The Peach-Colored Crayon

The Peach-Colored Crayon

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

The Peach-Colored Crayon

In the summer of 1958, when I turned seven years old, my mother became active as a volunteer for an organization called the Fresh Air Fund, which provided “summer vacations” (actually a couple of weeks living with a suburban family), for inner-city children, most of whom were black. That year, we had the first of what would be several regular yearly visits from a little girl named Viola, who was exactly my age and lived in the Bronx.

Since the plethora of toys available in the stores was still a phenomenon of the future, all of the little girls in the neighborhood had the same kind of doll. My mother bought one for Viola, and we spent hours playing “house” and “school” with our dolls. My mother went to the five-and-ten store in town and bought a pattern, and sewed several identical doll dresses, one for each little girl on the block. The morning that she finished the dresses, I went with my mother to deliver them. We started at the house next door, and presented the dresses to each delighted child.

The last dress was intended for Celeste, who lived across the street. Her family had moved into the neighborhood only recently, so I didn’t know her very well yet.

When Celeste’s mother opened the door, she just stared at us. My mother started to explain about the doll dress, and held it out to Celeste, who reached for it eagerly. But before she could take it, her mother pushed her hand away. “She doesn’t need it,” Celeste’s mother said firmly. My mother was puzzled. But Celeste’s mother glared at us. “You have no business bringing a Negro child into this neighborhood. ”She slammed the door, leaving my mother and me speechless on the doorstep.

I suddenly realized that Celeste’s mother was talking about Viola. It occurred to me just then that somewhere along the line, I had stopped thinking of Viola as “a Negro child.” The other kids and I had been somewhat suspicious of her when she first arrived, since none of us had ever met anyone who looked like her before. But Viola had certain talents and abilities that quickly endeared her to us: she knew how to braid, and she could jump rope better than anyone on the block, including the two fourth-grade girls who lived at the end of the street. By the second or third day that she was with us, Viola was just one of the kids. But Celeste’s mother didn’t know her the way we did, so to her, Viola was just “a Negro child.”

But that same afternoon was my friend Karen’s birthday party, so I all but forgot about the incident with Celeste’s mother. We wasted no time trying out all of the new toys Karen had received as birthday gifts. One of the most intriguing was a box of sixty-four Crayola crayons. This was the top-of-the-line, most expensive box of crayons there was, the one with the sharpener built right into the box, and we were all envious. Karen brought the precious crayons and stacks of paper out into the backyard, and we crowded around the picnic table, perusing the colors. We marveled over “burnt umber” and “periwinkle,” and the subtle difference between “blue-green” and “green-blue.”

But when we came to the crayon named “flesh,” I looked at Viola. I knew what the word “flesh” meant, and I knew that the name was wrong, but the other kids paid no attention. After all, they didn’t know Viola the way I did. Viola hadn’t lived in their houses, hadn’t shared their bedrooms. And she hadn’t run barefoot on the beach with them, and discovered, as Viola and I did one afternoon, that the soles of her feet were exactly the same color as the sun-browned tops of mine.

I told my mother about this misnamed crayon. “It’s not fair!” I complained. My mother agreed, and, always the social activist, she suggested that I write a letter to the Crayola Company. With my mother’s help, I carefully wrote the letter out in my very best handwriting, addressed the envelope, and put on a stamp.

What I wrote in that letter was the truth, as I saw it, the summer that I turned seven: that “flesh” can’t be just one color, because my “flesh” and Viola’s “flesh” were different all over our bodies, except for the soles of her feet and the tops of mine. I knew that the name of this crayon wasn’t fair to Viola. I knew this because we were friends, and we played and ate and slept and swam together.

I never received a reply to my letter.

Viola came and stayed with us for four or five more summers, until she got too old for the program. My mother stayed in touch with her and her family for a few more years after that, but eventually we lost contact. I grew up and moved away and had my own family. I don’t know what became of Viola.

But when my own daughter turned five, she had a birthday party, and someone gave her a box of sixty-four Crayola crayons. It was the top-of-the-line, most expensive box there was, the one with the sharpener built right into the box. After the party, after I had gathered up all the torn wrapping paper and thrown away the paper plates full of melted ice cream, I opened up the box of crayons. I looked through the box until I found the crayon I wanted, and I pulled it out of the box and held it up. The label read “Peach.”

I don’t know when, or why, the Crayola Company changed the name of that crayon. And I don’t know if my letter had anything to do with that. But I like to think that it did. After all, they say that you can’t really understand another person unless you walk a mile in their shoes.

Or run on the beach together, with bare feet.

Phyllis Nutkis

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners