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Crayola Colored Memories
by Alita DeBerry




In 1903, the year my mother was born, the firm Binney & Smith introduced their new color crayons, which they made by adding oil and pigments to the black paraffin and stenic acid marking devices they sold. (They also sold chalk and slate pencils.)

Next came the realization that pigments to make colored crayons could be gotten from natural sources, the way folks had been getting them for ages to make dyes

Slate gave gray; metals, like iron and rust, made reds; different types of earth gave yellows and browns. They began with powders, which were pounded, then ground, strained, and finally refined and heated; temperature determines the shades of color.

But Mama, in grammar school, probably didn't have colored crayons, even if available, due to lean financial conditions at home (just as we children had few of these same luxuries).

Oh, the magic from the mention of the name Crayola! I never questioned how they came, their name -- that it was Edwin Binney's mother, Alice, a former school teacher who came up with the name. She combined French 'craie' (chalk) with 'ola' (oily), or oily chalk, and it came to be called Crayola.

Yes, the very name brings memories, even without the lovely smell, even now, opening up old feelings difficult to pin down. Such wonder in the world I had not imagined. Crayolas were the marvel that turned everyday black and white into living, breathing color.

What miracles could be wrought with all the selections of various colors, shades and tints.

Many kids in my day had Crayolas and took for granted the magic they could make. Many others did not. And as a "did not," I looked longingly at those so blessed. In Depression days, money was hard to come by. A No. 2 pencil and a Blue Horse tablet were necessities; crayons were not.

We rejoiced with a few secondhand broken pieces, wrappers gone, that we'd find on the floor, in the hall or on the playground. We'd carefully dust them off and claim them as our own. The collection was drab, at best, but how one longed all the while for soft pastels and bright colors.

In first grade there was a boy named Elwin Ware who always wore dress clothes to school instead of jeans and plaid shirts, other boys' attire. He came in one day with a brand new box of Crayolas, and the oddest thing, which I could not understand, was, he had perfectly good ones yet.

Granted, the old Crayolas were mostly broken, some wrappers missing, and they lived in a big kitchen matchbox, but I would have been delighted with them. Even the new ones, seemed to me, were of no special value to him, just something else to keep up with. So he relegated the broken ones to the bottom of his desk, and after a few days they ended up on the floor.

And there I was, keeping a sharp eye on that box of broken, wrapperless crayons, waiting to see if he'd take them home for back-ups. But no, they were simply disregarded. When Miss Hammon handed out mimeographed pictures to color, Elwin always reached for the new box.

I suppose my longing eyes fell to coveting, for one day, fearing they would be swept out with the trash, I took that matchbox of colors. First and only thing I recall ever stealing. I took them home, but how I explained them to Mama, I do not recall.

No doubt, I lied to cover the transgression -- adding sin upon sin, guilt upon guilt.

And, dear hearts, I lived with that guilt for a long time. And the truth was, had I only asked, he probably would have given them freely.

I tell you this now so you will know life as it was back in thinner times; so you will understand how a little skinny, towheaded child, shy of face, too timid to speak up, could be so hungry for the aesthetic, or artistic beauty, as they were. "Hyacinths to feed the soul," wrote the poet.

Living without such amenities was normal to so many Depression era children. The children with real store-bought clothes, toys and "light bread" seemed the silver-spoon set, just as living in a painted house was a yardstick to measure affluence.

Prosperity, though, finally reached us -- not to the extent of paint for the house -- but it did encompass Crayolas and an occasional store-bought coloring book, replacing brown paper bag construction paper.

I think my book had kings and castles, and I colored each turret and tower and funneled roof a different bright color. Dorothy had a Shirley Temple book, and Dan's, the most wonderful of all, had birds.

Dan's bird book was a book to marvel over and touch with careful hands. Much thought and planning went into his work, as it did all his life. There was much anticipation on our part for the mouthwatering moment he would sprawl on the floor, book before him, crayons all laid out in order. We'd gather around just to watch.

We gazed in wonder at his neat precision, for he stayed within the lines and never went with a color that looked good at the moment, as some little people are prone to do. Much thought went into his planning, and he'd take a while deciding just the right shade of blue or brown or gold to use.

So, as we watched, a mockingbird was transformed into living color, and the old peach tree behind it burst into bloom, almost too fantastic to be described. His work was always as true to life as he and Crayola could make it.

There was a brown house-wren with the merest fleck of black on its back, a chickadee on a bird feeder with snow all around, a red-winged black bird on a cattail by the water's edge, and a blue-jay bullying cardinals at a feeder.

All came together in that book. And when the coloring was finished and done, his pictures were really works of art. Thanks to Crayolas.

Oh, those old Crayola colored memories.

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Alita DeBerry has been writing professionally for twenty years, starting as a correspondent and feature writer for the Memphis COMMERCIAL APPEAL. For most of this time, Alita was also writing a column for several weeklies in the South. Her column has been published in the Atlanta JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION and her travel articles have appeared in several magazines.

Alita has been married to Horace DeBerry (the same man) for almost a half century. She refers to him in her columns as "The Frenchman." They have two daughters--Lisa and Stephanie.

The Deberry family has lived in various states--Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Colorado, California--and then retired to the home place in Carroll County, Mississippi, where Alita grew up. They've now stayed put for two decades.

CLICK HERE to read another of Alita's stories at USADS: "Old Fishing Village."
And here's another: A funeral to remember: Getting there is half the fun!

Write Alita at Scribbler211.



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