Clean windows remind me of home and my 12 year-old self. At our house, window cleaning was an annual production for my mother and my sisters and I, although truth be told my sisters and I were often less than willing helpers. The brightening skies and fleeting warm weather of spring beckoned us out and stirred our need to venture not just outside the house, but out of the neighborhood. Our bikes begged to be freed from their moorings in the garage, where they had leaned on one another for support through the long gray days of winter. School was drawing to a close and friends from our block would come calling at the door, singing out my sisters name and mine. A gang would form down our street as each stop yielded up one or two children, the choir growing to six or eight before reaching our door, third house from the end of the street. My sister Rose and I knew who was gathering from several houses away, the thin pretty voice of our friend Annie, the boyish bark of Rachelle, the deep timbre of Olga’s syrupy voice. Even our dog would raise his curly black head when he heard the advance, tail thumping the floor in anticipation. What a strange lament we had created, seemingly out of no one persons doing, never discussed or planned, it just came to be. Someone stepped onto a porch and cried out, “Annie, Annie”. And then there would be two, “Shelly, Shelly” until a demanding song from a four foot tall choir rang out at our door, “Rosie, Rosie” but we were through the door before they could finish the verse. We were off and running and only the glow of the streetlamps would bring us back.
But for my mother, window cleaning was a resurrection of sorts. A throwing open of the doors to scatter the melancholy that settles into a home during a Michigan winter. It was her own spring catechism and it heralded a whole series of spring and summer sacraments, the hanging of laundry in the backyard, the rolling back of the pool cover and subsequent dredging of leaves from its depths, the tying of small metallic strips of paper to the stems of her sour cherry tree to scatter the early robins. It coincided with my father starting tomatoes and and fertilizing the raspberries in the backyard. It followed on measured steps behind Easter morning like a bridesmaid, when the dogwoods would be in blossom and often the last small flakes of crystalline snow would perch on their petals. My sisters and I would pile into the station wagon, careful of the hems of our dresses and ducking to keep the wide brim bonnets perched smartly on our reddish-blond heads, off to Easter Mass to shed the shackles of Lent. It would commence when the last of the hot crossed buns were eaten and it would last several days. Window cleaning came before the rising temperatures of May that would dry the cleaner before it could be wiped clean, leaving stubborn streaks across the glass. It was a harbinger of the planting that would come soon, delicate pentunias and bright marigolds that my mother would border her domain with, kneeling gently on one knee with a trowel in one hand and using her free hand to wave off the black cocker spaniel dancing at her feet in search of attention.
We would recognize its coming by the way she looked out the window at supper, silently counting in her head a string of reliably warm days. The gathering would begin, newspapers that usually gathered in stacks in the garage waiting for a school paper drive would collect in the dining room. An old sheet or my dad’s old work t-shirts would perch on the edge of the couch to be cut into tidy squares twice the size of her delicate hand in the evening. The scissors would snip away while we huddled around the tv or sat at the table finishing the last of our homework assignments, my father dozing off with his long legs stretched out before him and his calloused hands folded across his lap, the dog by his side, black muzzle resting on his pantleg.
Soon she would bend to the task of polishing the glass to gleaming perfection, giving her a perfect view of the outside world from a vantage point at the dining room table. When the work was done she could sit with a cup of tea in a rare moment of repose and look past the flower bed to her two youngest daughters playing kickball with the neighborhood gang. Her eyes would dart up and down the street when she heard one of us call out “Car” and scatter like starlings to the curbs until the car passed.
Window cleaning is on my mind today. The pandemic has as sequestered at home, businesses are closed, even church gathering forbidden. I am hosting an absurd number of conference calls online these days. During my most recent call, reflected on the screen infront of me, I caught the smudge of dog kisses that fractured the light coming through the bottom panes of the french doors leading into my office. My youngest terrier considers herself my personal assistant and insists on joining me in the office. Her plaintive whining and scratching at the french doors never fails to win me over and she spends the afternoon touring my desk, curling up in the discarded office chair that kills my back to sit in and brings me regular gifts of business cards and discarded receipts she roots out of the recycle box. I log in to my task tracking app and add Clean Windows to my weekend to do list.
I did not inherit my mother’s cleaning skills naturally, but thankfully she did take the time to teach me. No harsh soaps or detergents on glass because it might scratch the surface. A simple mix of white vinegar and warm water strong enough to itch the inside of my nose into a sneezing fit. I rummage our closets for fodder for several soft cloths (an old shirt from a 5K run years past, a flannel sheet that refuses to remain tucked in anymore) and rob the basket by the woodstove of a few pages of newspaper.
