December is a month filled with joy and celebration as the darkness begins to recede and the light grows stronger each day. No matter your religious beliefs, you can find a reason to light up your home and celebrate. For most of the residents of 44 Cherry Street the lights were all about Christmas. Each window facing Cherry Street was lit up with white twinkling lights (except in Elrod’s window where he had cleverly fashioned lights from empty Budweiser cans.) One window in particular was more festooned than the others, and it was the window in the downstairs apartment across from Elrod’s occupied by Neetu.
Neetu had adopted the Hindu religion after a recent trip to India. She was so taken with the colors and smells of India that she decide that she must actually be Indian. Or she had been Indian in a past life. She had been born and raised on the south shore of Long Island in a lower middle class neighborhood where everyone was either Jewish or Catholic. Her family was Jewish, but her parents did not observe the religion and didn’t even celebrate the holidays. Her friends were all Catholic and Neetu enjoyed attending mass with them. She loved the smell of the incense and the colors of the priests’ robes. In those days mass was said in Latin, so she had no idea what the priests were saying, but she didn’t care. She loved the musical quality of their words and the sounds of the organ. She sat with her friends and watched the light pouring in through the many stained glass windows and the candle light at the altars illuminating the features of the statues of saints in each alcove. Mary in her blue gown was her favorite.
When she had her own apartment in New York City she was torn between decorating for Christmas or lighting a menorah. Christmas was so much more appealing. Any guilt she felt for not celebrating her Jewish heritage was assuaged by buying a small tin menorah and some colorful candles and lighting all the candles each night. She had no knowledge of the prayers to recite and she had only a vague idea about the meaning of the holiday. She knew it had something to do with a miracle involving lamp oil and persecution of the Jews, but that didn’t really resonate with her. She preferred the celebration of the birth of a special baby. It seemed so much more up-beat. Her solution was to celebrate both holidays and light up her apartment with candles and a multitude of lights.
Now that she was a Hindu she celebrated Diwali, the celebration of the birth of Ganesh. To mark the holiday, she filled her apartment with shimmering lights and bright colors using string lights, candles, oil lamps, crafts and, of course, Rangoli; colorful floor designs made of flower petals, rice or sand. Her apartment was decorated with sari silk and mantra cloth and looked even more colorful with the Diwali decorations. Her front window glittered with white lights, colored lights, a menorah and a miniature Christmas tree. She covered the wood floor of her apartment with a large design made of rose petals, but she ran out of room for her rice design. She thought it would be kind to share Diwali with the other residents of the building by creating a large mandala made of rice she had dyed many colors. It took all day to dye the rice and create the large design in the foyer inside the big front door of the building. Once she was done, however, she stood up, rubbed her aching lower back, and admired her work. It looked amazing and she was happy to share Diwali with her neighbors. She returned to her living room and lit a bouquet of sandalwood incense sticks. Before long, the scented smoke billowed out into the foyer. Anyone entering the building would have probably called the fire department.
He was dizzy, confused, and more than a little bit drunk. His head was swimming. Neetu was dressed in a flowing gown and her black hair billowed around her head like a halo, and Elrod stopped his cussing when he saw her. Who was this apparition? Was he dead? Was he in heaven? Was she an angel?
Careful not to lose her balance or slide on the rice, Neetu approached Elrod and helped him up. “Oh you poor man! I feel a little bit responsible for your fall. Please come into my apartment and I’ll get you a drink.”
Drink? He thought he must really be in heaven.