Red is one of my favorite colors, from casual to dressy. My first clothing purchase after landing a job following high school graduation was a red dress. Oh, how I loved that dress. It fit my petite frame like it was custom made—not straight off the clearance rack at a local dress shop. My choice of that bright color made me notice my mother’s subdued browns, grays, dark greens, and muted florals even more. Armed with money budgeted from both of our paychecks, my twin and I coaxed Mama into a shopping trip for new clothes, something she hadn’t done since our father had died four years earlier, and she had to sacrifice to get us through high school.
The three of us rode the Greyhound bus to Merced, a town twenty miles away, to browse shops with dresses appropriate for a widow. As usual, Mama gravitated to the dull colors. And, as usual, she checked the price first.
“Mama, don’t worry about the price. If you like it, try it on. We’re paying,” we reminded her when she shook her head at the cost and hung the dresses back on the rack. A sales clerk took the two selections draped over Mama’s arm. Determined to brighten her wardrobe, my twin chose a collared, high-necked, three-quarter sleeve dress that fell to the calf halfway below the knees when she held it to Mama’s shoulders. It was the style Mama wore, but she shook her head.
“You won’t know if you like it, until you try it on,” I said. The sales clerk nodded her agreement and ushered Mama to a dressing room. She stepped out for us to see the first dress. It didn’t look any better than one she had purchased for a quarter at a rummage sale. She returned to the cube and came out wearing the second dress. It fit a little better but made her dark skin look sallow.
“Try the other one,” we said, almost in harmony like singing a duet for church on Sundays. Again, the clerk nodded.
Mother hesitated as she stepped out of the changing room, her face as crimson as the dress. Her dark brown eyes scanned the aisles to see who might be watching. We showered her with compliments. “It’s a perfect fit. It makes your silver hair shine. Take that one.”
“But…I can’t wear this in public,” she said, her face blushing deeper, like a ripe Bing cherry. Red is…red is…for harlots.”
Later, Mother sat for a portrait, at ease, wearing that flowered red dress. It’s one of our greatest treasures.
I no longer own a red dress, preferring separates. I often pin an inexpensive enameled red dress to my tops in recognition of heart disease among women, common in our family. Today, Mother’s Day, red reminds me of the day late in Mama’s life when she made a bold fashion statement and changed with the times.