A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.

Charmed

 

The door to my home is now charmed.

By a family of finches.

I’ve been researching house finches since a pair of them persevered in rebuilding a nest on the wreath adorning my front door, where the mother laid four tiny blue eggs (see last week’s post, Sanctuary). I discovered in my reading that the word for a group of finches is a charm.

A word of delight, enchantment, magic . . . very much what I feel as I step into my bird sanctuary to check on the babies. The last egg hatched early this morning. The mother removed the eggshells after each hatching so now there’s just four pink things with tufts of gray-white feathers huddling close to one another, so tiny that they’d all fit easily in the palm of my hand with room to spare.

I think: They’re so fragile. Yet so hardy. 

A paradox describing life itself.

With every glimpse of the hatchlings I am filled with the glory of being alive. That they are alive, changing every single moment. That I am alive to see them. My door is their sanctuary; they are my miracle. That this is the ordinary course of things does not make it any less so; we will never have a sense of the miraculous if we cease to look for it.

I wonder what the babies will think of me, this formidable being who briefly appears and disappears by the rim of their dwelling. I do not want them to be afraid. I can offer my bird family nothing but the safety and shelter of my porch roof, but, truth is, the mother and father chose the place and it had nothing to do with me. The mother flies to a nearby pine when she sees me coming, so I limit my visits to once a day for a few seconds. I get my fix of awe and get out of the way.

Honoring the life that came into my sphere.

There are so many directions I might take this post, as a mother, as a teacher, as a literacy coach, as a writer. I will let it rest on the level of human being: Honor the lives that come your way. How you do so is the shape and artistry of your own life. It is what we’re meant to do, every bit as much as the mother finch was meant to design her beautiful, dandelion-laced nest for the lives it now holds.

I am grateful for my tiny charm of finches, profoundly grateful for life itself.

Charmed, indeed, in so many ways.

Incidentally, charm comes from the Latin carmen, meaning “song” and “verse.” The babies are silent right now but in a few days they’ll be peeping, eventually singing. Finches are songbirds. All in all, I cannot think of a better word to collectively describe these little creatures.

Although I intentionally didn’t mention before that the other word for a group of finches is a trembling.

Again so perfect.

Not for describing the finches, however. For describing me as I stand in the quiet of my porch sanctuary viewing the new pink life, holding my breath, a wordless song swelling in my heart, trembling at the minuteness and magnitude of it all.

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As the last egg was hatching

 

 

Sanctuary

Stained glass birds

Stained-glass birds. Jesse RadonskiCC BY

Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess

They all went together to seek a bird’s nest.

They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in,

They all took one and left four in.

—Mother Goose

It’s the summer of birds.

They became a recurring motif in my summer writing workshop. 2018 is actually The Year of the Bird, marking the 100th anniversary of major bird protection laws. I’ve discovered that I’ve written enough bird stories to give them their own category for this blog. I am reading a stunning, lyrical book recently recommended to me, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. I recalled the friendly little parrot I saw at a store a while back, and thought—for maybe seven seconds—about how nice it would be to have another pet bird.

And so they came. As if summoned.

House finches, they are. A pair built a nest in my lantern porch light fixture. I would not let my family turn on that light at night for fear of burning the birds. A brood hatched, grew quickly, and was gone; here’s a fledgling tarrying behind on the last day:

 

Once the nest was empty, our younger son, Cadillac Man, removed it and my husband had the house power washed (a thing well past due).

A day later, I heard a commotion on the front porch.

Birds. Very loud ones.

The front window blinds were up; I could see a male finch, a soft dusting of red on his breast, hopping to and fro along the white railing like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam (forgive the mixing of genders here but that is what he looked like). He paused to stare right back at me. A speckled brown female flew to him, then instantly away again. Two or three more finches skittered nearby. The collective chatter seemed highly agitated—consternation is the word that came to mind.

It’s the nest, I thought. They’ve come back and it’s gone.

They had to be the same mother and father. I wondered if the others were part of their newly-grown brood. Or a support group. Some sort of council?  They seemed to be consulting over the vanished nest. Maybe problem-solving? Collaborating? Making decisions?

For two days, the lively bird debate continued.

