Windows On My World
I am not a very disciplined writer. I dream, I wonder, I procrastinate. Eventually the muse pokes me into action. My dreams guide my writing. I chew over a thought during the day and dream the resolution through the night. During the Pandemic and our quarantine my dreams have become more vivid, frightening and entertaining. They are testaments to life without masks, six-foot social distancing and the loss of hugs from my dearest friends. My dreams transport to windows of my past. When characters and past lives awaken me in a dream I am compelled to write the scene. I scribble incomprehensible notes written in darkness in the middle of the night. They appear in the morning, a surprise gift on my bedside table. I turn my scattered dream-notes from the depths of sleep and history into stories. And so this story begins, in Brooklyn, New York, 1910.
My grandmother’s words erupted from a recent dream, “Hey, what am I? Chopped Liver?” The quintessential statement immortalized in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of immigrants where my grandmother ruled her home. The true meaning was, "Pay attention to me!”
In this dream my grandmother is walking towards our backyard in Wyckoff, New Jersey. I smile at her complacent, satisfied shuffle as she edges towards the lawn. “Janie, do it for me?” She asks petulantly, in the same tone of voice she always used to address my beloved grandfather, Henry. I set the lawn chair up for her at the edge of the patio under the willow trees. She happily settles down to examine the world.
My grandmother was a voyeur and a master at digging up and sharing gossip. Her throne was the Brooklyn front stoop where she dispensed her subjects with the latest, juiciest neighborhood tidbits. Her telegraph was the clotheslines between Brooklyn tenement windows, where laundry and gossip was aired along with diapers and overalls. Stoop sitters appeared like pigeons on a power line cooing and nodding to one another.
A memory returns to me, bisected by years. It is 1953 and I am four years old. I take in the views with Grandma on the front stoop of the family brownstone. I listened to her as she greeted her neighborhood friends and acquaintances. There were old and young faces, hopeful, sad and those lined with wrinkles matching my grandmother’s. Faces etched with life through years of war, rationing, The Great Depression, plagues and deaths. My Granma looked into the eyes of her friends as she chatted with them. Each woman shared their hopes, dreams and secrets. She touched and hugged those who needed a bit of love or encouragement. Lives, shared on Brooklyn stoops, shouted from tenement and brownstone windows. These stories wind through my dreams and settle in my heart. They are dragged from my past and old photograph albums, forever sealed into my future. Perhaps I inherited my voyeurism from my grandmother, sixty-seven years later. Instead of a front stoop I peer through my kitchen window into the street.
Writers are voyeurs. We eavesdrop, spy and collect stories. We embroider these memories into memoirs, mysteries, histories. During the pandemic and quarantine I have become even more curious. The world outside is my theatre when heat and the quarantine isolate me indoors. I catalogue my views and memories for future stories.
I confess. I spy on my neighbors. I know their comings and goings. One gentleman stands outside his front door at precisely 4pm every day. Others walk, run and bicycle before the heat encloses them in their homes. In the palm tree outside my window the lizards entertain me, inflating the red flap beneath their tiny jaws, announcing how available and special they are. Notice me! Pay attention to me! What am I? Chopped liver? The Cardinals gorge themselves on our front porch feeder. The family of noisy wrens and jays fight within the enormous arms of our 30’ Norfolk Pine. The sleeping doves scatter from their deep dreams when interrupted by loud noises. A very determined and diligent tiny spider builds an enormous web in a large palm leaf. The web is woven onto the edges of the palm leaf like an enormous cup, much like a Venus Flytrap. Every time the wind and rain blow it down he’s back building it up again the next morning. His web is a gift of the perseverance of nature.
I announce to Tim, “The guy across the street just did his laundry. All his tee shirts are drying on the chain link fence.” I lean closer to the window. “There’s the old guy with the two Black Labs. I haven’t seen him in a while and was worried. So glad he’s out walking again.” Tim grunts a reply, walking behind me as I continue to peer through the glass.
I remember a pre-quarantine day when I erupted through our front door racing towards a little girl in her pink tu-tu holding her mom’s hand. They were admiring the purple puffball blossoms at the edge of our lawn. They probably thought I was crazy and was about to complain that they were trespassing. I smiled up at them, as I knelt down and showed the little girl the tiny ferns, decorated by their puffball blossoms. “Look, they’re sensitive ferns. When you touch them, they close up, they move. Just touch the tiny leaves.” She did. Her face erupted in joy, a newly discovered secret, a memory to carry into her future.
Above my kitchen window hangs the antique stained glass window I treasure. It catches and scatters the light, illuminating my prize glass ornaments on my window sill. Colors from this masterpiece splash more rainbows, decorating our walls. This window is one of my most prized possessions and sentimental gifts. It is a magnificent 1905 stained glass work of art. It’s bright colors, ruby red, violet, greens and pinks are set off by the bottle glass borders of this intricate glass portrait.
I remember the day I first saw this window in 1998. Tim and I had answered an advertisement for a shop being sold. At the time we were looking for a place for Tim to teach classes and me to open an antiques, collectibles and “eclectibles” shop. The owner, Fran, was a nationally known and respected wicker repair artisan. Her shop, Frantiques, was up for sale. She was ready to retire. We were ready to begin a new era of our lives. We all fell in love with one another instantly, although none of us realized that at the time. I spied Fran’s magnificent stained glass window. I had never seen a more beautiful one. Perhaps the stained glass colored our decision to buy Frantiques with no quibbling or negotiation. When we arrived home, exhilarated but perplexed, we called Fran. The purchase had been so easy. I said, “Did we just buy your shop for the terms we agreed on?”
“Yes” she said in her lovely Virginia drawl. “You did, deah. The moment you walked into my shop I knew. These two artsy hippie kids are the ones I want to purchase Frantiques.”
Frantiques became Funky As A Monkey Art Studio and my shop, the Funky Bazaar. Fran became my mentor, another mother after mine had departed. That was the beginning of our friendship, the most meaningful of my life. The ending of that friendship was one of my most painful life events.
Fran reached out and touched my hand as she lay dying from ALS but could still talk. “What do you want, more than anything else, that I can give to you, before I die?” We both knew this conversation had been coming for two years. There was no reason to pretend it wasn’t true.
“The stained glass window because it represents our friendship and the day I first met you.” Without hesitation Fran gave me the window. Thankfully, she was able to visit our home one last time to see her window installed.
I love glass with it’s relucent magic, it’s clarity, and shine. Our home is filled with many varieties of stained glass, marbles, paperweights, sea floats and crystal. They decorate each window, nook and cranny. On our marble topped coffee table there is a dish of glass candies we bought in Murano, Italy. The Federal table by the front door holds a glass bowl filled with shells collected through years of beachcombing. The bar is decorated with more glass and crystal, it’s centerpiece an enormous glass apothecary jar my parents bought in Paris in the 1950s. The breakfront is a masterpiece of convex glass, filled with my mother’s china and crystal.
This room is my room alight with color, memories and history. It is a replica of my parent's living room in New York and New Jersey transplanted to Tampa, Florida. The room is lit by windows reaping their harvest of rainbows. Every piece of glass and crystal is a window to a memory. I am cradled in a window to my past.
I peer through my kitchen window and notice a cobweb on Fran’s stained glass which I gently remove. Her gift is another window to my past, burnished by years through times joyous and painful. Nothing can tarnish my memories or the glow of the rainbows throughout our home. Not even a pandemic and a quarantine.