There is something rather poignant and oddly perfect about receiving coloring books from your older sister for your birthday. Especially when you’re both long, long past your mid-century marks. It’s as if she is saying: “I remember,” as only an older sister can do.
For most of my childhood, coloring books were the ultimate pastime for me – usually surpassing paper dolls and dress-up and tea parties, even roller-skating or Saturday morning cowboy shows on our first small black & white TV.
I have vivid recall of delight when I ripped open a present from under the Christmas tree or beside my birthday cake and found a pristine, fat, heavy-papered coloring book just waiting to be brought to life. Of course, a new box of waxy crayons accompanied the gift. And, for months afterward, I would savor each book until it was completely dog-eared and worn beyond belief – every scrap of space inside it filled with color and imagination, the crayons just stubby bare bits of their former selves.
Earlier this week, it all came back to me, wrapped in bright paper and happy birthday wishes from my older sister, Barbara. Two new fancy coloring books and an array of sharp, pointy colored pencils – tucked snuggly among decades of unspoken memories.
Suddenly, I was four years old again, and Barb and I still shared a room. Twin beds, matching bedspreads, colorful painted headboards that Mom had stenciled by hand. Across Barb’s headboard were the words: “Good Night;” mine had the response “Sleep Tight.” Although mine also forever carried the smears and toe prints I planted there by accident while it was still freshly painted and air-drying. Mom never could get it properly restored after that. And it was all because I was so caught up in the bedtime story she was reading to us that I somehow managed to turn myself head-over-heels and danced my toes across the headboard in excitement. It’s funny that I no longer remember the story she was reading. But I do have an aching recollection of crying myself to sleep out of shame and anger for doing such a thing to the lovely bed-art. I also remember how mad Mom was. Barbara, however, never said a word – silent with the kind of compassion sisters seem to instinctively possess at the most unexpected times.
Barb and I are slightly less than three years apart in age. So our relationship was frequently turbulent. But we had our moments: she protected me from bullies; I was her ever-willing minion; we always tattled on each other (except when we had partnered-up to commit the crime together); she taught me how to read and do cartwheels; I thought she was the smartest person I knew and split my popsicles with her. And, sometimes, we used to lie on our stomachs next to each other on the living room floor with a coloring book open between us, and fight over the crayons. And yet, she never made fun of me if I couldn’t stay inside the lines. She would even admire the pink skies I made.
In those days, the coloring books were mostly simple designs of elephants and clowns and farm animals and sleeping cats and little girls wearing braids and full skirts and little boys playing baseball. The new coloring books are much more sophisticated – all Celtic symbols and faith-based designs – splendid and imaginative and complex.
In the end, however, I suspect the blank designs don’t really matter very much. Nor does the vast array of colorful possibilities that await. Nor do the miles between us, or the years we’ve both known, or even the family genes we share.
It’s the memories that are brilliant. And the oddly comforting certainty that someone else remembers, too. And loves you. Even when you color outside the lines.