Then it died down.

And a piece of pine straw appeared in the bottom of the lantern.

From the window I saw both male and female bringing more pieces, saw the male drop his on the porch floor, fly down to retrieve it, and hover like a hummingbird to work it into place.

My older son, The Historian, passing through the hallway, stopped beside me to watch: “It’s amazing how they know to do this.”

“What’s going on?” his father called from the living room.

“The birds are building another nest in the porch light,” I told him.

“Oh, no they’re not,” he said. “We just had the house washed. The porch was disgusting.”

He went to the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer. He went to the porch, pulled out the three pieces of pine straw.

And put aluminum foil in the lantern:

It sent the finches into a frenzy. For another day, the loud bird-chatter resumed. I found a bit of foil on the porch floor; had one of them tried to tug the stuff loose?

And I worried about the birds cutting themselves on the aluminum, about time elapsing when they clearly needed their nest. The female must be getting ready to lay more eggs, or why all this fuss?

What would they do?

The next day when I opened the front door to go get the mail, I heard a rush of wings and I knew.

The wreath on the door.

Sure enough, on the top of the wreath lay a few long grasses.

I chose to keep this a secret for several days, until:

“All right, you guys,” I announced to my menfolk, “we now have a nest on our wreath with an egg in it. No opening the front door until these birds are gone.”

I may have also mentioned, nonchalantly, that it is illegal in the United States to remove a nest containing eggs.

And then I worried even more: Is the wreath secure enough? How many more eggs will there be? Will they—will the babies—be safe?

The nest made me want to cry. At the perfection of it, at the dried dandelions laced through it like deliberate decoration, an artist’s touch. I wanted to cry at the determination of these birds to live on my porch, how they persevered in rebuilding their home from scratch. They do not know that they built on the door of my home as well as on my heart, where there’s an especially tender spot these days for little creatures and their well-being. I still mourn a small dog, grown old and frail, that I could not save. A rawness in my soul that has yet to grow new skin.

While these birds do not really need me, they spark a sense of ownership and protection. They’re in my realm now, in my sphere of influence.

All I can give them is sanctuary.

I remember how, when I was a child riding in the backseat of a car watching the cityscape give way to fields and forests, a little green sign appeared:

BIRD SANCTUARY

I puzzled over this: Where’s the bird church?

It took some time to understand that birds can’t be hunted here, that sanctuary means safe place. 

A place to be, grow, flourish, and fly. Something every living thing needs.

Sanctuary was the word I chose to describe the writing workshop just a month ago. The workshop that had the bird motif running through it. A safe place to think, explore, write, share.

So now, every morning, when the sun is new, when shadows are sharp on the ground, while the dew is still sparkling on the grass, I walk from the garage door to visit the sanctuary. Mama Finch sees me coming as soon as I round the corner; she flies out of the nest, bobbing through the air without a sound. There’s a reverent silence, a holy hush, in sanctuaries, you know. She waits on the rooftop while I quickly admire her handiwork. I go before she’s troubled. I’ve learned from these visits that she lays her eggs between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m.

As soon as my husband and I returned from a trip to the beach, he asked: “Have you checked on your eggs?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling at his words. My eggs.

I have four.

*******

Stay tuned for the hatching announcement.

While writing this post I could not help thinking how “sanctuary” applies to teaching and instructional coaching. As with the house finches—which are symbolic of joy, happiness, optimism, variety, diversity, high energy, creativity, celebration, honoring resources, and enjoying the journey—a safe place to be, grow, flourish, and fly comes through concentrated, collaborative effort. Right now my finches are singing. A song, perhaps, that all of humanity still needs to hear.

Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for then he wore a worse frown than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?”

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t, and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new; an extension of myself, what I love, who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.

The horse

Secretariat

Secretariat. Charles LeBlancCC BY-SA

They’re gathered at the kitchen table—Daddy, Mama, Grannie, Earnie— as Mama shuffles the cards. With a riffling “flflflflflflflflflflt,” she makes the cards fall in a fancy bridge finish. I don’t know how she does it. They’re playing Canasta. Cigarette smoke hangs thicker than fog in the close kitchen; Grannie is the only one who doesn’t smoke. I sometimes think that the white cloud pouring like an upside-down waterfall from Earnie’s lips straight up to her nostrils looks kind of dragonish. I wonder again why she’s not married, being my mother’s older sister. My sister and I almost never call her Aunt. She’s just Earnie. 

