundreds of acres of pine-saturated state land. Though we’d previously lived on a mountaintop with no neighbors within a mile, and the widower’s house had a neighbor a backyard away, this was lonelier.

I spent a good amount of my earlier childhood in the house. My mother was a friend and business associate of the deceased wife, a goat farmer, who lived there with her sister. They made me my first Reuben sandwich while I played with a new litter of Pomeranians. I'd be invited over for slumber parties with the sister's mentally-impaired adult daughter. I met my elderly pen-pal there. But even in happy times, the house itself was dark, cold and uninviting. There may have never been a murder there, but it was the sort of place you just assumed was the scene of least one intentional flesh wound. 

On one side of the driveway, a flat yard and a scrappy fence barely protected any and all from falling off a steep cliff into a bog of massive snapping turtles. On the other side was a soft slope that starkly became a stage of Germanic darkness, caused by the aforementioned wall of pines.

Sadly, both sisters died prematurely--the wife, in a car accident; and her sister soon after, alone in the house from a stroke. As her physical and mental health deteriorated, some of the animals died from neglect. After moving in, we'd sometimes find a skeletal corpse in some pocket of the property.

As sad as the recent history was, we were happy to have our own rooms. We'd been five people and two dogs (one a Great Dane) living in a trailer; and when it was cold, there were cats, sickly birds, batches of incubating chicks, and whatever else we needed to keep alive. My parents slept in the living room. My brothers had a bunk bed in the tiny back room. My room was technically the hallway. This new house was so big it had a dining room, and nobody had to sleep in it. 

I could write a lot about this house, but I’ll get to the purple part. My mom said we would paint my new room any color I chose. We couldn’t paint our previous walls; they had the original, honey-hued wood paneling the 1962 trailer came with, and there were so many built-ins, only a seasoned professional could have pulled off a cohesive paint job.

For this new space, I chose lavender with white accents. Around that time, my teenaged aunt had a purpley bedroom, and I wanted what she had. But while her crisp and tidy space had a ruffled bed skirt, white wicker and violet gingham curtains, my off-brand version had mismatched wooden furniture, all with variations of dark finishes--some bordered on being plain black paint. It was surrounded by a light-sucking “sun” porch that only wildlife used. The tiny closet had a second door with deadbolts, a miniature barred window, and a slot at the bottom to slide sustenance into whomever was locked in the room on the other side. Ironically, that space was a cheery Easter yellow, and got the only natural light in the house. Nobody used it. (We found out later that in the 50s and 60s, the original owners had a son with an intellectual disability. Instead of committing him, which was the style at the time, they could afford to buck the trend, discretely and humanely keeping him home in the yellow room. They'd moved to the house next door years before, and were perfectly nice neighbors. Their son strolled around on warm nights, looking for his cat, Mittens.)

The room had no curtains, so it was easy to imagine a serial killer just happening by and hitting the sleeping-ten-year-old jackpot. The middle-aged guy moaning for mittens by the porch at 11 p.m. somehow made things worse. Also, those pines. No amount of Betty Boop comforters or puffy satin wall hangings brightened the mood. I wouldn’t go in there after sundown.

I slept in the living room on the pull-out couch until we unceremoniously moved out less than a year later. The widower had an unbreakable rule: no one was allowed in his wife's room, located upstairs. But one of my brothers had been doing a little redecorating of his own; since her room was the nicest, and he was the only one on the second floor, nobody would really notice the slow accumulation of weightlifting equipment, a mattress, and karate posters on her walls. One December day, our patron stopped by for a surprise "visit", and we were out by the end of the week.

As an adult looking back at the situation--I would have done the same thing. But his taste was awful; I would've painted a bunch of hearts and rainbows directly onto the flocked wallpaper, burned scented candles, and hooked a hammock to anything load-bearing. The widower was just lucky I was scared to go upstairs alone.

Occasionally, I’ll see a particular ice-cold shade of violet, and remember the pastel bedroom in that macabre tomb of a house. I still like purple, but I’ll probably never try to pull it off a whole roomful again. But I do want my old novelty wristwatch wall clock. It was white, and really popped against the lavender. If anyone sees one, send it my way.