An Age to Remember
In those days, they were called spinsters. I knew them by name. Miss Prescott was a librarian at Columbia University. Miss Cutler was a watercolorist. Miss Jourdan, a novelist and a magazine editor. The ladies lived in the apartment one floor above ours, at 36 Gramercy Park, in New York City. In the afternoons, while my mother taught school, I climbed the back stairs and visited them.
Their apartment was dark: dark paneling, dark furniture, and maroon velveteen on the window seats. Most walls were lined with books. Others were adorned with shields with coats of arms, crossed swords, and ornate tapestries. There was a wastepaper basket made from a rhinoceros’s foot and a little white elephant carved out of ivory. As a child, I found it highly interesting that someone would carve an elephant out of ivory but never commented on it.
Miss Prescott was tall and bony, with a voice that cracked. Miss Cutler seemed composed of pastels. They served me milk and cookies as they took their tea, and taught me canasta, at which they openly cheated. They read to me—Doctor Doolittle, The Wind in the Willows, and Tom Sawyer—pausing to ask me questions, such as why Tom pretended to enjoy whitewashing the fence, and did I think Pooh silly or smart. Toward the end of the afternoon, Miss Jourdan would arrive home from work. She greeted her companions tersely, laid down her briefcase, and looked me over. She was a large woman who breathed heavily and always dressed in black, like Queen Victoria. She preferred to head straight to the concert grand in the living room and play, her huge hands extending nearly two octaves and coming down hard on the keys.
One day she played “The Blue Danube” and “Londonderry Air.” I listened. And when she finished, I sat beside her on the piano bench and played the pieces pretty much as she had done, though with simpler chords and a lighter touch. Miss Cutler and Miss Prescott shrieked with delight at my small accomplishment. Miss Jourdan gave me an abrupt nod of approval.
Near the top of 36 Gramercy Park, between the ladies’ floor and mine, were stone gargoyles that jutted out into the air. The moving men had to carefully work their ropes and pulleys around the gargoyles as they hoisted my family’s new piano through the window. I was sorry that Miss Jourdan was not there to watch the piano arrive, as it was she who had inspired my parents to buy it. That event occurred when I was six, just after Miss Jourdan died.
By then my upstairs visits had begun to wane. But at age four, I spent as much time with the three ladies as I could. I enjoyed watching them go about their grown-up lives—writing letters, gossiping, bickering—as much as the milk and cookies. On Christmas Eve, they would hire a sleek black car to drive them up and down Fifth Avenue, where they would admire the blazing store-window displays. I sat in the back of the car on a little fold-down seat facing them. They made the same tour every year, and every year the city sights struck them with surprise. “Oh look!” they would call to one another and to me. “Isn’t that wonderful?” And it was.
Roger Rosenblatt, 70, is the author of, most recently, the book Making Toast, about his family’s life after his daughter’s death, and the forthcoming Unless It Moves the Human Heart. He lives in Quoque, New York.