I can’t stay in the kitchen for long. The smoke stings my eyes and makes me cough. I watch cartoons with my sister for a while on TV, then drift back to my room to look at my at rock and mineral sticker books, until I am thirsty and come back to the kitchen for Kool-Aid. The grown-ups pay me no mind; they’re into their game. I pay them no mind as I get my drink from a pitcher in the refrigerator.  

Until I hear them saying a strange name. One I’ve heard on TV.

A lot. 

It sounds like “secretary.”

Earnie is a secretary. For something called Sybil Service. For the Army, I think, but she doesn’t wear a uniform. She can write in shorthand. I have seen her notepads and her little squiggles look made up. How can those little curly marks mean anything at all?

But they’re not talking about a person. I can tell by the way they say the name that there’s something very important about it. 

“Who is Secretary It?” I ask. I gulp my Kool-Aid. 

Secretariat,” Daddy says, enunciating clearly, frowning at his cards. “He’s a racehorse that just made history. He won the Triple Crown—ran so fast that he left all the other horses behind like they were just standing still.” 

Secretariat. Secretariat.

The name is as strange as Earnie’s shorthand. It uncurls in my head like a wisp of smoke. The way Daddy says it is the way people speak in church before the preacher preaches. When the music is just beginning. 

Part of me suddenly envies this horse who can run so fast, who’s so strong. I can’t run. When I do, I can’t breathe; my asthma is as heavy as a horse sitting on my chest and all I can do is wheeze until it passes.

But another part of me tastes something sweeter than Kool-Aid when I whisper his name.

Which I do, over and over.

Secretariat.

*******

I don’t remember seeing him run or win the Triple Crown in 1973. I didn’t know he was the first such winner since 1948, that he broke records with his times, that he won the Belmont by 31 lengths—so much that when I look at the old footage now, the other horses aren’t even in the frame with him. I didn’t know anything about horse racing at all, nothing about the big money, or betting, or odds.

But I remember the awe, the utter reverence, with which his name was spoken. His image, a magnificent, glossy red horse with three white-stockinged legs, soon became familiar to me.

What I understood instantly, the day I learned of him, is that he was the stuff of legend. His name tasted of rare glory, of something almost otherworldly. It’s possible that Secretariat was the beginning of my love of things fantastic.

I celebrate Justify’s recent Triple Crown win. I pulled for him all the way, holding my breath, tears flooding my eyes when he crossed the finish line, another beautiful chestnut horse excelling at exactly what he was born to do.

And I marvel at my weepiness, at my need to go back and watch the clips of Secretariat, to read about him one more time. It’s a longing born of wonder, of the crystallized moment that this big red horse with the strange name seeped into my heart like the red Kool-Aid stain above my lip, sparking something magical in the little girl that I was.

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Tell me something good

Don't believe everything

Image: John D. Fisher, street photographer. CC BY-SA

When I found this photo of a man reading the newspaper, I noted that his pet pelican has grabbed a corner. I imagined the bird saying to the man, somewhat dryly as it peers at the page, Tell me something good.

It just so happens that a teacher colleague recently wore a shirt to school bearing these same words. Tell me something good.

“Well,” I said to her, “This is something good: Summer’s almost here.”

She laughed. At the time she was was returning her end-of-grade testing materials. “I hope people tell me something good all day.”

I began to think about how different a day could be if people continually heard something good from others.

Vacation’s almost here.

The test is over.

I enjoy working with my colleagues.

I admire your work.

I found twenty dollars in the pocket of a coat I was about to throw out!

Systems and society can make us pretty acclimated to the negative. Deficits, grievances, outrageous behavior, all that’s broken, all that’s not working. Things that beat down rather than build up.

But good stuff’s always happening out there.

All the time, everywhere.

A stranger stopped to change my tire this morning. He was tired, on his way home from working the night shift, but he said that being able to help someone is a blessing. 

