Purple rain? Sung by a guy with great hair and guitar skills, that is. Yet before that there was another style of music. Those who have good powers of observation know that lavender vinca flowers, hyacinths, irises - all somewhat the color of rain swaying at twilight - those came first. Irises, periwinkle, white, sun-yellow, scented like nothing else in the world for a young nose, they were definitely at the head of the garden. Nobody has made iris - iridaceae - perfume, but they should. It’s unforgettable. I know.
Flesh-colored, naked rain is hers this afternoon, however. The flower battalion has not mustered the troops, the sky only looks down on daisies and white hollyhocks and a jasmine, timid but still smelling silky. Perhaps one of these is responsible for the scene that ensues. A scene that turns her into a human version of a tulip, arms sent upward, like the stamens in the middle of the floral cup, reaching, ready. Rain has created her, she thinks. Little girls think that way sometimes.
And now it is coming down in a stiff mist, determined to soak her into her heart. Suddenly her arms go even further into the air, and she knows she is screaming in delight. Her skin is soft marble, smooth, all lit up by glistening drops, rivulets, cascades. She is a work of art.
There is only one thing. The girl does not like the bathing suit. Like her, it is not very pretty, just functional, inexpensive. She is wondering where the suit had been bought, and when. She hadn’t chosen it. It was colorless. Or rather, not colorless, but the same color as her skin. That made her look naked when she wore it. It was unfair for the rain to be so wonderfully tinted, and in tune with the garden, while she had to remain so bland.
Still, the little girl has the imagination of Picasso. There is a song about purple rain that would have been perfect. If the song had existed back then, that is. It had yet to be written. If she had ever heard it, the little girl would have been belting out the lines, wrapped in chromatic waters, a human rainbow, because colors can do that to people:
I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted to one time to see you laughing
I only wanted to see you
Laughing in the purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain (three times)
I only wanted to see you
Bathing in the purple rain
The little girl thinks it would be so neat if it started raining that color. She isn’t thinking about what the musician Prince had said about the meaning of the rain’s color. She’s just fascinated by the aesthetics of such a scene, you know, how pretty it is. It makes her feel, well… like she’s floating, following her arms. Upward. Which she is.
Her dog is there with her, in the back yard somewhere. Maybe the spaniel has sought shelter from the rain, maybe not, but she is nearby. Loyal. She is like the girl’s sister, the sister she never had.
This all happens in a flash, probably outside of time. There is no further record. It feels like the eyes have been short-circuited. That does not seem fair, and isn’t.
Yet now we see that there is a very old woman. She is likely the one who has recorded the whole image of rain, garden girl. It is vaguely captured on the screen of her memory, which really still there, just a bit foggy. The old woman thinks this fragment of the past, this shard, must have been something good once, if the scene is so old yet has survived. At least it feels old to her. That bathing suit is a really old style. And ugly.
Poor old woman - is she really old? - she cannot recall well, so she has to select a better solution. She makes up her mind - which she still has, contrary to what some think - and happily steps steps back thirty, no forty, years to when her memory was clearer, moister, more insistent. To when decades still mattered and she could distinguish one from another. She finds another room where the past still lives, and enters it with no trepidation. She knows she should do this.
The occupant of the reopened room is a fifty year old woman who is also familiar with rain. She might even be an expert. (That is another story and is about rain in another place, far away.) the old woman knows her memory, this memory, is in good hands.
The fifty year old woman agrees to seek out and capture the image as the old woman has asked her to do. She does it better, yes, but that is because she knows it would not be enough to just watch, that she has to become the girl. That is the only way to recover what is absent. To recover everything, to fill the void, the gaps in knowledge, she must feel it, touch it. To find the wisdom in the little rain dance and the upheld arms, she must hold her head high and sing.
The fifty year old woman thus does as instinct tells her to, and the memory comes alive. It draws close, humming and laughing. The little girl and her naked bathing suit are alive again. They will stay alive, if the fifty year old woman has anything to say about it. The woman thinks as she gathers in all the past breaths, steps, hops, and song. She is there now…
Clearly her mother had suggested the suit so she could go out in the wading pool, or to the lake in Canandaigua. Not so much as that she could go splashing about in the warm July rain. Yet here she is, splashing while wondering about the bathing suit. She was too little to have suggested it, so somebody - she suspected her mother - must have thought a naked suit was cute. (Pardon the rhyme.) I am kind of embarrassed, the girl thinks. She might have thought about the story of the emperor’s new clothes. Maybe she only thinks she is wearing something…
The fifty year old woman notes that the time of day has vanished, that the day of the week has gone the same way, and that it only remotely seems like late July. There seems to be just the enormous back yard with the little girl in it. Safe yard, at least.
