“Which colour do you prefer?” the bride asked.
Let’s face it, it was a loaded question; surely the bride had a preference. We were out on a mission to find bridesmaid’s dresses. The five of us had agreed on a style that miraculously flattered our diverse figures relatively well but the fabric itself was still in question. The bride insisted she didn’t care – she had no colour theme for her wedding. The market, however, limited our choices. Pastels were in. In the late 80s everything from kitchen wear to underwear was Wedgewood blue or dusty rose. Even at the bridal shop these colours dominated the swatch palette.
“Anything but Dusty Rose,” I blurted out a little too emphatically. I couldn’t stand that colour. In an instant it took me back twenty years.
The house I’d grown up in was a depression-era build. The windows had leaked out heat and let in cold. The radiators had clanged and hissed, the fixtures were cheap, and the hardwood floors were splintery. The ceilings seemed posh at twelve feet high, but the plaster was cracking, which diminished the charm. There wasn’t one thing about it that was fancy.
There was one three-piece bathroom in the house and in it there was no shower. All we had for bathing was an old claw-foot tub; white enamel on cast iron. Not some acrylic remake from Home Depot, ours was the real deal. The taps were white porcelain – smooth oblong levers with the words “HOT” and “COLD” in grey lettering.
The tub was big enough that my two sisters and I could get in it together. And we often did, allowing my Mom to get the job of bathing us done in one shift.
There were no tiles in the bathroom. The tub sat on a cheaply finished floor. The dark red linoleum with strange black swirls was brittle and cracking in places where the underlying floorboards were warped. The bathroom walls were painted blue. The bathmat was gold shag. My mom was no Martha Stewart, but what she lacked in interior decorating skills, she made up for with her loving heart.
Even when the furnace was working, in the dead of winter the prospect of a bath was unthinkable without pre-warming the room with the electric heater. My Mom plugged it in by the sink. It stood on the floor a kilter on flimsy grey metal legs. The elements glowed red, the fan hummed, throwing a comforting heat across the bath mat at the tub.
Mom held a towel up in front of the heater to warm that for us too. She’d hold it stretched out between her open arms and instruct each of us when it was our turn to step out. A warm towel and a loving hug from Mom were worth getting out for – even better than the warm bath itself. I have no fonder memory. The love and care in that gesture filled my innocent heart.
But then we all got Chicken Pox - all three of us – all at once. The bath became a nursing station and although the warm water with Epsom Salts was soothing and the hot towel enveloped me in that wonderful warm embrace, there was a most disturbing final step added to our bath-night routine.
After drying off, my Mom unwrapped me, the comfort of that cozy towel stripped away. My little body, pink from the hot water was covered in angry red pox. In an effort to keep the itching and inevitable scratching at bay Mom applied Calamine Lotion.
With a white fuzzy cotton ball against the open bottle Mom had soaked the swab. Then sitting on the lid of the toilet as I slowly turned on that gold shag mat, she’d applied the lotion to every sore she found. The Calamine Lotion had been cold and smelled funny and the dabbing had been torture on those raised red sores. I’d hated it. Everything about it had been awful – even the colour.
Decades later I still recoiled in disgust from anything that reminded me of Calamine Lotion, even “Dusty Rose” fabric. The colour was too close, too close to a trauma I didn’t want to relive.
In the end my revulsion didn’t cause any trouble. It was a beautiful wedding day. The bride was radiant and we bridesmaids were pretty in our Periwinkle gowns.
Jennifer M. Smith recovered from the Chicken Pox but never recovered from Calamine Lotion. Favouring a blue-green palette, she has lived on the water with her husband aboard s/v Green Ghost, for thirteen of the past twenty-one years while travelling extensively by sail. She currently lives a land-life in Burlington, Ontario, where she works to develop her creative nonfiction and memoir writing skills.
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