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Rain of Gold Leaves
I could not have known 45 years ago that the image of falling gold leaves would be a moment of epiphany.
It had appeared, fleetingly, as an image from an old film seen as a child in Germany. In the film, of which I remember nothing, was a scene in which a little girl is smiling upwards at a rain of small gold leaves. These leaves are about the size of pennies. Wait. It’s coming to me now. She is an orphan, penniless flower girl and these round gold leaves, falling by the millions in a gentle rain, are turning into coins which she catches in her apron. I didn’t care about the coins. The one frame of the film that stuck in my mind was the leaves, and her happy face turned towards them. They are like aspen or locust leaves, very small. There is no wind, perhaps a barely perceptible breeze, the leaves are falling by themselves. The film would have been in black and white but I saw this moment in color. It flashed in my mind every so often over the years, like a first memory.
I had just come to the nursing home to see my father. After an absence of two weeks I was shocked to see him asleep, as if dead, with no blanket, a washcloth across his loins, gaunt as death in a darkened room.
The family of the patient in the window bed always keeps the privacy curtain pulled between the beds, shutting out the light from my father’s side. He had probably been left lying in darkness the whole time. Upset, I had them get him up, dressed, into a wheelchair, I grabbed it and pushed him out into the courtyard, into the sun.
You just can’t trust these places, I thought angrily, to take care of someone. Their idea of taking care of someone was writing down things about him, how many cc’s of liquid he drank, his mood, his diet, medications. The staff always seemed to be in the act of writing lengthy dissertations. They were nice, friendly people, you couldn’t call them mean, but their idea of their job did not include actually interacting with the patients. If he was in his bed and alive that was enough.
I cursed myself for not coming more often. It was hard to do, to see him that way. But then, I was thinking of myself. It was hard for ME. Now, I think of him. This shift of focus took so long that I lament the lost years. He sits in front of me now, unable to respond, unable to see me, probably, with his eyes all glued up. What he means to say and what comes out are unrelated. What holes my words fall into, in his mind, I cannot know. We sit in the sun, a hot afternoon in October. He always loved to sunbathe. He is turned to face the sun. He lifts his face to it. All the intervening years wasted by my focus on what he thought of me, that I was not what he’d envisioned, I didn’t think he could understand me. His judgments were conscribed by pre-war Polish orthodoxy. He had no secular education. What I wanted and what I did probably angered him. But he was helpless to stop me. So many years of superficiality in which I didn’t embrace him. So sunk in the myopia of what he thought of me that I didn’t think of him, who he was, what he’d done, what he’d wanted. That’s the problem when you’re self-centered, the time goes by and you’ve lost oceans of love. It was there, underneath, but neither of us let it bubble up to the surface. Once every few years we would hug and say “I love you,” usually in desperate moments.
Now, as he sits helpless in the sun I embrace him. Tell him I love him. But what am I doing about it?
Even though the nursing home is on my way home every morning after I drop off my 7th grader at a school across town, even though I could drive right past it, it’s only 8:00A.M. and I don’t have my make-up on. We leave the house at 7:15 but I can’t lift my head till 7:05, so the dash is made in sweats, no make-up, uncombed, in short, a wreck straight from my bed, with the dog along for the ride, tall as a passenger in back. Being seen by others is not on my agenda. Again, it was, how do I look, never mind that I was seeing him at his worst. I need to get back home, speak with my husband before he leaves for work, shower and get ready for the day. Running like a scarecrow into the nursing home is not in the plan. And the afternoon pick-up drive isn’t perfectly suited either. One, because I have my son with me who might be frightened by all the decrepit people, and two, after lunch they put the patients down for a nap until 4:00 and you’re going by at 3:30, the boy has tons of homework and you don’t know what you’re fixing for dinner, again you’ll have to hit the store. You don’t want to get caught in rush hour traffic and you’re just dying to get home so you can have a drink or a smoke or a bathroom break.
Maybe I could see him in the morning if I either got up earlier or didn’t care how I looked. Maybe—maybe I could overcome my fears of what condition I’d find him in and just BE there. Maybe I could find the strength somewhere to come every day. Maybe there was a way to improve the quality of his life.
His radio had been stolen, along with all the stuffed animals I’d brought, like he used to bring for me. I resolved to replace them, alerted the staff that I wanted the privacy curtain open to increase the light, and decided to stop every morning and open it myself if necessary. I would cover his walls with pictures and have flowers. I would ask them for a window bed, as I’d done a dozen times before, but this time I would talk to the right person, and demand it, as soon as one opens up, of course. And in the window I’ll put chimes and on the sill, flowering plants. I would create a cozy little world, facing south to get the winter sun. If they would stop stealing his things I would even bring my needlepoint pillows. I see stained glass medallions on the window. Pieces of quartz crystal on the ledge. One big piece, triangular, set with the pyramid pointing up. I will pour cosmic energy back into him. I will heal him, he who adored me when I was a child, whom I lost in a strange country, where we became strangers to each other, until now. Now, when he’s all but gone.
