Feeling raggedy

I’m doing some colouring-in, which may or may not be related to my PhD. It could be a simple bit of consolation, something I’m doing to survive this time and feel a bit better about life; or it could be something more specifically connected to the literature. I’m thinking of Terror Management Theory, identity, what we cleave to when the boat of our identity keeps getting rocked, feels like it might capsize.

Well, speaking of boat, here’s one now. It’s a purple boat, coloured over the last couple of days with a purple pencil. Coloured pencils are calm, quiet things. They run quietly over paper. Anyone can pick up and use a coloured pencil. (Well, anyone with a modicum of health and eye-hand coordination. Not everyone is this fortunate. All right! Everything I say must be hedged about. I’m aware of people living without the gift of sight, without the ability to keep a hand reasonably steady over a page.)

We have a boat, a purple boat, coloured using a Cumblerland Derwent Artists pencil (no possessive apostrophe in the gold-stamped lettering down the pencil). There are three figures in the boat (I nearly said two). The figures are Raggedy Ann, Raggedy Andy and an orange and yellow fish (the third figure). The fish has just one eye visible. Its eye looks like Ann and Andy’s eyes. I keep glancing back at my colouring efforts as I type this.

I have to confess – with some shame, perhaps quite a bit of shame – that I went looking for the Raggedy Ann paint-by-number book online. The book was published in the United States in 1969 and somehow a few copies got to Fitzies Newsagency in Carnarvon. I’m assuming this is where Mum bought them, but it could have been somewhere else in town. Perhaps we were with her, urging her on; perhaps she bought them and surprised us with them. It could well have been 1969, which would have made me five years old, or perhaps it was 1970. Every picture in the book was in two versions of the same size: The first was numbered with numbers from one to eight, corresponding to the following colours: red, yellow, blue, green, brown, black, orange, purple. The second image had no numbers. I remember we interpreted this to mean that the first image was to be coloured according to suggestion while in the second you could create your own colour interpretation. But when I found it online, the first version was described as the instructions on how to fill out the “clean” (numberless) version. So there you go.

Dad was surprisingly – crushingly – negative about our colouring books. “Paint by number!” he sneered. He didn’t seem to mind colouring books in general, but paint-by-number was no good because you could not express your individuality. I remember him colouring a page in one of our books – not the Raggedy books – and deliberately running a blue line around the outside of an object – it might have been a car – on the page. He was making a point about not having to slavishly follow the rules. He was a bit like that.

But we loved our paint-by-number books. I never forgot the calm orderliness of colouring in; the calm orderliness of having a suggested colour. The beautiful obedience of it, but a self-chosen obedience. There was a guiding personality out there, somewhere, of the artist who drew the pictures and suggested the colours. I wanted to complete the work for her. It’s only as I wrote these sentences, just now, that I’m getting a feeling for some sort of social connection with the person who drew the pictures for me to colour in. Distant and yet companionable.

I don’t know how long this pleasure lasted. Who knows how many pictures we actually completed. Probably not that many. We probably moved on quickly. I certainly don’t remember a book full of carefully coloured pictures. But even if short-lived, it was an impression. Not a huge or important impression.

I’m thinking of this idea of the importance of “weak ties” and now getting a sense of their strength.

I just went to Wikipedia and had a look at weak ties. Might be the wrong concept entirely. So what do I mean, exactly?

There’s the big-ticket memories of childhood and life, the things that one would assume were important. They are the moments of heightened emotion or significance. I’m standing down near the road outside the little house on the highway and Dad says his father has died. My memory puts this as being after school, just getting home. I say, “Did you cry?” and he says nothing. That’s a significant, big-ticket item. I’ve just gone into Ancestry.com to get the exact date. It would have been Friday, July 21, 1972. Dad’s father was 64 years old at death.

But a colouring book is not a big-ticket item. It is not important, not really, not in the scheme of things. And yet it’s this not important, not in the scheme of things that I desperately, ludicrously, want to reconnect with now. I want it so much that I’ll sift through Google images as if sifting for gold. And, bizarrely enough, there it is. A digital image of a book created almost 50 years ago, all in a day’s work for someone.

Which sent me off on another Google Odyssey. The illustrator was apparently Ruth Ruhman. She illustrated children’s books galore, back in the 1950s and 60s. My Raggedy Ann book came at the height of her powers, or perhaps towards the end of her long productive period. There are dozens of Google images devoted to the illustrations of Ruth Ruhman. They have that gloriously familiar mid-century feel. She was much more than a jobbing illustrator on a kids’ book in 1969. But there’s nothing about her, personally. Why do I need to know about her personally? I don’t know, but I kept trying to find some personal details. A Ruth Ruhman died in San Diego in 2011; whether this is the same person, it’s not clear.

I colour my boat with this nice strong artist-quality purple pencil. Back then, in primary school, I had a metal tin of Lakeland pencils that were slippery and pale on the page. I bought a small tin of Lakelands from eBay. These obsessions have been going for some time, now.

Someone else’s little hands also picked out a purple pencil, or crayon, or got out the poster paints and tried to colour between what are often quite narrow lines. Those little stripy red socks. The tiny strokes for the eyelashes underneath the eyes. I take my black pencil and make those tiny strokes for eyelashes under the eyes, and action replicated around the world at a particular time and then the world moves on.

And now, strange. I can Google and recapture that inconsequential moment, and do it again.

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