I learned to smile through the panes

As an adolescent, I resolved not to follow in the trudging footsteps of my Aunt Lorraine, a big-boned, blue-eyed farm wife devoted to all things domestic: baking, sewing, and keeping her home pristine most of all. Unlike her, I was going to be an actress, a novelist, a classical musician. I would live for art, not for gleaming windowpanes.

Yet my aunt, in whose home I spent my teenage years, fairly expected me to help her. And so, early each spring, we embarked on her favorite project.

Done right, windows were a two-person task. I went outdoors and stood on a stepladder; she stayed inside and washed along with me, her left hand and my right moving in opposing circles, making a fun-house mirror mockery of each other's toil.

Even if squeegees - sponge on one side, rubber straight-edge on the other - had been available back then at our little town's lone hardware store, Aunt Lorraine would have scorned them. She believed in hot sudsy water, vinegar rinses, newsprint, and elbow grease.

(Likewise, we washed floors on hands and knees, despite the TV commercials for Mop'n Glo that I summoned her to watch, in which upright women in housedresses and low-heeled pumps sported emancipated smiles and long-handled, ergonomic mops. My aunt explained that such lazy-day implements merely pushed grime into the corners.)

And so I'd mount my stepladder sullenly on cool spring days, pretending not to see her through the pane, preoccupied with maintaining a tragic reflection worthy of Cleopatra or Antigone. I might be compelled to wash windows, but I refused to enjoy it.

Thanks to her perfectionist streak and the sun peering over my shoulder, Aunt Lorraine spotted my missed smudges more frequently than I did hers, her index finger inevitably tap-tapping against the pane, citing a flyspeck I'd missed. I'd scowl, then attack it with a razor blade.

Meanwhile, she'd affect a pouty face, then scrunch her nose and waggle her ears, trying to make me laugh. Affronted by her jollity, I reminded myself to pity any person who considered this drudgery fun. In spite of my determination to maintain a dour demeanor, her gaiety could be contagious.

During the spring of my senior year in high school, when my aunt opened the window to hand me more newsprint and borrow back the vinegar jug, I'd belt out, "I can see clearly now, the pane is gone," cribbing from Johnny Nash's then-popular top-40 reggae tune.

On rare occasions, upon finishing a window, I'd discover a lingering spot on Aunt Lorraine's side of the glass. Gloating, I'd thump the pane with my finger. My aunt would dispatch the smudge with a squeaky rub, then point to the next window, around the corner, indicating that I should meet her there.

"Hurry!" she'd pantomime, pointing at a kitchen clock I couldn't see, for the afternoon sunshine was waning. I'd descend the ladder, improvising irreverently, sotto voce, "I can see clearly now, Lorraine is gone...."

Within moments, she'd reappear at my next station, the patron saint of clean windows, in stark relief against my grudging teenaged martyrdom to what I considered a hopeless cause.

In the decades since, I've realized modest versions of my adolescent dreams, in and around the mundane demands of making a living. I play music. I write. I don't act, but I tell myself I still might. I clean the house when I deem it necessary - not often. I wash my kitchen floor with a long-handled mop (wearing sneakers, not pumps). I don't sweat the corners.

On a bright spring day recently, I saw how winter winds and snowstorms, subsequent melting, pelting March rains, bird droppings, and stray fingerprints had grimed my windows. Undeniably, springtime would look lovelier through clean panes.

Possessed of sufficient time, and inclined to spend it outside, I gathered my bucket and squeegee, then headed out to perform the kind of casual swipe that still suits my temperament to a T.

The sun pressed warmly against my back as I wiped away pawprints made by our neighborhood's Peeping-Tom raccoon on lonely winter nights.

Moist, mulching odors wafted from the spongy earth under my feet. (My windows are low, requiring no ladder.) Birds twittered a lighthearted medley in the background, sounding vaguely reggae. I scraped sticky spots with a fingernail, having brought no razor blade.

Upon finishing, I went indoors to telephone my aunt. "I washed windows today," I began, then blurted, "and of course I thought of you!"

Instantly I felt chagrined at my accusatory tone. I hadn't meant to stir memories of my adolescent resentment against her determined adult domesticity.

But she laughed as if she knew what I'd meant to say - just as, years ago, she seemed to read my mind as she watched my scowl slowly soften through an afternoon of soapy panes.

"On days this nice, I suppose you almost wish you could help me," I added more gently. For although my aunt still lives in my hometown, she has moved to a retirement complex. Someone else washes her windows now.

"I do," she declared simply. No "almost" about it. As we spoke of other things, it seemed she'd passed a mantle to me: a sudsy bucket hefted over a sill, soap and vinegar swapping scents with a carefree spring breeze.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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