Old Woman at My Window

Old Woman at My Window

It’s six a.m. on an April morning. I sit at my desk before the window, ready to write. The first thing I see are dogwood flowers. They appear suspended like lanterns over water. Eventually, tree branches come into view. I look down at my writing and when I look back up, the window is greening. The color emerges by the moment. More green, more shades of green, greater intensities of green, as if my window is a kaleidoscope of greens, even on this cloudy morning. 

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I lift my coffee cup and feel a kink in my wrist. I am becoming old. My skin sags in all kinds of places. My hair thins; lips too; even my fingernails. Brown splotches that were endearing on my parents now show up on my face overnight. When I hit my arm against the porcelain sink, I bleed. So now I truly am thin-skinned.  I start looking for swimsuits with sleeves so my sagging arms won’t show. I’ve settled into a permanent weight, not overweight. But I’m not svelte and if I were, more places would sag.

■■■

A robin lights on the crepe myrtle outside my window. Its early leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears and brown-green, almost autumnal. The slender branches stand out like a minimalist water color whereas the sugar maple is thick thick thick with spring green leaves. It rained last night. The morning sky is still gray. Wind sets the limbs of the dogwood dancing, and the oak and the sugar maple. Have you seen the way limbs dip in the wind, move out, dip again and arch, like dancers?

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When I get up from my desk after sitting too long, I take a few steps like a cowpoke before I can stand up straight. I’m glad no one is watching but the dog. Is this why April is cruel? My eyelids dip. They do not then leap and arch. I need a second cup of coffee.

■■■

The dogwood is aging. Moss grows along its limbs. The flowers are not as large as they used to be when they filled the entire living room window like a cloud so that looking out one thought one was in an airplane—or an aeroplane, if we want to be dreamy. Every year more dead wood appears and we trim it back. But the main branches still stretch out and up and every year, a few new shoots appear.

The sun is trying to push its way through the clouds. The green on the crepe myrtle springs to gold. A shaft of light hits the neighbor’s lawn.

Now a tufted titmouse appears on a branch five feet from my window, holding a golden leaf in its beak. For a nest, no doubt, the leaf brittle from wintering. But the sun slides back behind the clouds, or, more accurately, the clouds close over it. Still, the view from my window has yellowed. A bird streaks by so fast I can’t tell its species. I think of my granddaughter. She streaks by, running like a colt. The sun tries again; the world lightens; again the clouds close over it.

■■■

I’m only sixty-six. My mother retired when she was sixty-one. How spry she seemed, walking with me when I was twenty-eight. She wore knee-length shorts and bright tops; her hair salt and pepper. Of course she looked old to me but I was still in the bloom of youth and having excellent sex. We walked stride in stride.

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The sun is out in full. I have to close the shades in the upper part of the window. Another bird streaks by. Because it rained last night, the leaves now shimmer with water drops. All those years I sat in the sun, sun-bathing. I never believed the warnings because who would when her legs are long and lithe and her long thick hair falls past her shoulders and every walk across campus is full of her own erotic aura. She is so full of herself.

■■■

I give myself flowers. Every week. To adorn this desk in front of the window, to adorn me. An ad slips into my email telling me I can have five-star panties, five for thirty-nine dollars. Blue sky appears in the wedge of sky between the trees. The birds swoop quickly. So many of them. There’s the cardinal, my most reliable visitor through the winter. In his last year, my father had trouble lifting his right foot to walk. The red bird lingers, looks at me, his beak orange as an orange. The neighborhood street is silver now.

■■■

Spring means sloughing off the layers of winter: silk underwear, long-sleeved sweaters, long pants, coats. On a day last week when the temperature reached eighty, I put on shorts and a t-shirt. My skin is so white. Who knew that the skin and muscle on forearms could sag? It frightens me to think what people see when I’m not posing. I envy the birds their feathers. Now there’s a towhee in the crepe myrtle, that mischief maker who hops up and lands with both feet, scratching backwards to find its favorite foods, sending dead leaves and pine straw all over my sidewalk.

■■■

I am not as clever as Virginia Woolf. I haven’t written about the dying moth and intimations of mortality but the whole blooming world.

But now watch. I will take the dog for a walk. The wind will fill my hair and the owl will sing its morning hoo-hoo. Daily, the dog and I walk two miles in the neighborhood. I’ll reflect on my writing about the woman at my window who writes with weathered hands. Later in the day, I’ll squat with my granddaughter at the garden creek. We’ll take our shoes off and stand in the cold spring water and wiggle our toes. In her laughter she will clutch me. We won’t fall. ■

 

 

 

 

Elaine Neil Orr is professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she teaches world literature and creative writing. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville. Author of A Different Sun, two scholarly books, and the memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life, she has been a featured speaker and writer-in-residence at numerous universities and conferences and is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She grew up in Nigeria.

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Deirdre Parker-Smith at 1:51 pm

    Simply beautiful; thoughts I’ve had over the last year. I’m watching a wren gather material for a nest and listening to the wind in the trees, someone mowing.
    Thank you, Elaine, for these moments.

  2. Ginny Martin Fleming at 3:41 pm

    Elaine, I LOVE this! The sags and physical changes are startling here, too. I mean, really, what we don’t take seriously in our youth. All baby oil and lemon juice and sunshine galore. Now age spots literally DO appear overnight!!! But I did like my suntanned image back then, so now I’m just gonna try to love all the evidence, making sure to check in regularly with my dermatologist! 🙂 Mainly, I love your essay for its exquisite writing. xoxo

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