Hummingbirds lead a solitary existence.
I saw one hummingbird out back last week, darting about the pines. It turned in my direction, tiny pale-bellied fairy-creature suspended in midair, as if to acknowledge my presence across the yard before zipping away. I wondered if it was making some kind of request. The next day I bought a feeder and hung it outside my kitchen window; within moments, a tiny female landed to sip my homemade nectar.
The next day another female arrived. I watched the two of them competing for turns at the feeder. All day they chase each other away, each still managing to land and feed for the few seconds it takes to sate a creature so tiny. One tentative male finally showed up today, his ruby throat resplendent in the sunlight. I haven’t managed to get a photo of him yet. I hope he’ll return, despite these territorial females.
There’s a lot I didn’t know about hummingbirds. They’re curious. They watch me through the window as I’m watching them. I read that they’re highly intelligent; they learn to recognize the person who feeds them and may even remind this person if their sugar water is running low. They are not social, not flock birds. When they migrate to Mexico in the fall, they go it alone. Why does this pull so terribly on my heartstrings? I cannot shake the image in my mind of this tiniest of birds flying so far by itself.
They do not think of themselves as fragile. They are not lonesome.
It’s what they do. They lead a solitary existence.
With that, the hummingbird memory stirs.
Summer, long ago. Riding in Grandma’s rocket-red Ford Galaxie 500 along the dusty dirt road to her sister’s house. The Galaxie doesn’t have power steering or air-conditioning so the windows are down and Grandma has a Kleenex stuffed into her cleavage to catch the trickling sweat. Fortunately Aunt Elizabeth only lives about a mile away, in a little bungalow house with square tapered columns, off to itself by cornfields and groves of hardwoods. There’s a path in the grass of her yard where her old maroon car (I think it was maroon, either a Ford or a Chevy, I can’t recall exactly) is parked by the weathered outbuilding. Grandma and I park behind it and walk in the shade of the trees to Aunt Elizabeth’s back porch.
Everything is old. The porch floorboards, the screen door that squawks on opening and closing, the tiny, cramped kitchen, the worn linoleum revealing a slightly swayed floor, the living room with braided rugs…it’s a dark house, faintly musty. The smell of Time hangs in the air, unmoved even by the square electric floor fan humming on high speed. Aunt Elizabeth is pleased to see me. She opens her arms to give me a hug and kiss. Her pale cheek, faintly mottled with reddish freckles, is cool. She’s two years older than my grandmother. She asks how my Daddy is, says she sure does miss him, oh, she used to enjoy having him over to eat…
Aunt Elizabeth doesn’t have children. Not any that lived. When I first asked about it, Grandma told me of her sister’s two premature, stillborn babies. Tiny things, said Grandma; she was there when it happened. She held them, grieved for them. Aunt Elizabeth was married to Granddaddy’s youngest brother, who died before I was born. He suffered from some kind of condition doctors could never figure out. Without any warning, he’d lose consciousness and collapse. It happened numerous times until the day he had a spell and couldn’t be revived.
So my great-aunt, in her sixties, lives here alone, way out in the country where, in the 1970s, people still don’t have telephones; they drive to each others’ houses to visit and catch up on news. It is good that a few of her eight siblings live close by, that grown nieces and nephews make a point to come by to see her when they can. Aunt Elizabeth gardens, cans her vegetables and preserves in glass jars for storing on her kitchen shelves, drives to town, tends to herself, is completely independent, yet it seems a solitary existence to me. As she chats with Grandma I wonder if she’s lonesome, if she still misses her husband, gone for so long, and if she’s sad about having no children or grandchildren of her own. She hands some bubblegum out to me and I know she got it because she knew I was coming.
When our visit is over, we all walk out on the porch — that’s what you do, in the country. You walk out and wave until your visitor drives out of sight. Unwritten etiquette. Everyone does it. Same for throwing your hand up to any other car you pass on the road.
But Grandma and I don’t leave yet, because of the hummingbirds.
Aunt Elizabeth has strung up several red and yellow plastic feeders around her porch. At every one is a horde of the tiny birds, dipping in and out. The air vibrates from the rapid fanning of their wings; I feel the circulation, a coolness against the heavy summer humidity.
I am awed. I have never seen anything so magical before. I can’t even count how many hummingbirds.
The sisters, in their delight, laugh like young children.
—It comes back to me, watching the few contentious hummingbirds outside my window almost half a century later. I didn’t know how rare a thing it was, then, the communal gathering of hummingbirds. I remember my great-aunt, not with pity. I hear the musical sound of her laughter and the humming of all those tiny wings there on her porch….knowing that in the long enduring of life’s losses and trials come moments of pure enchantment and abundant richness.
I shall need more feeders.
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life story-writing invitation