Observing life: synesthesia and the birth of Ellen’s Day

I knew that something special had to take place on that day and every July 27 from then on. So Ellen’s Day was born.

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On July 27, 1984, I was at a 4-H summer camp at Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport, Maine. We were doing arts and crafts using found objects, and I had crafted a scene of a sailboat and crashing waves using rocks and shells. I wrote the date on the rock with Crayola crayons and suddenly noticed how much I loved the combination of letters and numbers.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that I have synesthesia – in my mind’s eye I “see” letters and numbers in colour, and some with personalities. This neurological phenomenon was what helped me learn three foreign languages, and has also been useful in endless quirky ways, such as the ability to memorise the last four digits of the social security numbers – the way we were officially identified – of everyone in my army basic training platoon.

My short-term memory knew Private McKelvey as 2356 and Private Van Beck as 7014, just as I see July 27 in an ocean scene of sea green, cornflower and blue-violet.

But on that summer morning at age 12, while admiring both my artwork and the date, I knew that something special had to take place on that day and every July 27 from then on. So Ellen’s Day was born.

Initially I planned to count down to a July 27 when I would be of appropriate marrying age and could choose it as my anniversary date. I figured out that I would be 24 in 1996 – a date that seemed far enough in the future to nail down as a potential wedding date and possibly even find a willing husband.

I imagined myself casually suggesting July 27 to my betrothed, without him knowing I had been coveting the date since I was 12. He’d say: “Sure, Ellen, whatever makes you happy,” and then I would have July 27 to secretly adore for a lifetime, maybe even longer than my beloved. Until then, I decided, I would celebrate it as a day for myself.

“No, it’s not my birthday,” I soon found myself explaining to people, but a day for myself to do something that warranted being done on a beautiful day. I’d take the day off of work and eat lunch at a chic place I’d been meaning to try, or go to the movies and indulge in a chick flick – anything to celebrate this perfect summer day that deserved to fall on a Saturday every year.

On the 1989 edition of Ellen’s Day, as an exchange student in France, I stood on the Eiffel Tower and thought, it surely can’t get better than this until 1996.

But my potential fiance never showed up, the November Rain wedding dress was never purchased, and I spent July 27, 1996 – a Saturday, and surely saturated with happy wedding parties around the world not fully grasping the delightful nature of the date they chose – on my second day of army basic training.

Outfitted in dark camouflage in the hot South Carolina sun, I consoled myself by remembering that I’d have Ellen’s Day annually as long as I wanted to have it, husband or not, and maybe later in the day I could try out my newly acquired hand-to-hand combat skills on a platoon-mate. Maybe even on 2356 or 7014.

The years have rolled on and I did get married, though not on July 27. I am now content to keep the day for myself and not share it with anyone else, not even my husband, who accepts and supports Ellen’s Day and knows it’s one not to plan anything on.

This year, on the 33rd Ellen’s Day, I’m taking the day off work and have a list of exciting Abu Dhabi Summer Things planned. But now I am thinking I might scrap it all and sit by the sea and create a sculpture out of found objects, write the date in its perfect colours and simply treasure these unique gifts I’ll have for a lifetime – one I was born with and one I gifted myself.