Orange. I saw orange. Blaze orange. Hunter orange. Bright, bright orange. Danger zone orange. Orange, when it should have been blue. A beautiful, navy blue. A blue that I thought contrasted his eyes and complexion. A blue that I thought complimented the bluish background. We didn’t have time for this and I was mad. If Rick, my youngest son, had come out in any other color, I may have compromised. He could’ve chosen blue, black, blue, green, blue, white, blue, gray, blue, or red. Yes, even if I had seen red, I wouldn’t have been as angry. Which is ironic, considering the old saying that someone is really angry when they “see red”. They never say, “I was so angry, I saw orange”. But, here I was.
It was picture day at school for Rick’s Kindergarten class. Before breakfast, I had chosen what I thought was the perfect shirt for him. It was a blue, knit pullover and it hung in the first section of his closet, with the other new shirts. The second section had all of his brother’s hand-me-down shirts. The third section had over-sized, sleep T-shirts. And the fourth section had costumes. However, Rick owned one shirt that really didn’t fit the criteria for any of the other sections. It ended up hanging in the costume section and even there, it stuck out like a sore thumb. It was bright, bright orange.
As far as Rick was concerned, this was the perfect shirt. After all, orange was Rick’s favorite color. And he’d found this shirt on a summer trip with Grandpa. When they had returned home, Rick had modeled it for me. He was so proud. However, Grandpa looked sheepish, shook his balding head, and offered an apology. He told me he tried to talk Rick out of it. He swore, they’d looked everywhere for anything else that might be in orange. But, this was the one and only that they could find. I was shocked and responded, “There was a good reason why there was only one!”
It was 80 degrees outside. Yet, the shirt was made for winter. It was made from bright, orange fleece that was sculpted to have vertical rows. It had a stand-up collar with a short zipper for closure. To make matters worse, the shirt was too big and I told him so. The hem hung down past Rick’s knees, giving the appearance of a dress. Rick argued and stretched his tiny arms out at his sides, hoping to prove his point. The sleeves covered his hands and dropped off several inches below his fingertips. With Rick’s slight frame, straw-colored and curly hair, I couldn’t help but think he looked like a scarecrow waiting for a raven to land. However, it didn’t matter to Rick whether I liked it or not. Rick was sold on it.
Up until picture day, Rick had only worn his orange shirt inside at home. I thought he understood that it was inappropriate and ill fitting; for play only. Boy, was I stupid! And it was painfully obvious that Rick didn’t think I was the brightest crayon in the box, either. Rick now stood before me, espousing that he had only worn it inside because it was special. He didn’t want to mess it up. But, this day was a special day and he needed to wear his special orange shirt. Then, Rick wisely informed me that this was his only orange shirt. He argued, “It’s my school picture and I want to wear this shirt.” And he pointed to the one he was wearing. I retorted, “I’m paying for the pictures and I want you to wear this shirt.” And I held up the blue one. Rick didn’t miss a beat and responded, “If I wear that shirt, I’ll have to smile like how I feel, like this…” and he made the most wretched face.
This got my complete and undivided attention. That battle seemed familiar to me. It was one I had lost with my son, Ted when he had started Kindergarten. Only, Ted didn’t care about the color of his clothes. He just wanted to make funny faces. The photographer had given Ted three chances. And Ted took full advantage of all three of them. Each subsequent picture was more outrageous than the first. While, Ted was thrilled, I was frustrated by what appeared to be disobedience and disrespect. After careful assessment, I realized that this situation hadn’t been about rebellion. It had been Ted’s five-year old attempts to express his individuality. And his funny-face picture had become one of my favorites. It was a valuable lesson I swore I wouldn’t forget. However, only two years later, I needed a refresher course.
I sighed heavily and asked Rick, “So what happens if you wear that?” and I pointed to his orange shirt. This time I made my best wretched face. And yes, it was a deliberate attempt to manipulate him. Rick wasn’t fazed and answered, “I’ll have to smile like this…” and he gave an angelic smile. When I conceded, Rick was elated. Then, I drove him to school. As he got out of the minivan, he said, “Mommy, I promise I’m going to smile like this!” and he flashed the smile of a cherub. I told Rick to have a good day, though I was certain that he’d have a wonderful day. I was also certain his pictures would not turn out. So, I quickly thought of a plan B. He could keep his sure-to-be ugly, school pictures. I would have more respectable ones made elsewhere, for the family Christmas cards.
