Mom’s Bird Book

This entry is part of my personal series on grief, called Wish You Were There, that’s unrelated to travel.

I didn’t hold a service or go to one for my sister or my niece (I was taking care of Mom, kind of), but when Mom was the last of that set to die, I was determined to have some kind of ceremony for her. Which was basically me holding hostage the generous group of people who showed up to her gravesite when I asked them to.

I wanted to say something about Mom at that ceremony but I didn’t know where to start, and that’s when I took a cue from a friend who’s a minister. She said that props help. And what better props than books for a brief tour of Mom’s life? That woman always had a book going, and sometimes she wore a tiny one on a necklace. Seriously.

These five books are what I picked then, and I’m going to stick to them now. Really, any books would work.

I’m going to use Peterson’s Guide to talk about her in this entry because that same book is literally in Tracy’s hands right now (or in the hands of our friends Doug and Melanie if they borrowed it when they went birding today). Well, they don’t have the eastern birds volume, since we’re all in Texas right now, but close enough.

Ever since Tracy and I started out on this adventure and Tracy rebooted his birding habit, I’ve been trying to express to him how much birds meant to my mom. She had a scientific interest but also an emotional connection. Let’s say she was entirely fascinated by and in love with nature. As many people are, but with her it was a relationship full of beauty.

Every home she lived in, she had binoculars by the window. I really think Mom couldn’t pass by a window without looking for birds. And when she went walking in the woods, she knew the trees and the wild flowers (some by their Latin names) and she knew the birds by their calls.

I happen to know the names of many eastern songbirds now simply because I grew up hearing her say them, all excited, when she saw them. I can write out a list off the top of my head—even though I don’t own a pair of binoculars or my own bird book—because the names are like songs to me.

Chickadee (dee dee dee), tufted titmouse, phoebe (phoebe?), nuthatch, Carolina wren, pine warbler, whippoorwill, various buntings, orioles, woodpeckers, and her favorite, bluebirds.

She could imitate their calls, not exactly like a recording, but in her own voice. Always with a laugh in there somewhere, too.

Even after Dad died and she moved to the suburbs, she found a park with woods in it and walked every day. There was a tree stump there that looked like a fox that delighted her, and she knew where all the wild orchids popped up each year. Here she’s walking outside the memory unit of her assisted living place; she probably doesn’t know where she is, but she knows enough to stop to feel moss.

When we were all together living in the country in central Virginia, Dad built a bunch of bird houses and nailed them to the pine trees that he’d left standing when he built our house. One birdhouse brought a family of bluebirds back year after year, and Mom loved those birds, especially. Every year she kept track of which generation of the family was nesting and hatching there, watching through her binoculars from the kitchen window.

We had a ton of songbirds around, but we also had a ton of snakes. Dad kept them at bay with his hoe because Mom was petrified of every single one of them, like phobia-level. She would go all paralyzed when she saw one.

One day, after Dad had died and it was just Mom and me, I was at school and she was in the house alone—when she saw a big black snake climbing up the tree under the bluebird house. And there were babies in the nest.

Mom really really wanted to kill that snake, but she also couldn’t make herself open up the door to go out to it.

Her solution was to take Dad’s hunting rifle and go upstairs to the bedroom (as far away from the snake as she could get) and try to shoot the snake through the window. And this was with the screen in because she had to have something between herself and the snake.

Every time she told me that story, she laughed. A little. I think she was still afraid.

If that old gun actually fired, I’m sure she didn’t hit the snake. But I always think of Mom trying to defend her bluebirds.

I don’t track birds the way Tracy does, maybe because I still like to hear someone say the names of birds out loud when they spot them. I like the wonder and delight.

11 thoughts to “Mom’s Bird Book”

  1. Makes me miss her laugh. You reminded me how she would sometimes giggle a little mid-sentence.

  2. I know plants through my mum like that, I wish I knew birds better! I love chickadees though, they’re delightful! We used to say in the summer their call is “ohcanadacanadacanada” and then the classic chicka-dee-dee-dee in winter. Do they change their call like that out east?

    1. You seemed to know plants pretty well to me! And I think our Carolina chickadees (I think that’s them, and not the black-capped?) say the same thing year round, but I’ll ask my resident birder here and get back to you.