The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

A Million Windows December 30, 2012

When I was attending Columbia College in Chicago back in the late ’80s, I still lived with my parents in my childhood home in Wilmette, Illinois. I rode Chicago’s el train to and from school several days a week, and as I often had band practice after classes, more often than not I’d end up coming home late at night. I almost always had a window seat, and I’d lean in close to block out the reflection of the train car’s interior so that I could enjoy the scenes that passed… So many neighborhoods, so many homes, so many apartments, so many ways in which to live… I watched it all, hoping I would come to understand the world better… I tried to comprehend so many individual lives all going on at the same time. So many people tossing their keys onto the table, so many people turning on lights, checking the day’s mail, so many people tickling babies, kissing, eating, watching tv, worrying about tests or arguments or recipes or bills or job interviews, so many people newly in love, so many newly widowed… Each window offered a tiny, split-second vignette which I savored as best I could. I still have a few images locked away in my mind’s eye from that time; a room illuminated by a single light bulb and an entire family gathered beneath, a fat man brushing his teeth, a woman reading at a table, glancing up at the train…

My father understands the intrigue of a window too. We’re both the ones with the ‘dream’ gene in the family – neither mom nor Andrew seem to have dreams, much less the ability to recount them in incredible detail as both dad and I can. I wonder sometimes if the fascination with the unknown – or maybe more accurately the romance of the unknown’s potential – might not be related to this dream gene thing. I also think it’s related to a love of things miniature; of cozy, tidy tableaus. The spirit of ho train sets and doll house interiors… I can hardly drive down a street at night but be swept up in the fantasies that each house suggests; the tall windows of Saratoga’s fine Victorian homes, the lone farm house in the field, the top floor apartment on the corner building, all lit from within, all whose contents can’t quite be seen but are instead implied… It’s so compelling. All these scenes call to me, I feel as if I absolutely must know each one of them.

I do, however, realize not all people feel this way. After some twenty years of my cooing over the wonder of it all I asked my then husband (probably for the 100th time) if he didn’t just wonder who exactly lived behind all those windows? “And”, I continued, “Don’t you just wonder what they all do for a liv- “He didn’t even let me finish – but cut me off, laughing, as he answered with a loud and resolute “NO!”. I didn’t take it personally, instead I learned something from it. My partner didn’t get it, (and granted, I’d probably exceeded his patience on the subject) but I always knew that even if he didn’t get it the way I did, someone else in this big world surely did…

So now, with the world available to me in this little box, and my child once again gone away, I find myself swept out into the vast beyond as I follow trail after trail of other people’s stories… As I read page after page, connecting the dots of both the famous and the unknown, I see that there is no end to the story… (there is also no end to my fascination). The only peace I find is to accept that I just can’t get it all, I never will, and somehow, that’s ok. Kinda like a train ride, I’m only going to pass so many windows and there’s only so much time to peek inside.

There are things to be done here around the house, and it’s not always easy to rouse myself from the quest for more stories, more windows to other worlds… I have to remind myself that every train ride ends with a destination. I’ve got students to prepare for, music to learn and chicken soup to freeze. So for now, I’ll just have to mark my page and close the book.