My palms had moist beads forming; I blotted them on my proper black skirt. A chilly January breeze circled my legs and the hem fluttered. Only my eyes seemed fixed, as I wiggled my black, suede, high-heeled shoes on coarse concrete. Not even the wind disturbed my staring at the top-left window of the two-story house.
A figure, warm and inside a lower room, seemed shadowy as it slightly pushed a drape to survey me, yet pretended not to be interested.
Squeezing my lids to shut out everything except memory of the rectangle behind that upper corner double-hung window, I envisioned its drapes suspended from velvet-covered cornices; a double bed’s velvet tufted headboard matched. I stood in the street facing the facade yet I ‘saw’ its other two windows and a glass door leading to a small balcony.
Fitting into a Dormer window niche was a sewing machine; I could still picture, in my mind’s eye, traces of lint near the bobbin. A nearby satin chaise longue collected fabric and finished goods. “Funny-looking couch-chair,” I informed the cold air.
Four entry openings were along a single wall. One led to a master bath, another to the main hallway, while the remaining were closet doors. One closet was neat. Men’s suits sat straight on wooden hangers; jacket sleeves were same lengths. All shoes seemed to look alike (but in several different dark colors) and be arranged orderly. I whispered to the winter wind “but neatness is boring, daddy.”
The second closet was a walk-in wild place: long dresses, short skirts, petticoats, wide belts, skinny sashes, filmy blouses, starched shirtwaists, floppy hats, feathered caps, platform shoes, ankle-strapped sandals, tied oxfords, negligees, chenille bathrobes, wrinkled wrap dresses, handbags…one only had to pull the chain on the inside light, close the door, and feel ‘disappeared.’ It would’ve made a hide-and-seek spot except this room, shared by my parents’, was off-limits for that game.
An oil painting of a lovely woman clad in satin and bridal clothes, holding a cascade of calla lillies, occupied a large portion of the wall directly above the chaise longue. That lady, in 1930, didn’t look like my mother planting Victory Garden tomatoes, washing windows, shelling peas, making mustard plasters for congested chests. Where was dad’s bridal picture? Why didn’t fathers have oil portraits? On his tall dresser stood a sepia photo of his dead father. Why did they have one big wall-thing of my mother that didn’t look like her and then a photo of a dead man? Steamy puffs formed as my hot breath hit winter wind when I, aloud, uttered “why didn’t I ever even ask?”
A dining-room-type chandelier, centered on the ceiling, sent flashes of color through prisms when the wall switch was turned on. Rotating balls of small mirrors spinning at school proms produced a similar look.
Small bottles bearing funny names (Prince Matchabelli, Carven, Chanel) shared dressing table space with tinted atomizers and tortoiseshell comb/brush sets. On a velvet, backless bench before a beautiful gilt mirror suspended over these vials, I pretended glamour. All I ever saw my mother do there was brush her hair. She always smelled good but I thought that was just her smell. My father’s top drawer had a distinctive woody, pipe-tobacco scent.
“Can I help you,” the shadowy figure opened the front door and called out to me. “What is it that you want?”
“Thanks. Nothing. I used to live here,” I answered, hearing my own voice echo. Was time, when my family moved inside and made space into extensions of personality, as long ago as the calendar reminded? My brain hadn’t processed passage of years.
As the door latched, and I was aware I must have looked suspicious standing on a sidewalk just staring at another’s house, I mentally recited decades-old dialogue with my mother:
“What’s that?” I asked.
“What’s it do?” I wondered.
“Why isn’t it called a ‘fume spray’?” I insisted.
“I don’t know. It’s called an atomizer.”
“Why’s that door different?” I continued.
“That’s called a French door and leads to the balcony.”
“Why’s it French?” I persisted.
“That’s just its name. Because of the way it opens.”
“Can I go outside it?” I queried.
“No. I’m afraid you may fall from the balcony.”
“Why?” I annoyed.
“Because it’s high up and you’re small.”
“When I’m big, can I go on the balcony?” I questioned.
“What’s that?” I noticed.
“My shoe hassock.”
“Why’re your shoes in that and daddy’s in his closet?” I pestered.
“It holds them in satin padding. Only my good shoes are inside.”
“Do you have bad shoes?” I wouldn’t let go.
“No. Those are my dressy shoes.”
“Like my patent leather?” I provoked.
“Why are my patent leather in my closet then?” I demanded.
“Enough questions, Lois.” My mother adjusted her hair in the mesh snood and we left the room.
Snowflakes dropped and I extended my tongue to capture one. The action made me smile. I nodded my mature head to the cross panes of glass, saying goodbye, and glanced at my wristwatch. In a couple of hours, a shared granite headstone would be my parents’ headboard. But for this moment, as my eyelashes felt lace snowflakes touch them before becoming fluid, my mind was filled with the past-familiar of another space they once shared.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Palo Alto Review.
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/photos/memorabilia are in major museums, including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.