University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Melissa Castino Reid

© 2005

A Swatch from Sears

In loving relationships with our life partners, why is it so hard to be honest? And I am not talking about the big topics like sex, money or where should we live. I have recently discovered that paint color is just a small brush stroke on the large tapestry of our committed yet complex relationships.

Case in point: when my husband and I began searching for a house a few years ago, we came upon a kitchen painted with this wonderful, warm Southwestern yellow that we both fell in love with. While we didn’t buy that particular house, we often would dream about that color choice. After we bought our house, my husband went out to find the yellow paint we liked so well to grace our kitchen with its fine warm glow.

When he walked in the door, he handed me the receipt and said, “I found the paint, and I love it. You will too.” I glanced at the receipt, which read “Sears.” That should have been my first clue that something was wrong, very, very wrong. When I was growing up and it was time to decorate our new home, my parents packed the family into the car and headed to a store that sold nothing but paint. Silly me, I thought that everybody did this. Not so. I guess I had always thought of Sears as the place where you can score a lawn mower or a toaster or a showerhead. But paint? This I gotta see.

I pull out the slip from Sears: 2 cans of paint for about 50 bucks. I make a decision then and there to let him try the yellow paint. Honesty and patience play a ping-pong game in my head; today, patience wins. Maybe I am wrong, I thought, maybe it’ll be terrific.

You see, I was raised by my mother: she laid out my clothes – rather color coordinated outfits - on the bed so she knew that I would match. From this, I learned the basics of patterns, prints, and stripes. My husband, a very bright guy, either doesn’t get into matching colors or plain doesn’t care. For example, when my husband found an unclaimed, long-sleeved paisley shirt in our apartment laundry room, he brought it home to add to his eclectic wardrobe collection. But when he puts the said paisley shirt on over the Homer Simpson “I See Dumb People” tee shirt, my eyes bleed.

What do I do? Tell him to choose one but not both? Try to explain patterns of paisley need solid colors around it? Should I care at all to tell him? The ping-pong game starts up in my head again: on one side is hard-hitting honesty (For God’s sake, change your shirt!) and on the other side is plain, old apathy (I think I will just look the other way…); today, apathy wins. So, I simply scrunch my lips together, tip my head back and wait for my kiss goodbye.

At the time, he was in between jobs, so working on the house made him feel useful. So, one day after returning home from my job of teaching, I walked into my freshly painted yellow kitchen.

Picture a room with not a warm, Southwestern glow, but a stark, harsh highlighter yellow, flashing a warning of impending doom. It reminded me of the thin “do not cross” ticker tape police use at a crime scene.My eyes bled once again. But I keep this to myself. At least I try to. I offer vague phrases like, “I see…” “Interesting…” He looked at me and sensed disapproval.

“You don’t like it, do you?”

"I didn’t say that.”

“No, but your body did.”

I was caught. It was true – I did not like it. But I still was willing to try it out to see if I would change my mind, or better yet, he would change his.

In the next few weeks, friends and family dropped by and observed the paint job. They were all honest, either in or out of earshot of my husband:

“Wow. It’s really …bright.”

“And who chose this color?” I pointed at Jim. “I see…right.”

And my mother, the one with an eye for colors and fabrics, took one look at it, pulled me aside and said, “My god, honey. It’s awful. How can you put up with this? And why did he go to Sears? They only have about eight colors to choose from.” That is a funny visual: you only would need one swatch for all eight colors.

Finally, after some time had passed, my stepsons came over for dinner and a round of video games with their dad. I have come to know Seth, the oldest at 21, as one who carried honesty like a sword, slashing his family and friends recklessly. At first, he just wanted to react to things with plenty of F-bombs, but my family and I didn’t flinch. Now, the older he gets, he cuts himself with the sword of honesty much more than the rest of us. So he wasted no time with his comments once he figured out that his father picked out the color for the kitchen.

“Dad, it’s ugly.”

“No it’s not!” my husband replied defensively. “It’s…bright and cheery.”

“Yeah, if you are a mental patient,” said Seth, rubbing his temples from the glare. “And if you were normal before, the paint color could make you scream for the padded room.” I could have kissed my stepson right then and there. Thanks to the brutal honesty of the first-born son, the negotiations of paint color could begin once again.

At the negotiation talks, he wanted a color that was indeed, “bright and cheery.” He named off certain colors, including yellow still. I suggested wallpaper. I discovered he doesn’t like it. How can anyone really not like wallpaper? As if wallpaper was this big threat that would just peel itself off the wall and order you to make it a sandwich.

Armed with the list of colors, including yellow, my mother and I headed to a PAINT store called Hirschfields. We spent an hour and a half sifting through dozens of color swatches, fanning them out like a good poker hand. Our goal was to come up with 3 or 4 choices for Jim and me to choose from; she was careful to guide me, ultimately letting me make the final decision. She didn’t want my husband to think that she forced any colors down my throat. But this color story doesn’t end here.

Another time, it was my birthday. So, I dropped a not so subtle hint that I needed a new floor lamp for my office. Now, while I was busy pointing this out to my husband, I should have listed color choices for the lamp. But with his IQ above 100, I didn’t think it was necessary. All one would have to do is look at my office’s color coordination compliments of Home Depot: the walls are a warm chocolate inspired by a gorgeous border containing black Chinese calligraphy on a cream colored background with hints of gold and beige. One has plenty of colors to choose from.

So, when I walked into my office, after a long day of teaching, there stood my new shiny, silver floor lamp.

“Wow, I have a new….floor lamp,” I said, smiling.

“Yep, there you go,” said my husband, with a kiss. “Happy Birthday!”

With me, I don’t get mad, I simply place whatever it is that bugs me on a mental list under the category of list-of-things-I-will-change-when-no-one’s-looking. One look at that silver floor lamp placed it high on that list.

So five months later, I was cleaning the house getting ready for weeklong houseguests. I swapped the shiny silver lamp for the plastic-and-cheap-but-at-least-it’s-black-and-white floor lamp. When I stepped back to admire my “new” office light, my blood pressure dropped and I instantly relaxed, becoming centered once again.

Later, my husband came home to discover the switch I had made.

“You changed the lamps.”

“Yep,” I said, folding my arms across my chest like Superman.

“You never liked that lamp, did you?”

When I heard this, something snapped. I demanded that he step into my office.

“Honey, where…where do you see ANY silver in this office? Where? Show me!” I asked, waving my arms up at the walls. There was a small pause.

“Well…the hard drive is silver.” The words just hung in the air like cartoon balloons in a stuck in slow motion: The… Hard… Drive… Is… Silver… A funny picture emerged of a commercial where Bill Gates meets Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: Does YOUR office Need a makeover? Just call and we’ll match your lamp to your hard drive TODAY, call us now, operators are standing by…

Ever since these adventures, I have often wondered whether a bucket of paint color contains the lessons of a partnership, love and above all honesty? Oh, and as for the kitchen, Jim did a marvelous job of repainting it, even if he initially didn’t want to change it. Now our kitchen is a bright, cheery green apple color, and no one has checked into the funny farm…yet.