Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Feeder Frolic

A little girl in a white frock and oversized bow leapt at a fawn, shrieking, “Come play with me!” With a kick of slender legs and good sense in his choice of playmates, the fawn beat it into the woods. As I sat in my mother’s lap listening to the story, even I could see, though I was no more than six, that this child was doing things all wrong. On every page of the book, the grabby sprite showed no social skills whatsoever: jumping at the frog who jumped away, flying at the bird who wisely flew. By the end of the tale, the child had slumped to a log in lonely despair. Emboldened by her immobility, the forgiving forest creatures crept to her side, the bird perching on her shoulder, the frog harrumphing companionably at her feet. A happy ending of species co-existence.

Such a lovely, simple book for a fifties child like myself. No dying pets, ailing grandparents, or moral quandries - just a happy story about the futility of aggression and the rewards of quiet acceptance. Well, surely that was implied. I think of that little girl often as I sit here on the back porch. As long as I stay still, the bird feeder at the edge of the lawn draws customers looking for a bite.

I am witness, daily, to the reality of pecking order. Titmice and chickadees alight without fanfare on the feeder platform, while bluejays swoop in with self-important squawks; they prefer ground droppings, but seem to enjoy the satisfaction of scaring the little guys away. Doves browse in droves, but give way to just about everyone. In an audible whir of wings and soft coo-chidings, they disperse to surrounding limbs, resigned to waiting for leftovers. Gentle and unassuming, it appears that doves, as innocents often do, occupy the lowest rung.

Squirrels are annoying but entertaining visitors - the clowns of the feeder set. To my near-sighted eyes, they are sinuous grace in silver-gray, twining their way up the pole to hang upside down or sideways. They scold one another, darting in squirrely menace, then play chase in a dizzy circle. The squirrels defer to me, to the turkeys and to today’s formidable guest, but even the crows concede to these goofy gamesters.

From my post as serene spectator, I am ever-learning about feeder sounds and etiquette. A low-throated, melodic cluck and purposeful scuffling of leaves signals the turkeys’ approach. Tiny heads jerk on ungainly necks as they stop in to decide, on a routine basis, that they don’t much like seeds, then strut off, back to the woods. A new sound, a swoosh and thrum, jolts me to attention. A red-tailed hawk, unsuccessful in his salvo, settles his wings as he swings momentarily on a hastily selected, ill-suited twig of a branch, then takes to the sky in a thrust of powerful wings.

During the spare winter months, four deer joined the gang at the feeders. Dave would whistle as he left the house carrying his heavy white seed bucket and the animals would appear, cautiously, at woods’ edge. As soon as he retreated, they strode into the yard, nosing the feeders to release showers of seeds, sometimes rising on hind legs for a better angle. As much as we never tired of seeing them, it was sad that they were so desperate.

The chickadees, too, were made bold by hunger. Dave and I would stand by the feeders with arms outstretched, palms cupped around mounds of seeds. We could hear the flutter of wings through the trees and the echoed call – chickadee-dee-dee-dee. The black-capped birds flew in from every side and perched in the branches about us, trembling as they drummed up nerve. Eventually, one brave soul would start the rush, and they would zip to our fingers, land with a tickling touch of tiny claws, grab a seed and go.

It’s a whole new scene now that it’s May. Doves, cowbirds, jays and cardinals check each other out with flirtatious pursuits and awkward grapplings. If I were a bird, seeking a mate from those assembled, I’d flip a feather at that lusty gray mockingbird. Man, that boy can croon!

Unlike the befrocked, bow-tied waif in Come Play with Me, I seek to remain invisible up here on the porch. I doubt I’ll be nuzzled by a fawn or win a frog’s bulge-eyed admiration, but the animals seem to trust me enough to come close, and that is blessing enough.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not So Clever After All

“Where do babies come from?” All parents dread that question. Dave and I, however, had thought we’d been oh-so-clever in avoiding it by conveying the essentials to our son Tucker with the help of a cooperative guinea pig (a real one) and appropriate TV viewing.