First the screens would have to come out. As a child we stacked these alongside the house where my father usually parked his beloved brown Ford pick-up truck, loaded down with a treasure of tools he used for his Italian tile and terrazzo business. His tile mosaics and marble floors graced the entries of buildings, fine dining establishments and posh homes from Grosse Point to Birmingham. As a grade school student, our classes would occasionally field trip to various Detroit area landmarks and I would recognize the perfect cuts and even caulk lines as we trudged single file through a foyer or inner sanctum of halls of government and historical homes. On summer weekends, my father would retreat to the driveway after Friday dinner and set to removing his tools from the bed of the truck and arrange them carefully in his shed and sweep out the bed. The truck had a bedcover, gray metal with windows on all sides. Into the back of the truck would go a full size mattress, blankets and pillows and a peach packing box of books and crayons and musical instruments. He would stock his glove compartment with mints and a deck of cards and shake out a quilt from a chest in the basement to cover the bench seat infront where my mother would sit. Bright and early in the morning, we would pile in to the truck. My mother and father in the front listening to NPR and my sisters and I in the back, a tumble of long legs and bare feet stretched out on the mattress, battling for space or lying head to toe. Usually we were headed for Canada to visit relatives but less often, a brown Coleman pop-up trailer would follow behind as we trundled off to a campground somewhere in northern Michigan or Minnesotta. We tumbled around, read books, napped, ate the nuts and fruit my mom had packed and when we bored of each others antics, we slid open the narrow window that communicated with the front cab and listened to the radio with our parents or begged for mints. My dad would feign that he had forgotten to pack any candy until we groaned and begged to stop. When we slipped outside the city limits, I would take my position at a side window and scan the countryside for any sign of horses. A few here, huddled together in a small pen beside a gray barn. A group of mares and foals scattered over a green expanse. A muddy group of ponies running toward a barnyard where someone was carrying out hay to a low wooden feeder. My favorite would be the farms where a horse or two grazed alongside a small group of cattle or sheep or when I would catch sight of someone near my age smartly trotting across a dirt ring on their horse, hair spread out behind them. Those trips sometimes ended with the pickup truck pulling into the driveway of my Uncle Johnny’s farm and I would blast out of the back of the truck bed and sprint to the field where my cousin’s mare Babe stood lazily swatting flies and a little black pony named Nipper raised his head and pondered whether this visit would require biting or kicking.
But when my mother had deemed it time, she whipped into a frenzy of airing out the house and my dad’s Ford was regulated to the curb. My father would be stationed in his driveway, hosing and scrubbing the window screens, watching as a graying stream of water and a few crisp corpses of flies meandered down the the sidewalk and to the sewer drain. My mother would be lining us up like soldiers and passing out assignments. It was critical that the cleaner be sprayed thinly over the glass and then quickly whisked off the surface with a clean rag. Someone would come behind that with a second rag to rub the surface free of streaks. If the window needed to be done twice, repeat the steps, no skipping. When rubbing, start in the upper left corner and work across the glass, repeating this in overlapping strokes to the bottom of the pane, never bottom to top. The final step, the window-cleaners piece de resistance, the secret weapon in my mother’s cleaning arsenal was a balled up piece of newspaper. We painted small slow circles across the glass with the newspaper, the siren squeek of paper on glass sending our dog under the bed and our cat to the neighbors yard.
Only yesterday I learned from my dad that the newspaper wasn’t to clean the glass but that the ink from the newsprint made the glass sparkle. It was the halo to crown my mother’s efforts. It created the glint off the glass that made her eyes sparkle in delight and our visiting aunt’s click their tongues in admiration.
I was in our farm garden, skyping with my mom and dad. They have been nearly 11 weeks in quarantine now. They are both in their 90’s, healthy and doing their best to stay that way. My daddy’s hair has grown over his ears and he is sporting a proper beard now. My sisters deliver groceries to the porch after carefully wiping them down and talk to my mom through the mail slot. I dream about that one night, that I am sitting on our little porch at home, my back against cool red brick with my sisters, my mom sitting on the tile floor of the foyer, leaning into the door so she can peer through the mail slot at her daughters, lined up outside like prisoners on the wrong side of this thing.We can’t go in, they can’t come out. Their yard has become their world, they can wave across the street to the young family that recently moved in, their three young children mystified by why they can’t go over to hear my dad play harmonica for them or eat muffins at the breakfast table with my mom. My mom smiles into her tablet from her living room chair and fiddles with the camera, my dad leaning on the arm of the chair behind her, one hand occasionally drifting across the silver hair of her head affectionately, absently. These calls have become a ritual for us both, I take them on virtual walks around the farm so they can see the horses, the trees and the rhododendrons in bloom. They come with me to work in the barn aisle, to see the coop that my husband has built for the hens from the safety of their living room. I am showing them the peas in the garden that are flowering and pulling weeds as we talk. There are tomato starts to put in the ground and I ask my dad about tying up the fig tree that is starting to lean precariously. He tells me that his tulips are done and it is time to decide if he is going to dig up the raspberries or try for another year. The soil has grown old and tired, he says, the irony doesn’t escape any of us. For the last 60 years my dad has worked it into rich black beds, but he isn’t sure he has the desire now. My sister usually brings him compost from her and her husband’s two horses but with the travel restrictions, she hasn’t visited in weeks and nobody can get to the nursery anyway, its been closed since the Governor declared a stay-in-place mandate.
I am reminded of my office windows. I ask my mom if she will be hiring someone to do the windows this spring and this is what leads us to talking about the best ways to clean the windows and to my father explaining the purpose of the newspaper.
After our call, I gathered my cloth and cleaner and newspaper. We haven’t bought a newspaper in years, gleaning all we need or want to know about the world news from the screen of our smartphone or computer screen. The only paper is a local store circular. I don’t think schools even have paper drives these days. I head for the French doors. Spray, wipe, rub. Spray, wipe, rub. I take my time doing one side of the pane and then going to the other side of the door to clean the opposite side. Then I go back and forth to find the streaks or smudges, leveling my gaze alongside the glass. It is mindful work, slow and deliberate. I miss my sister’s help.
Windows speak to me on a deeper level than a mirror. I have been looking through windows more and more of late, stationed at home as we are, hidden away from the coronavirus. I look out and count the blessings I see, the massive black figure of my horse grazing in our front pasture, the two statuesque cedars framing the grass field beyond where deer cross in the evening and coyote follow behind once the moon has sent the sun to bed. There has been a progression of growth since the start of the stay-in-place order. My front yard has paid no heed to the halt of activity that is evident in the streets of town. My front yard marches on, blissfully unaware. The bare Japanese maple has covered its crooked bones with a spring frock of dark rust colored leaves. The narcissus, also fans of their reflection, have come and gone, as have the daffodils and tulips. Noone had to tell them to stay in place, they held their ground as they always do and bent to the prevailing wind as needed until their time passed. They have been replaced in the deck pots by the rosemary and chives. The dandelions are busy shaking their manes loose on the breezes. Poppies bob their heads, just like I find myself doing late afternoons when there are no errands to hurry off to and nobody coming by to sit outside and share a meal or a glass of wine. Several of the rhododendrons are ablaze in blooms, while the others have begun to shed their sticky petals, which appear on our tile floor, traipsing in to the house on the pads of our dogs paws.
I am rubbing the cloth on the glass when it occurs to me why I prefer windows to mirrors. My husband has just walked into the room, drawn by the long sonorous whine of the glass singing under my ministrations. He looks perturbed for a moment, he is assuming I have locked my personal assistant in the office again and she is whining to be let out. When he sees me worrying away at the glass with my cloth, he smiles, standing a little longer than needed. He steps closer to the pane and looks through it at me, holds my gaze for a bit. Says nothing and everything in his constant way. I see us, myself and him, at the same time, overlapped, blended, separate but together. We are looking at the same thing but we are seeing it differently. It causes me to reflect on this moment in time in a new way. This new world insisting we look out at it through the paradigm of disease. For some, the view is terrifying, bleak, miserable, the glass permanently cracked. Others struggle to see through the clouded glass and feel stuck, uncertain about what they can’t quite see. Still others are looking for a silver lining, trying to see the light beyond the dark, peering into the now to try to see some glimpse of the yet to be, what people insist on calling the new normal.
All of us are looking out, but it seems all of us are seeing something different. We are separated by this disease, and yet we do see one another now, more than before. We are finding new windows, on our computers, between us and our teller, our grocery clerks, our barista. Some of us are staring directly into the window, hands alongside our eyes to narrow our view. Others glance sidelong at the glass, checking for shadows that blur all that there is in this. There are even those who would have you believe that they are offering you a window but thrust a mirror infront of you instead, have you believe in a picture they are creating behind the scene as if they were the Great Oz.
There is another reason I like windows. Yes, they remind me of my mother and a simpler and carefree phase of my life. Yes, they allow me a view of the beauty I am surrounded by on my farm and in my home. Yes, I feel deeply satisfied as I look through this clear firing of sand that I have polished clean until my view, at least, is crystal clear.
But more importantly, windows remind me that I have been looking into windows for as long as I can remember, the windows on the house of a soul. For the one other place where I can look and see both myself and the other, looking from the other side back at me is in the eyes of animals.
In the soft eyes of my horse, shining onyx from behind a mantle of long black lashes as I lean on his shoulder and he twists his neck around my body in a hug that brings us eye to eye.
The green eyes of our cat imploring me as he laces himself between my legs, tail ticking lazily in feigned interest.
The swirling flecked bronze eyes of my goats that spin with laughter and mischief.
The languid brown eyes of our oldest mare, who spends half her time on this side of the window in our world and half on the other side checking out the real estate and maybe looking for her next home and her former friends.
The extinguished light, flickering like a flame in a breeze, from the eyes of my heart dog as I cradle him in my lap, hold my breath as he takes his last in this form, in this life. His wise but pained gaze replaced by a youthful far away look as his soul spills out across the room and spreads itself into every corner of my life and my world, constantly reflected back to me in moments and surprise spaces.
I hope I take one thing into my new and changed life after this virus loses its hold on our collective pysche. I hope I remember to look into the eyes of others I meet with the same curiosity I feel when I look through windows. That I remember that they see me too. That they may see a different world than I but that we are not separate, there is no pane that separates us. That I can look at things directly or sidelong and the view will be different, and that it is okay to look at the same thing and see different things, as long as we look through it together. That I pause. To reflect.