“For me, both death and love are the most meaningful aspects of a human experience.” Dr. Sarah Neustadter
Fiction. Based on a True Color
by Starry Teller
This journal entry is inspired by true events. Some of the characters, names, businesses, incidents, and certain locations and events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.
I don’t remember my first day of kindergarten. I remember events that happened in kindergarten, like learning who was 5 years old and who was 6. Gabriella H claimed she was 4 years old but we all figured she said that just to get attention—or get away with being the baby she was. I also remember when Erika B woke me up during nap time to show me her eraser. She wouldn’t shut up and our teacher thought I was talking. Miss M had been my favorite human in the world until that day. She blamed me for talking to Erika, even though I never said a word. We both changed our cards from yellow to orange. It was my first “card change.” Throughout my time in elementary school, I only changed my card a few times. One time was for putting my favorite blue ring in my mouth and lying when Mrs. E asked if something was in my mouth. My mom threw away the ring when she heard about the card change. Another time, my entire class started running down the hall. I was confused; I ran with them. We all changed our cards. My favorite time—the one I feel the least remorse for—was when we had a substitute teacher in fifth grade, Mrs. Love. She was the worst—despite her name. We all loved Mrs. J, our real teacher, but she was on maternity leave. After lunch one day, we all came back to class but sat in each other’s seats instead of our own, to play a practical trick on Mrs. Love. She didn’t think it was very funny. Once again: card change. From kindergarten to sixth grade, the dread of replacing that beautiful yellow card with the garish orange one, hung over me daily. I was always an excellent student and hard worker, but the punishment was always humiliating and more than I could bear. I think because of that, I grew to hate the color orange and love the color yellow.
Yellow appeared as a happy reinforcement color in elementary school. Whenever we would do something good, we would receive a yellow slip of paper called a “Light Shine.” Light Shines were entered into a monthly drawing and at “Student of the Month” ceremonies, the principal would draw Light Shines from a bag at random. The selected students would win prizes or gift cards or something of the like. All around, yellow was a happy color at school. If we were good, our cards stayed yellow and we received yellow Light Shines. Receiving Light Shines at ceremonies was a source of great pride. Whenever my name was drawn, I would go up on stage with a huge smile plastered on my face, and turn to find my grandma in the crowd of teachers and students. My grandma taught sixth grade from the time I was in kindergarten until I was in middle school. I would run to her class after school was dismissed and sit at her extra desk and eat snacks. When I was younger—in second or third grade—going to her classroom after school was my favorite thing in the world. The sixth grade kids were so big and I felt I would never get to be their size. The sixth grade boys were annoying, but the girls would fawn over me. My grandma was kind and loving to me, but a very strict and well-respected teacher. One time at lunch, I remember hearing girls talking about their classes and teachers.
“Mrs. J. Who’s your teacher?” One girl said.
“Mrs. T” the other replied.
“Oh how do you like her?”
“She’s really strict.”
“She’s my grandma” I chimed in.
Both girls turned toward me. “Mrs. T is your grandma?” the latter asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, don’t you know my last name?” I laughed.
“No” both admitted.
I stated my first and last name with confidence, with emphasis on my last name.
The girl in my grandma’s class looked like she wanted to apologize to me for saying my grandma was strict. I glowed with pride. My grandma had a reputation for being strict, but students loved her all the same. As lunch was ending, all the sixth grade students lined up to go back to class. The teachers came out to get their students and I ran out in front of the organized lines and met my grandma with a huge hug. She hugged me back and held me close as we walked towards all the students. My heart swelled with pride and love. I was the granddaughter of Mrs. T. My inherent value felt insurmountable.
When I was growing up, my grandparents lived out on property. They had five acres of grapefruit trees—a vast yellow orchard. To this day, my favorite smell in the world is the smell of spring—the smell of thousands of grapefruits emerging from newly budding trees. Growing up at the orchard house was like the lives of children in books. My grandparents had a huge house that my little sister and I would stay at when our parents went out of town or when we just wanted to have a sleepover. Since my grandparents only lived about 20 minutes away, we went over their house often. Whenever there was a family event, such as a birthday or holiday, my aunts and uncles and cousins (more than 20 people) would all go over to grandma’s and grandpa’s for food and games. We would swim in the pool or play pool at the billiards table, play Barbies or mancala, or put on skits and competitions.
Of all my childhood memories, my favorite ones consist of the grapefruit wars we would have in the orchard. After swimming or eating and celebrating, all of us would run into the orchard and turn two huge grapefruit crates on their sides. Everyone would split into two groups and hide behind the crates, peeking through the holes that should have been on the ground. My dad and uncles were usually the ones forcefully throwing the grapefruits at the opposing team. My sister, cousins, and I mostly squealed behind the crates as grapefruits would hit the plastic and explode, squeezing sour juice all over us.
The yellow years were happy ones. From Light Shines to yellow cards to grapefruit wars, the color yellow was synonymous with happiness, celebration, sunshine, family, and fond memories. Two and a half years ago, my grandma fell ill. She had been dealing with minor illnesses and skin problems for a while, but around Thanksgiving she became very ill. I didn’t know what was wrong with her because the adults were all optimistically positive that she was recovering. All I knew was that she was in and out of the hospital constantly. It was my first semester of my first year of college. I got a call one day as I was leaving class and walking on the bridge to the parking structure.
“Hello? Mom?” I picked up.
“Honey, I just want to let you know that grandma had been permanently hospitalized.”
I drove to the hospital immediately. During those last few weeks of the semester, I wanted to see her as much as possible. After commuting from home to the university and back, I would go visit her at the hospital. I spent many evenings there, watching her sleep, singing songs to her if she asked. The years of lying out in the sun by the pool while her kids and grandkids played in the orchard had turned my grandma’s skin a beautiful golden tone. In those weeks of her sickness, sitting under the bright white hospital lights, I watched as her tan skin paled. After losing her healthy color, something else occurred. She not only paled, but she yellowed. Her skin turned a deep yellow color, like a grapefruit gone rotten. It was only then that my parents finally informed me of my grandma’s illness. Still, they never told me her liver cancer was terminal.
My grandma came home from the hospital during the week of Christmas. The doctors sent her home to be with family. I remember sitting on her bed two days before Christmas, holding her frail yellow hand. I don’t remember what she told me. I don’t remember having any thoughts at all. Or perhaps I had too many thoughts, too many failed attempts at explaining what I will never understand. It is impossible to explain the wordless emotions surrounding those yellow hours. She went into a coma on Christmas morning. She passed away two days later. It’s been two Christmases since she passed away. I still do not have the words to explain how I felt in those hours, how I feel in the hours I must live in her absence. The yellow years of happiness in which my grandma’s presence gave meaning to life dissolved into the short hours and weeks in which the very color I once loved took over and destroyed her body. I no longer have to change my card at school. I never have to worry about the orange card, but I also never have the pleasure of seeing the yellow one. I never receive Light Shines rewarding me for my actions or accomplishments. My grandpa sold the orchard house, so I no longer run through the acres of grapefruit trees. We don’t have grapefruit wars. I only have real wars now. Wars between existing in reality and the inability to cope with grief. I no longer dwell in the light of the yellow years, but rather dwell in the shadow of what they left behind.