Cigarette smoke wafted in from the stairwell, sneaking under the back door to our apartment. I flipped the lock and opened the door. At the top of the stairs sat a woman I had never seen. Shaggy long hair hung from under a ski cap. She was wearing a plaid shirt, cargo pants, and construction boots.
She dragged on her cigarette and looked down at me. In a friendlier than expected, but as husky as expected, voice she said, “Hi. I’m taking a break.”
“My partner died. There’s 50 years of belongings to sort through. And I stored all my things here for eight years.”
I knew that Madeleine, the woman in the one-bedroom above my apartment, had been dying of breast cancer. But I was unaware she had succumbed. I murmured condolences. “I didn’t know you were living here as well,” I said.
The woman explained that she had never moved in, but had nursed my neighbor throughout her illness. “Oh, I know how hard that is,” I said, “My mother died of breast cancer five years ago.”
The bereaved woman extinguished her cigarette and invited me to come on up. “Look around. See if there’s anything you want. You’ll be doing me a favor––less to decide about.”
The place would have been a hoarder’s paradise even without the partner’s stuff. Every paint-peeling wall of the living room was lined with ceiling-high bookshelves, though that is not unusual here on the literary and academic Upper West Side. Another row of shorter bookcases was sandwiched between a jumble of furniture––start-anew, mid-century and 1960s pieces. Every surface was covered with stacks of papers, old Manila envelopes, bills––the paraphernalia of neglect due to chemo days and nauseated nights.
I skirted around the mound to check out the library and was surprised to find two books that overlapped with my interests––a collection of short biographies of women in science, and the first edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But somehow I was too bashful to ask for them immediately. I left them where they were.
The woman was weaving her way towards the bathroom saying she wanted to investigate a dripping faucet. I followed her past a dust-covered desk just before the entrance to the tiny kitchen. A collection of glass and welded brass boxes—hexagons, rectangles, circus tent configurations, punctuated the surface. Inside were knickknacks––an unused keychain, a new pair of cotton knit gloves from Guatemala, perhaps. Beyond the kitchen was the bathroom, the bedroom, and a vast terrace.
Did I think the Super could come up and fix the sink, she asked. Better not, she answered herself, don’t want to call attention to the place––the landlord was going to kick her out any day, and she needed more time.
I made my way to the bathroom. Vintage 1960s, too, I thought, until I looked up.
“What is that?” Light was struggling to emanate from a gauzy pendulum tethered to the moldy ceiling. Havisham-like.
“Madeleine’s family brought it from Berlin in 1939. She was three when they left.”
Again I was surprised. I peered up once more at the layers of cobwebs, this time discerning swirls of brass and dangling crystals. An orphaned little beacon.
“She hung a chandelier in the bathroom?” The woman nodded. “But it could have gotten damaged. Is it pitted?”
“I don’t think so. We could take it down and have a look.”
Embarrassed to take an heirloom left by someone I hardly knew, I procrastinated with: “My great-grandparents came from Berlin. They got out through Portugal in 1941.”
“If you want, I can ask the family. Because it’s not like taking just anything–it was transported here with such care.”
All my husband and I had in our foyer was the simple fixture provided by our dreaded landlord. We certainly could use something festive to welcome guests, something to set the tone of our home. I took her up on her offer, thanked her, and left with the two books.
A life-size oil portrait of my great-grandmother, painted in 1912 by the Polish artist Stephan Zarnecki hangs in our living room. Clad in her titanic hat, dignified in her Edwardian aubergine dress with an off-white rose at her waist, this elegant lady mystifies me. She lived long enough to write my mother a note congratulating her on my birth in 1955. Of her four children, two survived World War II: my great uncle and one of my great aunts. My grandmother and another great aunt perished in Poland during the war. I know what my grandmother looked like as a schoolgirl because there is another portrait, this one in pastel, of her with her younger sister, the great aunt who survived.
Unbeknownst to my mother, my great aunt stashed those portraits and yet another of my great grandfather in plastic garbage bags in a closet in her apartment in Washington Heights. My mother discovered them when she cleaned out my great aunt’s apartment after her death in 1968. Stunned that no one thought to inform her that a portrait of her mother existed, my mother wondered whether the works of art were too painful––reminders of lost loved ones, shattered lives. My mother lovingly had the treasures cleaned and framed.
