Fall 2004

Colors / Purple

Good culla

Matthew Klam

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

My mother once referred to drunken people on blankets and lawn chairs at our local summer music festival as “commoners,” though we are not, as a family, hung up on our possible connection to crowned heads. Still, when my sister got rushed to the hospital with dire complications in her pregnancy, on the very day when I—stuck in Provincetown, Massachusetts, teaching at a summer writers’ thing—received this assignment to write about the color purple, I knew that she would live and that the baby would, too. As heir apparent, the product of one of the most important women on earth, this child had a lineage to extend, a great life to look forward to, not least of which would be to receive the little purple Barney slippers I’d bought already. There’s a phrase from Roman times, “born to the purple” (because the cost of harvesting purple dye from Tyrian mollusks was so high), and I couldn’t help but imagine this glorious unborn essence as something akin to royalty, an almost divine being who would one day live in opulence.

The shell of Haustellum brandaris, a sea snail from which Royal or Tyrian Purple is produced. Dr. G. Thomas Watters at the Ohio State University informs us: “The snail’s narcotizing saliva helps it overpower its prey, usually other shellfish. On exposure to air, the saliva turns purple and will stain just about anything. The Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians cooked the snails and dyed fabric in the ‘juice.’ The dye was expensive to make and generally could only be afforded by the most wealthy and it eventually became the official color of the Roman aristocracy, particularly the Caesars. When Rome succumbed to barbarians, the color persisted with the rise of the Catholic Church under Constantine and eventually became its official color. The shell has nothing to do with the purple dye—it’s all in the snail spit.”

The semi-dangerous condition in the womb worsened. My sister, my brother-in-law Paul, and my mom went into battle mode—no tears, no rudeness, just warriors. The labor lasted 18 hours, and my mom, who’s not a young soldier anymore, sat up all night in some waiting room, relaying updates from Paul via cell phone. “They put her on Pitocin” … “Pitocin not working” ... “Waiting for the doctors to signal the next move.”

The next morning I tried to profess the joys of a finely tuned phrase, amid lovely ocean breezes, as if that mattered. After class there was still no word. The cell phone died. We waited as that second day passed, and finally they wheeled my sister into surgery. It was evening now, and I walked with a friend to the edge of town and out along the massive stone breakwater that crosses the bay to the lighthouse. Looking back toward the harbor half a mile away, we saw the town’s outline cast in a gauzy plum haze, the faintest tinge of blue turning black, the vaguest edge of darkness visible in the last whisper of light. My friend said, “The air is purple.” The falling sun did a cartoon rhapsodic routine, a perfectly engineered Truman Show of color. The sky, the surface of the bay, and the space between went crazy and everything changed. The western horizon flashed hues there aren’t names for, spectrums of fuschia and creamsicle orange, palest turn-of-the-century-pasteboard baby blue, a vision of light that predates war and Pilgrim landings and medical miracles.

At that moment Paul stood by at the proceedings in the Beth Israel operating room and noticed that the light over the table, that stamen of pure halogen jutting from its mirrored bowl, sent down an extraterrestrial beam onto the belly of my little sister, and when they made their incision, when they cut her open, she bled the sharpest, loudest purple he’d ever seen, something metallic, a color with inner flecks of glowing light, illuminating deeply oxygenated blood. The Cesarean section—named not for Julius Caesar but for a Roman law—did in fact connote the elevation of an unborn child to prominence (if not divinity), because the law charged the doctor to extract the baby regardless of the mother’s condition. Not exactly a comforting thought. And then this girl, four pounds four ounces, our family’s new nobility, this tiny New York Italian-Jewish-Swedish-Catholic princess that the doctor pulled from my sister appeared dead, with a long, pointy head and a pallor Paul described as New York Mets Blue.

“If it hadn’t been my own kid,” he said, “I would’ve run out of the operating room screaming.”

But then the newborn started screaming, and soon after I got the news: The baby was okay! My sister was tired but okay! Everybody’s okay! I felt so relieved, so happy, in love with someone I didn’t know. Of course, my older brother has two little girls I love. I’ve played Magic Candy in their plastic playhouse until my clothes got muddy; they have a made-up name for me, Uncle Dindin, and I have names for them, Sadie-pie, Lily-butt, and I would drown to hold them above water to save their lives, although they’re a little stranger than I would’ve guessed my own brother’s kids would be. They are their mother’s daughters, they eat gummy worms for dinner, but I love them completely. My sister is the last of these few people whom I worship without conditions, and now she had just given me one more.

The gig in Provincetown lasted a few more days, and it was Carnival Week. I was looking for baby dresses on Commercial Street, dodging eight-foot-tall drag queens on rollerblades. Purple is the mascot color of the gay and lesbian movement, the number one choice after the rainbow flag, the default trim of P’town bed-and-breakfast Victorian mansions. There was celebratory purple everywhere. And then, two days later, when I got to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, my sister had made a spectacular recovery. The baby looked hale and pinkish, with red splotches, and my father, drunkenly overjoyed, passed on his highest praise. “She’s got good culla.” It’s a term he uses not for the merely suntanned, but to compliment the glow of an exercised soul. My sister sat in bed in a robe I’d never seen before, bought by my mother for the occasion, pale lavender. The dye job on her hair looked fresh, her face appeared lit from within. Despite the major surgery, the day and a half of labor, the death-defying process she’d been through, she had good culla too.

This baby is the future, she’s the family, she will take the throne.

We, like many third-generation American clans, have a fractured history. My family is Austrian, though the town could’ve been in the Ukraine, between Lemberg and Tarnapol, or Poland. Somewhere in the Hapsburg empire, Klams emerged. Other branches sprang from places I’ve got vague ideas about, Russian warm-water coastal hamlets abandoned in pogrom-inspired flight. The idea that we might come from other than shtetl stock is a long shot, but I’m willing to think that we were barons, we led villages for centuries, we were royalty, or knew royalty, or knew how to act when they came to town, how to converse, not eat with our hands, and we would’ve been royalty if we weren’t a bunch of dirt-farming peasants.

She was born on August 28, 2003. Her name is Violet.

Matthew Klam is author of Sam The Cat and other stories (Vintage, 2001).

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