This second woman decides she ought to add to the scene and admits it: this girl needs a name, an age, and plants with flowers and rain. The woman sets about creating and adding the needed elements. The grass becomes soft and silky, the gravel driveway is a peril for bare feet, the starlings nesting in their cove on the side of the barn are watching the frolicking suit. The woman doesn’t care if it’s ugly to some people. She reconstitutes the pigment with the iridescence found in Golden brand interference paint (acrylic). Irresistible, optimistic.
The little girl dances forever now, and the fifty year old woman knows it. She has accomplished her task and can pass that on to the old woman, who will certainly be pleased. She passes everything on: the peonies that are six feet tall, the hens and cicks the size of two cauliflowers behind, the crabgrass, the squirrels. She leaves nothing behind. Such a harvest!
Then the second woman turns around, looks at the old woman who has given her the task, and says in a soft voice:
She’s yours again now. Please take good care of her. And never forget she is free. She will be there as long as you remember that.
I won’t forget, whispers the old woman, smiling with an impish gesture of the mouth. Playful. She will call on the fifty year old woman again if it becomes necessary, but for now she is ecstatic to have recovered the little backyard rain bather with her accompanying flora and fauna.
The answer, I won’t forget, is really followed by an I can’t forget that is barely audible. This is not because of frailty or age, but because the old woman has become absorbed in the sea of her thoughts and is busy retrieving what is there. So much.
Now it should have become clear that the old woman and the little girl have become one. This is where it all begins, where they grip the pieces of rain to write another version of the scene. When they both dance in that rain until they drop, giggling as they fall onto silky grass.
This is not madness. It doesn’t mean that the old woman is going to go out in the rain in a skimpy, stretchy, body-colored bathing suit. First of all, she doesn’t have one and, second, she wouldn’t dare to anyway. She was never a lover of swimming (except in the rain) and it’s highly possible that this suit, the first one she remembers, has traumatized her. She has the little girl now to wear it for her.
Still, this is a perfect situation. It allows her, urges her, to go out in the back yard where she now lives. She certainly can put her arms up high like the first time, and… be invisible, naked to the world, young. She can sing and see the flowers. Nothing has changed over the years. Well, that’s not quite true, because everything has grown over time: the girl, the starlings, the exuberant peonies and their ants. The hens and chicks are as big as two basketballs put together, the irises are a jungle, the jasmine is the size of a sequoia tree.
It’s all huge, triumphant, and impermeable to the ravages of rain, which is time. Time, always falling on us, trying to remind us. The old woman chooses not to remember this part, and especially not to believe it. Instead, she recalls, not a song about rain of an impossible, made up hue, but about the same color, only in real clothing.
The old woman thinks. When she is an old woman, she will wear purple. Like in the poem by Jenny Joseph, although she knows that she is not going to be old, ever. She can’t help reciting it, and we can allow her this.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
The old woman doesn’t wear hats, only scarves, but she will get one.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
The old woman doesn’t wear gloves and owns no satin anything, but resigns herself to remedying this lack. She will get a small, very small, bottle of brandy and feels fortunate to have enough money for both that and butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
Except for the last part, the old woman has never done the other things. She will need to practice. As for sobriety, she takes this as referring to seriousness, to a lack of humor and laughter. That is the most important part of the new plan: she needs to laugh, long and hard. Needs to find that funny place and make it funnier than when she was little and shy. She has caught a glimpse of this ability in the ugly bathing suit scene, so knows she can do it.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
This could be the hardest part, the spitting. It isn’t polite to do that. Tiny children do that and they all, except for a few thug types, learn to stop. She might not include this, might substitute some other gesture or movement to express nonconformity. She could paint her house the color of lilacs in June, with shutters the color of those sedum plants that grow tall and have blossoms the color of cranberries.
She will need to look hard to find flowers as big as the ones in the remembered back yard. It is such a forest, so lush, so oozing with wet color, recently applied. She will look for plants that are almost a hundred years old. Those should be sturdy, and tall.
The old woman smiles now, a smile that is never going to fade, thanks to the little girl in her back yard garden and her animal companions. Nobody needs anything more, she thinks. She, the little girl, the old woman. Both of them, together. Thanks to the middle woman, who made it all possible.
The old woman is there still, in her back yard, smiling, singing, arms and head strong as ever. This is what she is saying and what she is hearing. Do not misjudge her.
Que chova, says a voice in another language, wafting in from a far away that is yet to come because the old woman still has much to live. Let it rain!
Any color, naked or not