In the courtyard the sun has become too hot. We move to the shade. An imperceptible breeze cools the skin like a silk hand and a few windsocks, filled with light, blow rainbow streamers. After an hour he finally speaks.
“But I have nothing,” he says.
“You will get everything back and more,” I hear myself utter. I feel like an angel talking to Job. My father, too, has lost everything in these seven years. And like an angel’s edict, uttered with conviction, we both believed it too. I would have old black and white portraits of his mother, wife and children enlarged and mounted. I would do everything I vowed. I would tear open the curtain every morning and flood him with sunlight. I would. I would. It was in my power to do all these things, to get him a haircut and a manicure, to get some dentures made, to buy him socks and undershirts and royal blue sweatsuits. I would get him white shoes. My mind was reeling with my new-found powers. I could change his world. I could affect things. I could not bring him back, not completely, but mostly, I had the power to resurrect him.
At that moment there was a shower of gold leaves from a locust tree we sat near. A locust tree, like a mimosa, has fronds composed of tiny leaves. When they fall they separate like confetti. They were just ripe for falling and seemed to be falling all at once and the air and the light and the drift of gold was exactly the image glimpsed over the years.
This is the moment which prefigures the memory.
The Window Washer
Al Luftman drives around town in a car strapped with ladders and washes windows. He is thin and stooped, with black curly hair and a tanned deeply lined face. When he isn’t outdoors washing windows, he is on the slopes. He earns just enough to live simply and ski. He had skied in his native Austria before the war. When he was 14 years old, his father sent him, with his mother and sister, to the States via Brazil, before the Vesuvius of the Third Reich erupted. Somehow his father never made it out. He had arranged 4 visas but gave the 4th to his daughter’s fiancée. From there a relative got them to the States. Once here, the family arranged a visa for him and sent it, but he never got it. They received an ever more frantic series of letters. When they went to the consulate they were told another visa could not be issued because the first one had not been lost but used by him or someone else. In his last letter he said he was being sent to a concentration camp. They never heard from him again.
Al Luftman grew up on a shady street of small brick houses and has somehow not amounted to much. But with the face of an eagle his eyes have that calm steady gaze, where you know that washing windows, at the age of 64, is alright with him.
His old battered station wagon, which seems to have been squashed by the ladders, can be seen in some of the best neighborhoods. In The Highlands, where he has many clients, primarily from word of mouth, stand houses of two and three stories with open atriums and windows out of anybody’s reach.
There is one house where, although his rates have risen to $150, he continues to do the windows for $75, even though it has the most glass of any of them, and this is why.
This house seemed to contain the answer to a mystery he’d lived with for many years. It was a huge cedar structure, set into an aspen grove and had a large tree-filled yard obscuring everything else. He comes here twice a year, in spring and fall, and each time he feels closer to grasping the truth.
He greets the lady of the house and sets to work. First he moves aside all the geraniums, which the windows are packed with. They are all bright red, the size of fists, bursting and radiant. The plants are large and in heavy pots, and there are many, up against every window. He always moves them first. He doesn’t mind. They remind him of the geranium-filled windows of his boyhood home. He managed once to go back to Vienna. There, geraniums also stood in every window.
After he moves the geraniums, he carries in his ladders. He begins in the dining room. The space is angular, two stories high, a right triangle of light.
Al loves this room. It’s warm and bright when he tackles it early in the morning. With windows on three sides and facing east, like a large greenhouse.
This October was buried in a sudden snowfall which brought down half the leaves. All night the storm whipped the houses, even outdoor dogs barked in fear of the wind lashing the trees.
This morning, it’s already 40 degrees at 7:00 A.M. The room is alight. At the top of his ladder with his supplies he begins to spray and polish the glass, wiping off dust, grease and film.
He sees the aspen, most of their gold coins brought down by the snow. The few leaves left are shot through with light. The frozen snow is starting to melt, falling like rain from the trees.
The rooftops of neighboring houses cannot be seen. He loves this house, it’s like a chalet in the mountains, where he has once been. He is content as his arm circles the glass. The scene touches some secret place within and opens it up. A gold key clicks in a dark lock and a door swings open.
