When I was three or so, I loved to go for walks and I loved to watch birds. One of my mother’s favorite stories to tell is one about us walking, probably home from my grandmother’s house just up the road, and I was (so she thought) jabbering away to myself. Then I suddenly stopped, stomped my foot and said, “You know I can’t fly!”
I hadn’t been talking to myself after all. I’d been conversing with the birds.
Not much longer after that I discovered books, and spent the next few decades much preferring to curl up somewhere inside. I hated the outdoors, and certainly hated to waste precious reading time on a walk. And, good lord, birds? Those were the dead things the cats left on the deck that I made sure to avoid squishing between my bare toes in the summer. I certainly never understood those silly people who mucked about in the woods for hours on end, trying to spy some rare whatchamacallit bird, their binoculars and field guides at the ready.
You know where this is going, right?
Instead of binoculars I have a zoom lens, and instead of a field guide there’s Google. Still, though, I’m becoming one of those weird bird people. I’m now THAT girl who makes her boyfriend stand in the middle of a forest while trying to first locate and then photograph creatures that, by their very nature, do not sit still for very long. (He’s a peach, that Erik.) Also, my laptop has a file just for bird pictures, most of which are of very ordinary sparrows and finches that like to hang out in bushes near my office. I find them ridiculously cute:
Rest assured I’m not talking to them, at least not yet. However, my summer bucket list includes big plans for a bird feeder for the deck, along with some container gardens full of wildflowers and maybe some vegetables too (except I don’t want the birds to eat my tomatoes). My cat is an indoor cat so there will be no bird carnage to step on, although I do anticipate her spending a lot of time glued to the window that overlooks the deck. Meanwhile, I’m counting the days til I can get my hands dirty with some potting soil.
All this bird and garden planning has me thinking about my grandfather Bob, whom I called Papa (pronounced “puppa”). He was fond of birds too – although I think it had a lot to do with the fact that they ate bugs off his plants. Some of my earliest memories are of playing outside in his flower beds and his vegetable garden, and eating strawberries and raspberries straight off the bush, warm from the sun. I used to follow him around dragging a green plastic watering can that, at least from the photos, was just about as big as me. In the middle of the front lawn sat the square well cap with a cement pedastal bird bath in front of it, and I used to love watching the robins preen and chirp away. The well was guarded by two large bushes– on one side a bluebell bush, on the other side an enormous purple lilac bush that bloomed like no other I have seen. Every year in late May the lilacs perfumed the air with a scent so strong and beautiful you could even smell it inside the house. Papa also grew peonies and gladiolas, and every summer strangers would stop and ask how he grew them so big. (At the same time, he was a little clueless about some things: my dad tells of the time they were walking out through the woods because Papa was convinced someone was growing pot back there on his land. Papa stood knee deep in a patch of marijuana declaring he had no idea where it was, but it was somewhere.)
Some other random things: He was a Scotchman by way of Nova Scotia, and ran an elevator business in Boston. Every time I get into an elevator in an old building in the city, I wonder if he installed it. My mom talks about watching him come home on the trolley, wearing a hat and tie, the newspaper tucked under his arm. After he retired he would go to bed at 7 pm and get up at 3 am, sitting in the rocking chair in the kitchen that bore my teethmarks on its arm. When my grandmother wanted to make him mad, she’d put Sousa marches on the record player and give us kids pots and pans to bang with metal spoons, sending him cursing out to his workshop off the kitchen.
He died twelve years ago, at the ripe old age of 96.
I’ve come to understand that stories like these are my inheritance; these mundane tidbits that shaped a person, made him who he was; and made me who I am, at least in part. Separately they are ordinary, throwaway pieces, but together they can weave a unique person to life, long after they are dead. I’ve been watching these sparrows thinking, how splendid they are in their ordinary little daily lives, busy building their nests and feeding themselves. It’s forced me to think about how splendid we are, in our own ordinary lives, tending our own gardens, preening our own feathers. I used to think being ordinary was the worst possible thing imaginable, but the older I get the more magic I see in every day things. A walk in the woods, a stolen kiss, a dog’s wet nose, one perfect hot pink peony — all these things that burn in our memories long after they are over, just as people who have gone burn bright in our hearts. And then, of course, what will my own stories be, and who will caretake them when I am gone?
No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given – so we track it, in linear fashion piece by piece. Time however can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was is; everything that ever will be is – and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but something that is.”
~Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale