During the course of my daily walks I had passed her store window many times. In the cold of winter, through snow and slush I would still pause and peer through the ice encrusted glass to watch her bent over her work table. Her shelves held different kinds of animals in varying poses of life. Some looked asleep, some with paws raised, fangs bared, eyes strangely dilated-all life like. From her posture, hair and mottled skin I could tell she was elderly but her exact age I could not be sure. Her hair was wildly tussled, like she used her fingers instead of a traditional comb. From my vantage point-from her glass window I could see the spider veins that coursed her mottled hands. Nails chipped, fingernails a strange brown, possibly from the constant use of dyes of her trade.
She was always bent over her work bench. If it was winter she would be draped in loose cashmere sweaters, all ill fitting-an artist whose focus was on her trade and not her appearance. Now in warmer climate, she has switched her sweaters for colorful African prints. Today, I passed her store again and in habit, I stop and peer through her window. She looks up and waves me in. I look behind me, thinking me? She smiles and points at me mouthing “You..come in”. I only hesitated for a second. I take a deep breath and enter her shop. I had expected to be engulfed by some thing similar to the smell that pervades a morgue, or at least that deep disinfectant smell that pervades hospital corridors; instead I was awash by the sweet aroma of cinnamon.
She stood barely five feet tall, her eyes strangely out of focus, the left iris a milky hue-glaucoma, she told me, later. She spoke in halting English. An Eastern European country was her origin. Each product had a story. Some were once pets she had, some belonged to people she had known during the span of her over ten decades.
A cat she had as a little girl. A couple of dogs, one of which a lover had once given her, a sign of his undying love. The love was not ‘undying’ but the dog, she kept. A crocodile she brought home from a trip to the South Americas. She told me the horrors she faced at immigration but her cargo was precious. I was young and stupid back then, I wanted to be a modern day Noah. A cheetah, another gift from an old lover. She lay her head on the life-like head and took a deep breath…’..my love for him was great’-I wasn’t sure she meant the man. Two mongrels, an English spaniel and my favorite- a Newfoundland. A bear stood on its hind legs, its right paw raised, its teeth bared…a beautiful life like pose…its irises strangely dilated. A duck, an ostrich….a life time of collection. A beautiful bird caught my attention. It was mounted on a golden stand. Its plumage a gorgeous raiment.
The bird once belonged to her father. Her trade was once his legacy. She spent many hours in his shop watching, learning and growing. He was her only parent. A small man with a great personality. He taught her to live her life on her own terms and not to define herself by societal or cultural expectations. She was the product of a brief relationship he had with her mother. His only child. He raised her to see herself as her only resource, not to expect to find herself in marriage. In fact, her father told her several times during the course of her life if she never married and never bore children but was happy in service to humanity, then he would have raised her right. He believed a woman had to be complete first before finding success in any relationship. They lived a bohemian life traveling across Europe while he catered to his customers variety of needs. In the old country, his art was in high demand among-st his rich clientele.
When she desired to explore the world outside Europe, he gave her his blessing and enough money to live on for a year. She said she spent the last decade of his life with him. I can easily say, I returned to take care of him but the truth is I returned to dwell in his shadow. As her eyes lit up as she spoke of her father, I thought of mine. I think of his words of wisdom, our deep friendship and the landscape our relationship was. A landscape of deep greenery; tall strong oaks of trees giving shade in moments of down pour. Where misunderstandings have blighted the terrain in my youth but the manure of love had watered the rich ground to yield bountiful harvest, again. A landscape where I anticipate each sigh, where I interpret each frown and dwell in his shadow.
On my walk back home, my thoughts are still of my Dad and then my cell begins to ring. Without looking at my caller ID, I know its him. Happy Father’s Day Daddy.