As I worked to console myself, my oldest son, Will counseled me. He pointed out that Rick had made some valid points; for a five-year old. Yes, all my babies were growing up. It was a hard pill to swallow. Yet, I was deeply proud of them. After all, critical thinking was far more important than power struggles and school pictures.
Two weeks later, Rick returned home from school, holding his envelope of pictures. He had already opened the package and was beaming. He thrust a well wrinkled and smudged picture toward me. “See. I told you it would be a good picture.” I rolled my eyes and then took it from him. Much to my chagrin, the picture was cute. The too-long sleeves and the dress-length bottom, never showed in the picture. And the colors were lively.
Unbeknownst to Rick, he had also taught me a valuable art lesson. A lesson on actual contrasts and compliments; a lesson on blues and oranges. The background of Rick’s photo was blue and of course, his shirt was orange. This combination has been depicted most famously in the art world. The famous painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir “knew that orange and blue brightened each other when put side by side” and Vincent van Gogh wrote, “There is no orange without blue.” It was now my turn to teach Rick a valuable lesson… I told Rick, “You’re right. It’s a wonderful picture.”
As the years wore on, so did Rick’s orange shirt. I never thought I’d live to see the day my baby filled it up. But he did and then, he quickly outgrew it. The sleeves gave their own testimony, like a grow chart, only fuzzier. Barely inches below the shoulders, his tiny elbows had rubbed bare spots. As he grew, so did the threadbare marks, leaving an elongated, white trail down the sleeves. As a child, Rick never did have another orange shirt. He reasoned there was no need. And he testified that he already had the best one in the world. Little did we know that when Grandpa had purchased this one-of-a-kind, he also purchased priceless memories.
Fast forward sixteen-years later… Rick’s orange shirt was buried in a northern closet. And Grandpa was buried in the southern ground. Rick was now an adult, living 1200 miles away. Shortly after his 21st birthday, he posted a Facebook picture of a brand new Dodge Challenger. Rick wrote, “It’s not the General Lee (an orange 1969 Dodge Charger), but I’m definitely happy with it.” The compliments and congratulations poured in from everyone and from everywhere. Some were excited, some teased they were jealous, and all “liked” it. Everyone was happy for Rick; everyone, except me. I was mad. Instead of orange this time, I saw red. Dark, dark red. So dark, it was maroon. The darkness matched both my emotions and the car.
Rick had “purchased”, meaning took out a loan for, a brand new Dodge Challenger. No, it would not be wise for me to respond this day. So, I stewed and fussed to Keith instead. He agreed and shared my concerns. I fussed some more. And Keith agreed some more. Rick had been on his new job one day. ONE day! Rick didn’t have much for savings. He was in college. He was responsible for sharing living expenses with his brothers. This wasn’t a necessity. There were far more affordable and practical choices. What if he lost his job? What if he lost his car? What if it devastated him? I wouldn’t have the extra to help him. Finally, I prayed and slept on it.
When I awoke in bed the next morning, Rick was staring at me from across the room. He wasn’t there in person, but he stared at me from his 4×6 Kindergarten picture. I saw orange; bright orange and a beautiful smile. It wasn’t an arrogant or gloating smile. It was a pure and joyous smile. And after all these years, it is still my favorite picture of him. His personality radiates from it. It hearkens this is who I am. I am Rick. I’m not Will, not Ted, and not Mom. I am Rick or rather, his adult preference, Richard.
I was no longer blinded by anger. But don’t get me wrong, I was still mad, like any other normal parent (pun intended). However, I was no longer feeling conflicted by our differences. While, I did not agree with his decision, it had not been an act of rebellion. This was about Rick making his own choices and decisions. My baby was now an adult. His choice was legal and it was his responsibility. Rick’s choice was not an uncommon one made here in America, every day. His choice was not made to hurt anyone. And the bottom line was, Rick’s decision had already been made. He was free to reap both the benefits and any consequences of his choice. How I chose to respond, only determined whether or not I’d rob myself of sharing in Rick’s moment of happiness.
Even though my eyes were clouded by tears, my thoughts were perfectly clear. This was a no-brainer. I now knew how to respond to Rick’s Facebook post. My response was genuine, honest, and abounding in a mother’s deep love. It ended with, “Can’t wait to see more pictures of your adventures.” It began with, “Bet your smile was bigger than the day you wore your favorite, orange shirt!” Yes, I could support him for being Rick… oops, I mean Richard. And maybe one day, he’d bless me with a picture. A picture of him smiling with his beautiful car. A car of dark, dark red. I would keep it beside my favorite picture of him. A picture with his favorite shirt. A shirt of bright, bright orange.