From the time Tucker was two, Sunday night was “bug night,” our family’s name for channel Thirteen’s show “Nature.” Through the talents of PBS videographers, Tuck had witnessed any number of mating rituals and births. Calmly and honestly, Dave and I answered every question our little boy asked. It was easy when the subject matter was zebras and elk. While he developed an irrational fear about deer shedding their antlers and could not even look at a picture of a deer without tears, Tucker was relaxed regarding reproduction.

A brief confusion arose when we acquired a pregnant guinea pig. At the time of purchase, we had no idea that Scratchy was female, much less pregnant. We thought she was simply putting on weight until we began to feel the babies moving inside her.

It was a wonderful, small miracle, actually, affording an unexpected experience in animal families as well as an opportunity for further sex education. Tucker wondered, wisely, “How can she have babies without a daddy?”

Dave explained that Scratchy must have mated while she was still living at the pet store. He re-visited the facts of anatomy and process and Tucker was satisfied, comfortable with his knowledge.

What good parents! We congratulated ourselves on brilliantly sparing ourselves and our son embarrassing pre-teen discussions about sex. Initiation to the topic did not go as smoothly for our daughter, Casey.

She was only five when she returned from a playdate, tearful and anxious.

“What is it, sweetie? What’s wrong?“ I asked.

“I. Can’t. Talk. About. It,” she managed to blurt, shaking, between sobs.

She fled to her room and closed the door. I could hear her weeping piteously.

I knew the friends with whom she’d spent the day and so had no major concerns about my daughter’s well-being, but what might have caused such distress?

I entered her room and found her prone on the bed. Her long brown hair clung in sodden wisps to her flushed, tear-wet cheeks. I rubbed her back and murmured soothing words. Finally she wailed, “Courtney told me how babies are made! I’d finally decided that I wanted a baby even though it would hurt, but I’m not going to do what she said!”

Oh dear. What could I say? It’s not too bad once you get used to it? Someday you’ll like it? No. Clearly that was the wrong tack. I stuck to hugs and a vague “It’s okay, precious” kind of approach.

Over the next three days, Casey’s crying bouts lessened, but her concerns did not. “I don’t want to think of my pretty mommy doing that. What if I decide I do want a baby, but no one loves me enough to do that?” It was heart-wrenching to witness her loss of innocence, to see her struggle for acceptance of this, to her, gruesome fact of life.

Tucker, meanwhile, was neither moved nor curious about Casey’s tears. She was a bit of a crybaby in those days and for a time, he didn’t notice anything all that unusual. Eventually though, days had passed and still his little sister was morose.

“What’s the matter with Casey?” he said, finally.

I felt no qualms in responding. Tucker already had all the answers.

“One of Casey’s friends told her about mating,” I said.

“Oh.” He nodded, satisfied. But only briefly. He looked at me, his brow furrowed, eyes puzzled. “But why’s she so upset?”

“She doesn’t like to think about Mommy and Daddy doing it.”

His eyes grew wide. I did not see it coming. He said, “You mean humans do it too?!”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The U-Haul Is Running

June, 2004

Mom says good-bye with three kisses. It is continental. It is a talisman. It is a loving, but strict rule. A kiss on one cheek, then the other, then back to the first. An audible smack: Mwah, mwah, mwah. If there is some postponement of departure, she gives a hug, but no more kisses. She would never say it would be bad luck, but that’s the unspoken truth.

Last weekend, Dave and I joined Mom, Dad, my sister Francie, and her husband Matt in Vermont to close down the house that had been my parents’ Green Mountain State getaway for over thirty years. The disbursement of furniture and collectibles had been a gradual process since December, and now the U-Haul stood waiting in the drive for the last load.

I hadn’t thought this would be particularly painful. In recent years, due to busy schedules, we hadn’t come north very often. Just in case, though, on the way up on Friday, I ran through a mental slide show of memories: sledding with little Tucker and Casey on the hill behind the house as our malamute Kody danced about nipping our boots, snow-shoeing with Dave to Magic Mountain for a glass of hot mulled wine, post-Christmas gatherings around a tiny tree, and late night woods walks by the light of a nineteenth century lantern.