He goes through it, back to his childhood where trees dripped water and mountains stood white against a cloudless sky. He is in a place somewhere in or near the mountains. The house looks like a chalet. He’s about 14 years old. He concentrates. It seemed to him a perfect place, cool as only mountains can be with their melting snow and rushing stream. He works his way around the house.
From the top of his ladder he can take a good long look at the mountains. The peaks are white but the foothills are turning blue, even before his eyes, as the snow melts.
“Today,” he decides, “I’m going to find out what really happened.”
He stands like the captain of a ship observing the horizon. The view is crystal clear. Through the branches, which only yesterday still had all their leaves, the mountains appear. There it is again, that feeling, that he is back in Austria, 14 years old. He breathes deep. The air is pure. The frost and warmth release pine scent. Each breath goes in like a lance, opening the esophagus wider and wider until he is virtually drinking a river of air.
He cleans the glass in large circles, he’s beginning to sweat. He also cleans the mirrored wall. Deep in the mirror floats the landscape he once knew.
Thrusting out all the extensions on his longest ladder, he tackles the long panels either side of the fireplace. From the very top he sees a few rooftops framing gold tiers of nearby fields and the playground two blocks away, and a lot of sky. The landscape below seems far away as if he were a bird soaring through the shining air. His arm is going in circles but he’s flying.
He’s tried to take it home with him, this lingering feeling of a pure bright world, but it evaporates like cologne. He’s tried it at other houses, nothing works. He would have come to wash these windows every week for free, but unless he can find it within himself, and take it with him everywhere, what’s the use? If only he could grasp it. He takes one last look around the rooms. The glass sparkles. “It must be the trees,” he says to himself, “I should get myself a place in the mountains.” morning sun.
The lady of the house stays out of his way. Other women try to make conversation with him, following from window to window chatting mindlessly and pointing out streaks. He can’t stand the racket. Here all is silent. Maybe that’s it. Maybe silence opens the door to eternity, because it feels like eternity, when you know that what you are, what you have ever been, or will ever be, runs together like a river. It must be the silence, he decides. The glowing geraniums, the glittering trees and the silence. “It’s the noise of the world that distracts me.”
But he has total silence at home and it’s not doing that much for him. It has an enclosed, hollow feel, like a coffin. Here the silence rings like a bell struck once, and the light shimmers through everything.
“I’ll get to the bottom of it,” he tells himself as he carries the ladders outside.
The glade of aspen against the house poses no difficulty as he climbs up into the semi-leafy branches wet with melted snow.
He pulls his spray bottle off his toolbelt and sprays, then wipes, looking in. Very little furniture, he notes. That probably helps. Gives the mind more space. He works his way around the house looking through it.
He studies all the rooms for the answer.
He climbs to the very top of the ladder, barely balanced on the slope amid crimson sumacs and silver Russian olives. The sun has climbed and warms the wall. The fresh air has invigorated him. He feels agile as a boy. He finds his footing, cleans off the grime of the outer world and looks into a serene place, a bright void in which he can find himself and all that he has ever been.
The space is transparent, the gleaming hardwood floor is alive with light from both the glass and mirror walls. From a collision of light on the floor rises a bright form. An image flashes into his mind. There she is, with freckled face and spun gold hair and eyes like sapphires.
In Austria, at age 14, he was leaving for America with his mother and sister. It had been a hard winter with continuous bad news. They had come from Vienna with all their possessions to a small town in the mountains to await their visas. A non-Jewish business associate of his father owned a chalet, which was not in use and offered to help them. They could wait there as long as necessary. The chalet had a view of a frozen lake. It was bitter cold but indoors geraniums bloomed.
He’d met her in the dead of winter when her father came up to settle them in. They’d walked around the house, finding frost flowers etched on the panes. Snowflakes clung to her lashes like microscopic lace. He saw her again in the spring when she came with her father to say good-bye.
She rises out of the shining floor to greet him, a web of frost and flowers in her hair. He can see her! He’s done it! Has recaptured her!
“What happened?” he asks.
“My father used the visa,” she answers.
His hands tremble, his whole body shakes like a frozen chrysalis waking to the warmth of the sun. His entire being vibrates.
Weak in the knees, he climbs down.
“That’s about it,” he says to the lady of the house.
The whole house shines.
“How much does it come to?” she asks.
“Same as last time,” he says, “$75.”
“Are you sure? You quoted a friend of mine $150 for a much smaller house.”
He looks around the rooms, seeing only a Stonehenge of light.
“I charge by the window. She has more windows. Yours are just bigger.”
She writes him a check. He feels like paying her. He draws a deep breath as he steps outside, regains his balance, throws his ladders on top of his car, gets in, slams the door and drives away.
От издателя: Book Description In the first in a new series of brief biographies, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brilliantly evokes...