I got a well-written thank you note from a young person.

Another Triple Crown winner!

It’s all about hope, really. A reminder that there’s much to keep striving for in the hard grind of life. And that it’s worth it.

Tell me something good.

Please.

Of calluses and rings

My older son showed me his hands this morning: “Look, Mom.”

He has tiny calluses across both palms from working out.

It causes me to reflect on why we labor hard enough at something for the friction to wear such places on our skin. To my son, the weight training is worth the effort for his physical well-being; he is dedicated to his regimen. His hands pay this small price for the health of the rest of his body.

In the photo above, a man’s ring has worn a callus on his palm when he forgot to remove it before a mountain bike race. It draws me because I have a similar, very faint callus on my own left palm from my wedding band. As I hardly race mountain bikes or use my hands in intensive manual labor on a daily basis—and I don’t even wear my rings while at home due to contact with soaps, cleansers, and detergents—it’s a bit mysterious as to why this hard little spot exists on my hand. I’ve decided that it’s occurred over time, over many, many years of marriage.

Therein lies the rub, so to speak. The ring, over time, has worn the callus. Might it be symbolic of marriage friction? For, let’s face it, no two people can live under the same roof for long without some earnest element of friction. But in a strong marriage—in any strong relationship—the labor of love is worth it; you keep at it. As long as your hearts don’t become callused (and your attitude callous) toward one another, the relationship protects itself against the friction. That’s what a callus is, a protection-against-the-friction place.

Last Saturday, my younger son, Cadillac Man, showed me the huge callus on his own palm. It’s from the shovel he used to dig the grave for Nik, our sixteen-year-old dachshund. This little dog was his daily companion since he was four and saw him almost through college.

If you’ve ever raised a dachshund, you know about friction . . . .

But the callus on Cadillac Man’s hand is a labor of love.

And worth it, for while his heart (and mine) are presently more sore than his hand, we expect more calluses yet, for we’re going to make a memorial garden where Nik is buried. A beautiful callus on the earth, if you will. A protection-against-the-friction of having to let him go, a working toward healing by building up a place of strength. The pains of creating our little memorial will be insignificant compared to the expected result.

It happens to be Memorial Day weekend. I think of men and women wearing wedding rings given by spouses who’ve died in service of the United States. Of families and friends marking the losses of those they loved. They’ll bear the scars of it on their hearts always. I think of those who fell, in this generation and all those before, believing that, if they must pay the price of their lives for the well-being of others, the outcome would be worth it.

Labors of love, protection-against-the-friction.

The story of sacrifice, sometimes complete, often beautiful, lies in the hard places left behind.

 

Roses in the smoke

Red rosebud

Rosebud. Jan SoloCC BY-SA

By the chain link fence of our backyard, a rosebush grows. 

It’s really growing in our neighbors’ backyard, but, according to my mother, there’s an agreement that the roses hanging over into our yard are ours, and the roses on the neighbors’ side are theirs. 

So, early one Sunday morning, my mother ushers my sister and me out to the fence. In one hand my mother holds pair of shears. In her other hand is a cigarette. Salem. Menthol Fresh.

“Pick out the rose you want to wear,” she says. “From the ones on our side.”

The roses are vivid red with a hot pink tint. Some are wilting. Some are big and full. Velvety. Their fragrance is heavy in the air. 

“This one!” says my sister, pointing to a large bloom.

That one might fall apart while you’re wearing it. Find one that’s not all the way open yet.”

Why did she tell us to choose?

We finally select tight rosebuds that my mother thinks are acceptable. She puts her cigarette in her mouth and clips the two buds. Then she clips a third one that’s partially open.

“Why are you cutting three roses?” I want to know.

My mother blows a cloud of smoke into the air. Menthol and tobacco mingle with the scent of roses. “One’s for me. Grannie is living, so I’ll wear a red rose to church for Mother’s Day, too.” 

She has three straight pins in her sleeve. She removes one to pin my sister’s rose to the front of her dress. 

I am thinking about Grannie. Her mother is not living. “What color rose will Grannie wear, then?”

White,” says my mother, pinning my red rosebud to my dress.