Now, gazing at the portrait of my great-grandmother, I could not help but contemplate how she braved Kristallnacht and the three years until she and her husband fled. Although my great-grandparents shipped three trunks in advance, including one filled with 12 place settings of china we still dine on every Passover, I wondered what else they left behind. After all, they had traced their ancestry as far back as the 18th century to Breslau and Krakow.
A few weeks later, I opened the back door to throw out some garbage when Madeleine’s partner arrived. She greeted me as she unlocked the apartment door and said, “I’ve heard from the family and no one wants the chandelier. But they said they would be glad for you to have it because of your connection to Berlin.”
My husband and I went up to liberate the surviving chandelier from its rest room. As I inspected and cleaned it, I saw that one of the swirls had broken off from its stalk and three crystals from different tiers were missing, but mercifully were lost as a result of ordinary wear or transport––as opposed to the fate of smashed storefronts and synagogues throughout Germany and Austria. I wrapped wire around the damaged stem and stalk and polished the brass, careful to preserve the patina.
I knew nothing of lamps. Where are on Earth was I going to match the crystals, which I supposed were unique. I found a website that sold crystals of the same shapes and sizes. The About section said the company exported crystals from Bohemia. Since the 17th century, its crystal prisms had adorned cathedrals and castles, it said, including the court of the king of France. And ours matched drawings of French Pendalogue Crystal Prism numbers 1001 and 1003.
But it was the early days of shopping online, when I was still wary of divulging my credit card number, so I called. I wasn’t sure if the merchant would take a small order although I did intend to get some spares. The gentleman I spoke to was happy to help and said in a voice that seemed elderly that they usually handled only wholesale, but since I had taken the trouble to call, he would comply. He was apologetic that the order might take 10 weeks to fill because of the factory’s production schedule and European location.
I got antsy despite his warning of possible delays. When I called two months later, a younger man with a heavy Eastern European accent answered the phone.
“Who took your order? He wasn’t supposed to do that. We cannot serve every consumer who needs a crystal. Try antique store. What was name of man who helped you?”
I wasn’t going to let a disgruntled boss punish the man who had done me a favor, so I demurred. The boss insisted, adding haughtily, “I am the owner of this business. We make the finest crystals in world. We take only big orders. He should have told you that.”
I responded that I had, in fact, been so informed, but that the man was kind enough to make an exception. And that he had explained that the lengthy wait was because the crystals were coming all the way from Czechoslovakia.
“That would be quite a feat,” sniffed the boss, “because there is no longer such a country. The Czech Republic does exist, however.” I bristled. All I wanted was to get off the phone.
After the crystals arrived, my husband and I enjoyed the soft, twinkly lights they cast upon our foyer walls when the morning sun hit at just the right angle. But last month, we heard a sizzle and snap. Then, a spooky smell. My husband informed me, after several hours of trying to free a bulb from one of the three sockets, that the chandelier would have to be professionally rewired.
I ferreted out a place in The Village that repairs lamps. They soldered the broken limb and rewired the three sockets. Whole again, the refurbished Art Nouveau chandelier now sheds light on two computer-generated renderings of the Statue of Liberty’s torch–itself originally a lantern. I had saved the art after the publication of a magazine piece I wrote about the statue’s restoration. And the little chandelier illuminates the way to our living room, where likenesses of my great-grandmother, great-grandfather, my grandmother, and my great-aunt watch over us all, in perpetuity.
Karen A. Frenkel is an award-winning technology and science journalist, editor, and author. She contributes bi-weekly pieces on mobile security to CIOInsight.com and has covered technology, innovation, and entrepreneurs for “Bloomberg Businessweek,” “FastCompany.com,” and “YoungEntrepreneur.com.” Her technology and science stories appear in “Science Magazine,” “Scientific American,” “Communications of the ACM” and “CACM.acm.org,” the magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery. Her two award-winning documentaries about the impact of technology on society for public television––one on women and computing, the other about elearning––were aired on public television. She co-authored Robots: Machines in Man’s Image, with Isaac Asimov in 1985 and her creative nonfiction has also appeared on “MrBellersneighborhood.com.”