My earliest memories are of teetering along Baker’s Beach with my great-grandmother, watching the seagulls and reaching up frantically for her wrinkled hand when the waves crashed just a little too close for my comfort. Even though I felt small compared to that great, loud ocean, holding my Nana’s hand made me feel just a little bit braver. Long before a child understands language, she comprehends love. My faintest memories are not of words but of the uncanny power of one person’s love to make a frightened little heart feel stronger.
My Nana gave me the bird when I was very little. It used to perch on the kitchen windowsill of her beach house in West Port Point many years ago. Yesterday I dug it out of safekeeping, and now it graces my bedroom windowsill with its silent song and uplifted wings- a little porcelain bird the size of my closed fist.
It is plain, brown, and ordinary, but it is very dear to me. It is a curious thing how objects from our childhood seem to recover in us a sense of who we are. My little bird reminds me of how cherished and adored I was as a little girl, and even now that she’s passed away, my Nana’s love reaches through my memories to make me feel strong again. In a time of my life when it is easy to forget the girl I have been in the wake of the woman I am trying to become, simple reminders like the bird on my windowsill help me to find the young lady I am.
My Nana loved birds, something that was passed down to me at a young age. Birds have always enthralled me, and in their simple, carefree way they have played a significant role in my life. The first birds I remember are the seagulls I used to lean over my Nana’s porch railing to watch as they wheeled through the gray New England sky, crying their “good mornings” to me as they swooped by. The birds that share my family’s home on a quiet, forgotten country road in Connecticut have become an unforgettable part of my girlhood as well. Since we moved here when I was eight years old, the countryside birds have held me captivated. Our house sits on the lazy end of a river, where a snowy egret spends his summers, a crotchety great blue heron makes his home, and a pair of mute swans has raised its cygnets each spring for the past ten years. Along the back edge of our property runs a thick stretch of evergreens, where hundreds of chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, wrens, goldfinches, and especially robins make their home. Our days, our nights, and our seasons here are marked by the birds that share our river valley, and their happy presence has always held an innocent, childlike magic for me.
Every morning just before dawn, when the world swims in a soft, sleepy yellow, the robins sing our little neighborhood valley awake as they fly overhead by the hundreds from their evergreen nests behind our house to the oak trees that line the dairy farmer’s fields on the hill across the river. Every night at dusk, when a dying sky turns the air a dusty pink, the steady traffic of robins fly by our front porch one by one to their nests from wherever their day’s travels have taken them. Their chirping chatter as they settle down for the night reminds me of a mother’s whispered wishes of sweet dreams, and I feel safe and loved as the robins bid each other good night.
Although robins far outnumber the other birds in the valley, they all share a part in our day. The chickadees are gregarious little fellows, and will often join my six and seven year old sisters as they peg sheets over the old swing set to play a feminine version of pirates. I watched one chickadee the other day as he hopped along the monkey bars, cocking his head and observing the girls as they decorated their “ship.” Eventually he tired of watching, and swooped down to snatch a sunflower seed from the feeder on the clothesline and carry it back to his perch in the nearby wisteria bushes. There I watched him crack open his precious seed and turn his head toward the girls every so often to chirp his apparent puzzlement.
Other birds are shyer, such as the barn swallows that have made their timid nest in my horse’s stall for the past three years. When the stall was occupied, I would duck in quietly to muck out every morning, softly apologizing the inconvenience to the flustered couple perching on the fence nearby. They didn’t seem to mind the horses, but it took them a while to grow accustomed to my presence. By the end of the first summer, however, they had made a habit of swooping down to greet me as I traipsed out to the barn every morning and landing on the fence by the shed to chatter with me as I dished out the pony’s grain. When I had finished my chores and joined my sisters for breakfast, thinking of the swallows I would remark to my mother that sometimes conversations were the most enjoyable when you hadn’t the faintest idea what the other was saying to you. This year my barn was empty of horses, and the swallows did not return. As much as I had delighted in their company, I was still surprised how much I missed their cheerful good-mornings.
While the rest of the countryside hibernates beneath the winter snow, most of the birds thrive in the freezing weather. The woodland birds are easy to spot in the snow, and many emerge from their hiding places in the woods when it gets cold to populate the feeders that dot our property. The river comes alive this time of year as well. Although the snowy egret finds our New England winters a bit too frosty for his liking, the herons and the swans make the river their winter home as well. By the time the ice sets in, they’ve been joined by a hundred or so mallards who’ve emerged from the marsh, numerous seagulls, a dozen puddle ducks, and several hundred Canadian geese that arrive to winter here as well. Years ago I raised half a dozen Indian Runner ducks, and when they spent their first winter on the pond, I took to trudging out to feed them cracked corn every morning. That same winter was one of the coldest we’d ever had, and the rest of the river had frozen over. The channel that ran deepest by our house was the only remaining open water on the river left for the birds, and I was soon feeding not only my runner ducks and the puddle ducks from downtown, but the mallards, swans, seagulls, some of the geese, and even a pair of wood ducks as well. I discovered the next fall that birds may have small brains, but they surely remember where to find food. Since that winter, they’ve returned every year for the corn, and I’ve happily tramped out into the snow to feed the winter residents their cracked corn every morning, no matter the weather. Some of my happiest memories of my teen years will be of teaching the wild ducks to eat from my hands. Having your hair nibbled by an affectionate duck who likes the sound of your voice is something special that stays a part of you forever.
These and many more memories are what come to mind and touch my heart when my Nana’s little porcelain bird catches the corner of my eye from my bedroom sill. Its silent pose reminds me of the winged friends that have always brought me peace of mind when my heart’s wings spread in eager anticipation to soar. My Nana loved simple beauty, something I remember most about her. My birds are beautiful simplicity in a complicated world. When a wood duck squeaks at me suspiciously for a half an hour before he decides to waddle up and nibble corn from my otherwise-impatient hands, and all that matters for the moment is love and trust, the world feels like such a simpler place. Happiness is not a state of possession; it’s a position of peace. The little bird on my sill makes me smile, because it stands for my happy and secure girlhood, and the precious people that have flown in and out of my life just like the swallows that graced one summer and haunted the next. My birds are happiness to me, because they teach me that sometimes the simplest things are the most precious. For all the high-level technology that rushes our world along at a breakneck pace, the most important things in life are still love and trust. A little frozen piece of porcelain is happiness to me for its reminder that if my heart needs simplicity to stay young, perhaps the rest of the world needs a soft reminder as well.
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