When I was ten years old, my dad drove down the street toward the new house he’d bought for us. As we approached, I remember thinking, “Please don’t be that green house — not the green house.” But it was no use. Dad had bought us a house clad from roof to foundation in mint green aluminum siding.
“It’s not that green,” he argued. “Maybe it’s a little greenish....”
The house was definitely green — green like a crayon right out of the box. It was green despite Dad’s insistence it was brown.
I’m not sure why I never worried about it. I guess I thought my dad’s approach to green objects was just an adorable quirk or a running gag. And then, years and years after we sold the green house, I finally started to realize my dad wasn’t just quirky. He had a sex-linked genetic defect. The receptors in his eyes that are supposed to distinguish the colour green from all the greys and browns in the world don’t work very well.
Even though my father has a genetic colour deficiency, I can see green as well as anybody. But as I sat in the optometrist’s office with my fourth-born, I learned I was a carrier for colour blindness. The doctor’s assistant was showing my little son pictures from a book I couldn’t quite see from across the room.
Every few pages my son would look away and say, “I don’t see anything... just dots.”
“Tell the lady what you see,” I mothered.
“He’s actually doing fine,” the assistant told me. “These are the colour deficiency tests.”
I had a flashback to my old psychology textbooks. The book she was showing my son was full of Ishihara slides. They’re those mosaics of circles arranged to form coloured numbers.
“When he says he can’t see anything,” she went on, “he’s telling the truth.”
After growing up in my dad’s green house, I shouldn’t have been shocked. But I was. “Are you sure?” I stammered.
There was nothing to do but go home and find some online Ishihara slides.
One by one, I called the rest of the boys to the computer to take the test.
The firstborn came rolling his eyes. “I am not colour blind.” He shouted out the answers, clicking through the slides as fast as he could.
Then it was the second-born’s turn. Two slides into the Ishihara test, he started to panic. Five slides into it, he was despondent. He slumped forward and hid his face in the bedspread.
When he left the room, I stayed and cried. I cried even though nothing had ever happened outside the Ishihara tests to make us suspect he couldn’t see green very well. It wasn’t like he’d just taken out a big, fat mortgage on a mint green house. But both he and I were feeling the loss anyway.
So there it is — the holy grail of gender research, a real sex-linked neurological condition — colour blindness. It’s right here in my family.
Am I feeling smug, as a girl who can handle bad genes without being impaired by them? Am I glad it’s my boys who manifest the bad gene when it can’t even touch me? Isn’t that what the search for neurological sex differences is really all about? Isn’t it an arms race for social dominance? Sometimes it’s a race for greater mathematical aptitude or language skills or anything we could use to keep the opposite sex subordinate. And at other times, the race is a rush to the bottom, to a comfortable, lazy place padded with excuses, where no one is expected to work too hard to make life better for anyone else.
Of course it doesn’t make me happy to know two-fifths of my kids can’t use colour cues to tell spinach pasta from whole wheat pasta. There’s no victory for womankind in that. Instead, there’s grief and apologies.
Sorry boys, all this time The Finder has actually been The Carrier.
Here’s the truth about our misleadingly sexually dimorphus species. There is only one human family. It’s not unlike my family.And in my family, what weakens any one of us weakens all of us. My sons’ bodies — their shortcomings and their superpowers — are inseparably connected to my flesh, to my soul. No matter how well I can see, my sons’ deficiencies don’t give me an advantage worth gloating about. Instead, they tear me to pieces. There is nothing to be gained in asserting our biological superiority over the opposite sex. However, there is much to be lost.
And maybe I will go easier on my sons the next time they can’t find something — but only if it’s something green.
© Jennifer Quist, 2013
Jennifer Quist lives, writes, and harangues her five young sons with Feminist polemics in central Alberta. Her debut novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death, will be released by Linda Leith Publishing in Fall 2013.