Saturday, June 03, 2006

From a Window

This morning was one of those rare June gifts: it was 64 degrees when I got up to go walking. After several days with lows in the 70s and highs in the upper 80s (we have yet to reach 90 degrees this year, in spite of the fact that the Atlanta weather reports indicate three days in the 90s already... I guess we're just lucky), a breezy 64 degree morning seemed almost cool.

After I finished my walk, did my weights routine, and ate breakfast, Anna and Mischa persuaded me, through longing looks and softly voiced protestations, to open the windows in the kitchen so that they could sit in the windowsills and look out. We began doing this in the spring, when the mornings were cool and we could do this without raising the indoor temperature or humidity. We had to discontinue the habit as the summer weather arrived, though, and they haven't been thrilled with the end of the window habit. Tisha, who's been with us for many more years (she's 17 now), is well past her open-window-fascination phase, so two open windows are usually adequate to create a happy-cat home.

When I went upstairs to check e-mail, I decided on a whim to open the upstairs family room window as well. Our yard slopes downhill in the back of the house, so the basement is at ground level in the back, making the upstairs three floors up. Over the years, the stand of tulip poplars and sweetgum trees has grown to such an extent that we seem to be ensconced among the upper limbs of the taller trees (one has spread its limbs to within a foot of the house, in fact); this creates a natural shade in the summer that makes the open window more appealing than it was when we first moved in. In those early years here, the open blinds and window would let in full morning and early afternoon sun; combine that with a then-inadequate air conditioning system upstairs, and the result would be a hot, humid upper floor that wouldn't get comfortably cool until well after midnight.

I opened the window, and was immediately struck by the pleasantness of the sound. The heavy canopy of leaves one the multitude of small limbs creates an almost continual rustling whisper as the breezes drift through; they also servea to cushion other noises that might be otherwise intrusive, such as the distant sound of a lawn mower. What I hadn't noticed when the windows were closed was the almost continual sound of birds in the tree limbs. Our trees seem to offer safe haven for a multitude of birds, and their mixture of chirps and songs have such bucolic allure that I found them much more engaging than television or music.

Apparently Anna and Mischa felt the same way, because within five minutes both cats had left their downstairs windowsill perches to settle into the window sill, and then into the cat trees located near the window. This offered them a hitherto-unrealized view of the upper limbs and the birds and squirrels who make themselves at home there, as well as providing a captivating mix of new sounds and new smells as the breezes waxed and waned.

I grew up in a house that had only one air conditioner, a one-room unit built into the wall of the living room that maintained tolerable comfort in that room as well as the kitchen. As a result, I was accustomed to summers spent in a bedroom without air conditioning, which meant that open windows were a part of my early years. Our open windows carried the sounds of breezes and leaves and birds, but also the sounds of cars and children and dogs, since my bedroom was in the front corner of the house, facing Marchmont Drive. My friend Gary Steele had a bedroom in the back of the older house that his parents had lived in for twenty years when he and I first met; it was a house sheltered by enormous oaks, so direct sunlight rarely touched it. Our open windows here remind me more of Gary's windows, allowing the sounds of verdant summer into the house.

Another friend, John Ball, had a house just off a busy four-lane thoroughfare; his open windows brought in the continual sound of purposed, busy life speeding past, and the only natural sounds came from the overgrown privet that cut some of the ambient light from the Dairy Queen and the miniature golf course that bordered his yard. But even those sounds were soothing to an eleven-year-old; sometimes, late at night, I would listen to the cars and trucks and wonder who was driving them, and what drove them to be on the roads in the dark hours of the morning rather than at home asleep.

My cousin Frank had a bedroom in the back of his parents' house on Chester Street in Marietta; when I would spend a week with him in the summer, we would open the window that was just inches away from his bed, and I listened in fascination to the sounds that he had long since taken for granted. His house was cut into an even steeper incline, so that his back yard was terraced to create the illusion that his upstairs window was even higher. There were no trees or shrubs near his window, so the night air would bring the sound of traffic from Fairground Street, or from the distant Lockheed Plant several miles away, or from the Coca Cola bottling plant that seemed never to sleep. I would imagine that the Lockheed sounds came from another P-38 being readied for flight (that distinctive twin-tailboom aircraft was a wonder to me then), although I really knew that the days of the P-38 were long gone... but oh, what one can envision after midnight!

When Susan and I first married, we lived in a small three-room house in Cedartown that was hidden beneath a heavy stand of pines, with an enormous willow just next to our bedroom window. We had a small air conditioner in the window of the living room/kitchen area (a single room divided by a poorly constructed half-wall), but our bedroom had no such air conditioning. As a result, we would frequently open windows; alas, the sound of breezes are much less melliflous through pines, although I remember the rustling of the willow leaves. (That willow and I were enemies, however. I had climbed that tree when I was nine, during a visit to my grandmother, and had plummeted from its heights when a limb gave way, resulting in the most painful and serious broken arm I experienced in my childhood... a childhood marked by several broken bones, almost inevitably the result of falls from trees as they disagreed with me as to what heights a boy should strive for.) I would also hear the sound of traffic just fifty or sixty yards away on Highway 27--particularly tractor-trailer truck traffic, which rumbled by in the distance at all hours. And the trains--there were tracks less than a mile away, on the other side of Highway 27, and their doleful calls punctuated the night.

When we moved one house away to our larger 4 room Cedartown home (but each of the rooms was in turn significantly larger, and it had a screened-in porch as well), our bedroom was in the back corner of that house. The sounds of Highway 27 and of the trains were still there, but seemed more muted; perhaps that's because the small house in which we had previously lived stood directly behind that second house, serving to muffle some of the sounds coming from that direction. I remember more sounds from the privet and the junipers that separated our yard from the house next door.

When we moved to Marietta in 1977, we moved into an apartment with central air conditioning, and we never opened the windows. From there, we moved to our house at 6045 Sumit Wood Drive in Kennesaw, then to 2339 Milstead Circle in Marietta, and finally here on Carillon Crossing; each house offered its own controlled environment, and I fell out of the habit of opening windows. In a way, I regret that--but since both the Sumit Wood Drive and the Milstead Circle homes were located next to neighbors with loud, intrusive dogs, I doubt that the sounds would have been sufficiently appealing to offset the aggravation of nearby barking.

It's taken me ten years at this house to rediscover the allure of an open window. Now that I have, though, I think I find the sounds more appealing than do the cats--and I suspect I'll miss the open window more when summer's heat sets in for three months. Oh, but September isn't all that far away--and I suspect that autumn will offer a distinctive, even more sibilant euphony before the leaves at last let go of their tenuous golden grip...


Whitney said...

Wow, Cliff. That almost brought me to tears reading that. I know it's just a reminiscence of open windows and how you remember them, how they affected you at that time in your life, but wow... The way you describe them is so powerful. It makes me wish my windows were half so interesting, or that my writing was a tenth as good as yours.

cliff said...

Thanks for the kind words; I have been surprised by how many e-mails I have received about this posting in particular. Your windows open to a world as redolent and reverberant as mine--so open them for those who know you and would love to vicariously experience them through your eyes and ears!