I am sorry for Grannie, her mother being dead, having to wear a white rose. One day my mother will wear a white rose on Mother’s Day. The thought floods me with sadness. The colors make me wonder—why?  Why red for living mothers and why white for dead mothers?

Is red for the blood?” I ask.

My mother, in the midst of pinning her own rose, leans in. She can’t hear well. Sometimes she doesn’t catch everything other people are saying. “What?”

Do people wear red for living mothers because they still have blood in them and white for dead mothers because when they die there’s no more blood?”

My mother frowns. An upside-down V appears between her eyebrows as she looks at me. I can tell she heard me and that she doesn’t understand the question. Before I can try again, she says, “All right, we’re ready. The bus should be here any minute. Let’s go wait out front.”

We ride the bus to church because my mother doesn’t drive. She never learned how. And Daddy is asleep because he’ll be getting up to go to work while we’re at church.

We stand out front, my mother, my sister, and me, wearing matching dresses that my mother made, with our three red roses pinned on, waiting for the church bus. It’s really an old school bus, now painted navy blue and white. My mother lights another cigarette. My sister plays with her necklace—a tan-and-white rabbit’s foot on a piece of yellow yarn around her neck—and I think about colors. Red and white. Living and dead. Blood and no blood.

Good thing we have our own red rosebush for Mother’s Day, or what would we do?

It would be many years before I wondered what color rose a person might wear for a mother in an altered state. As in the case of, say, addiction. As in, if the relationship had disintegrated because of it, because the mother is consumed. Because it happens, somewhere, to somebody, every day. What is the color of dysfunction? Of existing, but not really living? Surely not a blend of red and white, for pink is too cheery. Gray? Does a gray rose even exist in nature? If it did, why would anyone wear it as homage to a mother?

One would just not wear any rose at all, rather than wearing one the color of ghosts, of shadows, of clouded memories, of the mists of time, even if the sun occasionally breaks through to shine on what was good, as on a rosebush blooming along a chain link fence and a bud like a drop of blood on a little girl’s dress, even as swirling smoke envelops it, before the ashes fall.

Eating life

My friends and I spoke recently of family members in various stages of dementia and failing health.

Our declining ones hallucinate. They see children who aren’t there and can relate what the children are doing: running down the hall, making a mess with cereal, simply standing there in the room. They speak of loved ones long dead, as if they are well and visit regularly. Time is a viscous fluid in the brain of someone nearing the end of life; it is often hard to discern if the person is speaking of events that occurred yesterday, today, or fifty years ago.

Sometimes the visions are unnerving.

My father would visit Grannie, my mother’s mother, in the hospital. He’d help feed her. One day during their conversation, Grannie casually told my father: “I see Earline over there.”

My mother’s sister, who died of cancer years before. She never married and lived at home with Grannie.

Daddy, taken aback, asked, “Where is she?”

Grannie pointed. “Over there against the wall. Under the clock.”

There was a clock, in fact. High on the bare hospital wall.

Daddy said, “But . . . ”

Grannie cut him off. Looked him right in the eye: “I know she’s dead.”

Never one to tolerate fancies, my father asked, “Well, what does she look like?”

Grannie hesistated. Maybe grasping for words. “Kind of grave-y.”

A mere observation, without emotion or alarm. She may as well have been commenting on the weather or the hospital food.

I told this story when the topic came up with my friends, as we commiserated on watching our aged loved ones endure these haunting effects.

“It’s so strange,” said one friend, who has two relatives suffering with dementia. “Neither of them ever liked to eat eggs. Never in their whole lives. Now that’s all they ask for – Can you bring me some scrambled eggs? Run on over to IHOP and get me some eggs.”

I tried to recall if my grandmothers and mother-in-law made this request. But they’d all liked eggs; it wouldn’t have been unusual.

While my friends talked, I kept thinking There’s something to this egg thing.

It’s true that the tastes of dementia patients can change, that they sometimes develop cravings for things they never liked before. The answer could be that simple; eggs are a simple food.

They’re considered brain food. How interesting that a person succumbing to dementia should begin to crave them. Numerous articles on foods good for the brain reference choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks, that helps improve memory, brain cell communication, and even fetal brain development. Eggs are protein, the building block of the brain, the building block of life itself.

