For 62 Christmases running, Waldtraut Rome had treated her neighbors to the nearest thing East Meadow has to a Macy’s holiday window.
Rome’s paintings on her living room picture window – scenes of snowmen, cartoon characters and Bible stories – are visible to anyone who passes by on the street or sidewalk. They have been a tradition since her family moved into the neighborhood in 1955.
But as the holidays approached this year, some wondered whether Rome, now 92 and with failing eyesight, was up to the task of decorating the 5-foot by 4-foot window pane
They needn’t have wondered.
“It’s something I started, and I don’t want to stop,” Wally, as she’s known to friends, said on a recent evening when family members gathered to appreciate her latest effort, a wintry tableau of a snowman beside a candlelit streetlight. “The fun is just doing it and that everybody can see it,” Rome said.
The petite, plainspoken woman says her Christmas painting is the only holiday decorating she needs.
“I don’t bother with lights or anything. All I do is paint my window with ideas from my own mind, my own brain.”
Year after year, Rome’s picture-window paintings have delighted generations of her family and charmed neighbors as well. Sometimes, she says, motorists pause at the stop sign kitty-corner from her house to watch her work. And although in recent years family members have suggested retiring her paint box, Rome is determined to continue sharing her artistic gifts as she has for through good and difficult times.
Maryann Williams, who has lived next door for the past 35 years, said Rome’s artwork “puts the spirit of Christmas on the block.”
Williams had wondered whether the tradition would continue this year when she left on a Thanksgiving trip. “The first thing I saw when I pulled up was the window,” Williams recalled of her return home, “and I said to myself, OK, Wally did her mural.”
Family members start guessing about mid-November whether and what she’ll paint, but Rome keeps tight-lipped about her plans.
“She likes to surprise us,” said Rome’s daughter Dale Smith, 63, of Levittown. “She starts teasing us before Thanksgiving. She says she has a couple of ideas, but she’s not telling.”
Rome learned perspective and other painterly skills in art classes at Flushing High School in Queens. She briefly toyed with becoming a professional painter. But at 19 she married, and after her husband, Curtis, returned from merchant marine service in World War II, they started a family.
By the time they moved into East Meadow in 1955, they had four children, Curtis was director of overseas affairs for Doubleday in Garden City, and Wally had set her artistic sites on her picture window.
“The window was too bare at Christmas time,” she said. “I decided to do something about it and put some color up there.”
Variety of themes
Over the years, Rome’s themes have reflected the tenor and trends of the times. She also likes to please her family, which has grown to include 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
“When we were younger, she would do more Disney and Santa, and when we were older she got more into painting Baby Jesus, the American flag, and one year she did a soldier,” said Rome’s daughter Diane Faggione, 68, a semiretired nurse who also lives in East Meadow.
Rome also has twin sons, Donald of Floral Park, and Daniel, of Boyertown, Pennsylvania, both 71.
“She kind of included what the culture was that year,” Faggione said. “She thought a long time about what she wanted to say through her picture.”
After 9/11, the snowman shared the window with two children holding American flags and wearing red, white and blue scarves. The next year’s painting also was patriotic: an Uncle Sam-inspired nutcracker attired in red, white and blue and holding Old Glory.
Rome’s rendition of E.T. landed on the window in 1982, the year the classic film opened, the alien holding earthling Elliott’s hand and pointing at a star. Garfield was depicted opening a Christmas present in 1997, later on Will Ferrell’s “Elf” character made an appearance. Another year featured the Little Drummer Boy with the face of one of Rome’s grandchildren painted from a Christmas card photo.
Dozens of Christmas cards that have inspired her during the past 63 years are kept inside a paint-smudged letter-size envelope that is stored with her brushes in a paint box she’s had for more than 80 years. It was handmade by her father, George Bruns, a German immigrant who built homes in Queens.
Rome’s creations take about 10 to 15 hours spread over two or three days, depending on how detailed she wants the painting to be. She begins by sponging a blue paint undercoat on the inside of the glass, then she outlines the details with black paint.
“I outline it in black so it can be seen outside, too,” she says. Sometimes she adds a seasonal message, such as “Christmas Is Love.” The phrase must be painted backward, as a mirror image, so it can be read from outside.
As she dabs paint from a plastic-plate palette, neighbors often stop by to check on her progress.
“It’s very enjoyable when I’m working there and people come back later and it’s a little bigger, and they pass by the next day and it’s done,” Rome said.
Time to admire her work
After she puts down her brushes, she enjoys sitting back and admiring her own handiwork. “I say, ‘Gee that’s pretty good. It took a day and half to do it and that was worth it.’”
After New Year’s Day, the paint is cleaned off the window, but not before a photo is taken to preserve the image alongside others in an album begun in the mid-1950s.
Rome keeps painting despite the challenges of aging and family suggestions to retire the paint box.
Being hospitalized in 1989 with a pulmonary embolism slowed her down a little.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to do the window, but it has to be simple – a snowman and a reindeer’,” Rome recalled. Nor did she skip the painting after her husband, Curtis, died nine years ago, or three years ago when she began treatment for wet macular degeneration, which has all but blinded her left eye and limited vision in her right eye.
When fate intervenes, she adapts. “When she’s painting, she angles herself to look through the side a little bit,” Smith said. “Nothing stops my mother.”
She’s even been known to roll with the rare critic. One year someone dropped a note in her mailbox urging her to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” The next year, Rome, a devout Episcopalian, painted a nativity scene.
This year’s effort was simpler, repeating a snowman theme she’s often returned to. Family members said they are cherishing this year’s snowman as if it might be her last effort.
“If she doesn’t do it next year it will be bittersweet, like the end of an era,” Smith said.
Rome, who turns 93 in January, said she has no intention of hanging up her paint brushes for good.
“I think I have an idea for next year,” she said at the family gathering. “I’ve got so much paint, I might as well use it.”