From Michael’s Window
Soon after my husband Michael died, my family, friends, and students joined me at his Manhattan fifteenth-floor study to pack his books, which filled some one hundred-plus cardboard boxes. We moved them to Magill Library at Haverford College, where his collection of books is now located.
After his study was emptied, I stood in the middle of the room and felt a deep, dark hole in my chest. I looked out the window; it was a bright day, and early wintry sun poured onto the brick wall of a project building across the street, turning the rusty red into bright orange. Through the window I could see the Empire State Building to the east and a slim slice of the Hudson River to the west, beyond the Javits Center. I remembered Michael telling me that he had chosen this little studio apartment because he loved watching the big cruise ships docking while listening to the sound of their horns lingering in the air. I pulled out a sketchbook and started to draw what he saw outside the window. That was how I got back to work after he died.
Since that day, I have painted and drawn looking out from that single window. The scene is ever changing, bright or moody: gray clouds load the sky, autumn leaves cover the brownstone roofs, snowflakes swirl above the playground next to the project buildings, the red and green lights shine softly at the top of the Empire State Building on a quiet Christmas Eve. The scene has changed much since Michael died four years ago. I am no longer able to see the river. Instead, behind the projects, layers of new buildings have been rising, expanding, bullying their way into the old buildings and pushing past my window frame vertically and horizontally. There are so many cranes on top of the constructions sites—now I am looking at an orange one, stretching and curving into impossible positions like a ballerina, picking up something from below. The reflections on a new glass tower shoot into my eyes like bomb explosions, too bright to paint. And there is so much to paint.
Michael’s room now is covered with paint and crowded with unfinished paintings. He once said, half seriously and half teasingly, that there was no way he would let me paint in his study since I was such a messy painter. I am a much messier painter now.
Michael Gasster was a scholar and historian of modern Chinese history, and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University. He and Ying met at the top of Yellow Mountain in China and were married in 1983.