This is where I leap from the physical, the scientific, to the metaphysical. All around the world, since ancient times, the egg symbolizes life. In some belief systems, life-energy. An object small enough to hold in your hand, the egg represents the universe, health, nature awakening, new life about to emerge, immortality.

And hope.

They may sense it, they may not, those whose brains are slowly giving way. Perhaps it is the final rallying cry of the brain alone, this impulse to eat eggs, in an effort to hold on, to carry on.

Can you please bring me some eggs? 

Eating health, even as it ebbs away.

Eating hope.

They are eating life.

Divine appointment

Cardinal

Cardinal Singing Along. Don and Janet BeasleyCC BY-SA

Broom in hand, I descend the brick steps where moss has newly sprung. The sidewalk needs sweeping and I’ve only a minute. Must get to school early, to prepare for the day; the minutiae of all that has to be done circles round and round my mind. 

But I have to do this first. Oddly. Sweeping the sidewalk is not part of my morning routine. 

Hurry. Hurry.

All is still but for the light chatter of a few birds, waking. The sound of early spring. The sound of April. Of a new day. I pause, listening. How cheerful, how happy their bird voices are, even if to them it’s just regular conversation. My spirit eases, just hearing them. I note that the light is unusual. Against random trees and shrubs, the dawn gleams amber in patches. Everything else is a backdrop in half light. There’s an edge to it all, a starkness. The sky is moody. Altocumulus clouds, dark in their middles, gleaming around their rims, are gathered in bands or waves; this is what scientists call a mackerel sky, I think. Strange light.

—Time. Be aware.

Right, I must hurry.

Just as I put broom to concrete, I see it.

Over in the neighbor’s yard, in the shadows under the bushy, unpruned crape myrtle. 

The brightest spot of color I’ve ever seen. Red. Rosy, electric red, brighter than any neon light, as vivid as fire, glowing, but not burning. Just being. I blink. How does such a color even exist in nature? It has to be a cardinal but I can’t see the rest of him, just his plump breast. A half-memory from childhood stirs in my mind, of pretending I had a pet cardinal and spraying pine-scented air freshener throughout the house to create his forest, where he could fly freely— but for all my attraction to the male cardinal’s plumage, I’ve never seen it to the intensity and brilliance as right now in this capricious light.

I want to see him better but I dare not move. 

I think I’ve quit breathing.

Could I, maybe, get a picture? If I’m stealthy, can I make it into the house and back with my phone? 

I have to try. I have to capture this image.

I watch him as I ease toward the house. He moves a little, hopping in the dappled grass.

As soon as I reach the steps, out of his field of vision, I race through the front door to the kitchen, grab my phone, turn, shoot back through the door, take the steps without making a sound, stop, and creep to where I can see the crape myrtle.

He’s still there! I can’t believe it!

An astounding spot of color, radiating an otherworldly light.

Holy.

I aim my phone and zoom in . . . 

On the screen I see the thin myrtle branches up close. The grass, the shadows, the sunlit patches. —Where’s my bird?

I look away from the phone back to the scene, to get my bearings . . . don’t know how I could have missed, I aimed right where he was standing . . . .

Gone.

He is gone.

In the second between my sighting him and my lifting the phone, he vanished. Without a sound or any perceptible movement. He was and then he was not. Just like that.

Nowhere to be seen at all.

I stand frozen, phone in hands, an inexplicable feeling sweeping through me. 

The moment passed and nothing remains of it. Stunning, that spot of fiery color like no other, in the shadows under that tree. One glimpse of glory. He was so beautiful and I never even saw all of him. Even if I do see him again—and I’ll try, at this same time tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after—it will never happen again, not just like this. The clouds will not be the same. The position of the sun will be slightly different. It can never be again exactly as it was. 

I so wanted to capture his image, the holiness of it, to keep it forever, and I could not.

But I hold it in my mind. I cling to every breathtaking detail. 

I write it before it leaves me, wondering at the tears burning behind my eyes over this one bird, this one moment, why it should be so significant, to make me feel so much.

I was just there, unexpectedly, and so was he.

For one shining moment, we just were.