The Motherload
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The Motherload

Genetics vs Crystal Gayle

My lifelong quest for blue eyes fulfilled in my children.

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

I’m a middle child. We all know what that means. Overlooked. Underappreciated. In between.

I don’t mind. According to a survey by Disney, middle children are 30% more likely to become a CEO, compared to other siblings. And middle children are 60% more likely to become authors. So I have my birth order to thank for my career achievements. The oldest sibling is more likely to become a rock star, though. (My brother did have an electric guitar.)

Growing up, my family stood out in a crowd. But not because of me. My older brother and younger sister both had striking red hair and blue eyes. People would stop us at the grocery store and say to my mom, “What gorgeous children! You don’t see eyes like that very often!” I would avert my brown eyes downward. They didn’t mean me.

“People would pay good money to dye their hair that color,” people would say to my sister. They smiled kindly at me, as I hid behind my seemingly unremarkable brown hair, hanging down over my face.

Around age nine, I found a potential solution to my invisibility. We had a turntable on a shelf in our living room, and on the shelf beneath it was my parents’ album collection. It was behind my dad’s recliner chair in the corner of the living room. I was small enough that I could go sit back there and no one would know where I was. (That part did not help with the invisibility.)

I would flip through the albums. My dad taught me how to place them on the turntable, turn the knob to the right to click it on, and gently lift and drop the needle on the right groove to get the song that I wanted. We had a big set of headphones that you could plug into the turntable. They were so big and clunky on my head that I had to hold them up against my ears, or else they naturally fell to my lower jaw.

For a while I was partial to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, released in the year of my birth. But then I found Crystal Gayle. Her album We Must Believe in Magic was a game-changer for me. First, because of the cover. Her hair was so long, and it was roughly the same shade of brown as my hair. There was no red in it at all, and it was beautiful.

We Must Believe in Magic, album by Crystal Gayle. Released 24 June 1977 on United Artists (catalog no. UA-LA771-G; Vinyl LP)

I became convinced that the title, We Must Believe in Magic, indicated that every song on the album was actually a magic spell. And there it was, the very first song on the album: “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” I figured if I listened to it, my eyes would change from brown to blue. Problem solved! After my first listen, I ran to the mirror to check. No luck. My eyes were still brown. But no worries, I knew enough about magic to know that spells could be tricky. You had to get them just right.

I tried closing my eyes while the song played again. Another check in the mirror and another disappointment. But I had opened my eyes a couple of times during the song, just for a second. It was hard to keep them all the way closed, all the way through. For the spell to work, it must be that I needed to keep them fully closed for the entire song. It took a lot of tries for me to get through the whole song with no peeking. If you think too hard about how you need to keep your eyes completely shut, it becomes impossible to do so. Plus, sitting in my living room with my eyes closed, when my older brother was always around somewhere, was basically the equivalent of a bunny sitting in a wide-open clearing in a jungle full of predators. My brother could strike at any time, and who knew what he would do if he caught me unaware.

Eventually, I made it all the way through the song. I ran to the mirror to check my eyes with great anticipation. Still brown.

I tried other strategies. Maybe I needed to sing along to the song? I learned all the words. Nearly four decades later, I still have the lyrics fully committed to memory. I could probably do a great karaoke rendition of the song without even looking at the prompts. Eventually, I gave up.

Fast forward a few years, and a new solution presented itself in the advertising pages of my issues of Seventeen magazine. Tinted contact lenses from Bausch + Lomb! Finally an upside to my terrible eyesight. I had started wearing glasses in second grade, and by sixth grade, I was angling for contact lenses. My mom said that I could switch from glasses to lenses in seventh grade.

I started saving the ads for the tinted lenses, circling the ones I wanted. Sometimes I strayed to violet (“Purple eyes? That’s weird!” declared my brother) or aquamarine (like the Sweet Valley Twins). But I always returned to blue. I wanted those blue eyes. When the time came to get fitted for my lenses, I was ready. On the drive to the eye doctor, I told my mom I couldn’t wait to finally get my blue eyes.

“Wait, what?” she said.

“The tinted contact lenses.”

“Oh, I don’t think we can really get those. I’m not sure they’re safe. And they cost more.”

I was devastated.

“Well we can ask about it,” she relented.

The eye doctor was not on my side. “Blue? That won’t really work on your eyes. They’re too dark.” And that was that.

Fast forward another 15 years. I met my future husband. “I like your eyes,” he said. “Those flecks of green and gold are really cool.”

Were they? The next time I was alone, I stared at them in the mirror. Maybe they were ok. As we envisioned our lives, getting married, and beginning to think about children, I pictured a future family full of brown eyes and brown hair.

Then we had our first daughter Marion, and she came out with blue eyes. “All babies start out with blue eyes,” people said. “It won’t last.” Marion kept growing, and her eyes remained a deep dark blue. “Is it even possible?” we asked. My husband had brown eyes too. What was that recessive gene thing again?

“If both parents have brown eyes yet carry the allele for blue eyes, a quarter of the children will have blue eyes, and three quarters will have brown eyes.” — Science Daily, 23 October 2006.

Ok, so it was possible, just unlikely. Then along came Audrey, our second daughter. More blue eyes. This time it definitely won’t last, we said. One in four children, we’re not going to beat those odds. Yet we did. Her eyes stayed blue too. I have two daughters with beautiful blue eyes.

Neither of them ended up with my brown hair, either. Audrey has blond curls. And Marion, she got the red hair that I envied throughout my childhood. Now I look at her and tell her, “You know, people pay good money to dye their hair that color.”

I don’t think it comes down to genetic probabilities. I think it’s because of the longing inside me. I wanted those blue eyes so badly that they manifested in my children. I willed them into being.

Or maybe it was Crystal Gayle? Perhaps I did the spell right after all; it was too late to work on me, but every time I sang the song maybe I was storing up blue eyes for all my future children. If I had ten more kids, I’m pretty sure all of their eyes would turn out blue too.



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Kate Eberle Walker

Kate Eberle Walker

CEO of PresenceLearning and Author of The Good Boss: 9 Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. Mom of 2 girls. @eberlewalker