The seven-hour drive from Pennsylvania had come to be too much for my parents. In addition, almost every visit to their eighteenth century house was distinguished by furnace failure, plumbing glitches or leaks. The mouse infestation didn’t help, but it wasn’t ranked high among the negatives either. Brushing pillows, pot holders and beds clear of mouse leavings were simply customary rituals upon arrival for a stay. The occasional unseen scurry across the old floorboards while drifting off to sleep was expected. In fact, we had reason to admire the industry of those mice, as they demonstrated a perseverance and ingenuity that astonished even my two mouse-phobic sisters.

When Kody was young, her food of choice was Purina Dog Chow nuggets. One morning, Mom was up first as usual, making coffee and eggs, and caring for the visiting grand-kids and grand-dog. She fetched the Purina, surprised that the bag was so light - and even more surprised to find it empty. A search of the kitchen revealed a waist-high drawer by the sink full of nuggets. The mind reels at the image of a mouse bucket-brigade stretching the length of the kitchen, passing nuggets down the line and somehow maneuvering each chunk into that closed drawer. For all their ability to startle unnervingly, those mice were mini-miracles. As I said, the mice were part of life in the house, not part of the problem.

In all likelihood, Mom and Dad would have continued to battle the rebellious furnace and unreliable plumbing if it hadn’t been for the long drive up. Last winter’s trip was the final straw. Mom was at the wheel as they approached Manchester when she “tried to kill me,” according to my father. The road was slick with ice and the car went into a 360 spin. Mom has said she prayed to to her parents, my Byeo and Poppy, to hold any oncoming cars at the crest of the hill. Had other vehicles been involved, it would have been a fatal accident. My heavenly grandparents were vigilant, however, and Mom and Dad emerged terrified, but safe.

That scare solidified my parents’ thoughts about selling and the house was placed on the market.

As we hauled the remaining chairs and bureaus from the upstairs bedrooms, we closed the door of each empty room behind us. Tucker and Casey’s room with its red and blue plaid bedspreads and ever-so-sixties jungle print quilts. Now empty. Door closed. Done. Our room overlooking the sweep of the yard graced by gray-lichened prows of glacial drop. Empty. Door closed. Done. The bathroom with its impossibly tiny shower and Mom’s pencilled note above the toilet: “Nothing goes down this john but toilet paper! No Kleenex, paper towels or Tampax.. This is a country plumbing situation!” Empty. Door closed. Done.

Dad was having a hard time. Red-eyed and drawn, he went from task to task stopping periodically in each beloved room where fresh tears would flow. To our sympathetic pats and clucks, he would grouse, “Humph! I look around and there’s nothing but work to be done! The house needs painting, there’s two dead trees... I’m only relieved.” With a dismissive wave, he’d lumber off to another pile awaiting sifting.

When Dave and I bought our house in Connecticut, Mom had warned, “A house is not a life. It’s the shell of a life.” But just as the snail would not last long without its portable shelter, our lives are inextricably connected to the roof and walls around us. As Matt and Dave rolled up the fraying braided rug in the Florida room, they uncovered five gold foil letters stuck crookedly to the floor. “C-A-S-E-Y.” How old had my little girl been when she left her mark? Now she is twenty-one, a college student, living in Massachusetts.

Mom deliberately chose Johnny Seesaw’s Restaurant for dinner Friday night as we’d never been there so it held no memories for us. Both Mom and Francie took me aside as we walked into the restaurant to whisper, “No toasts!” Dad and I are the family toastmeisters, but it is rare that we make it through our sentimental tirades without getting teary.

“But I’ll just raise my glass...”

“No - It would be too hard and Dad would dissolve.”

Dinner was jolly and the food delicious, but I felt the absence of that toast. It seemed a disservice to the house and I worried that Dad would think me remiss. Later, once Mom and Dad were snug in bed, I leaned in to give Dad a goodnight kiss, explaining my forced silence in the toast department. He burst into tears.

I guess Mom and Francie were right.

There were no weepy skies for Saturday’s departure; the house beamed in a sunshine bath. Purple irises and fragrant day lilies nodded beneath the windows overlooking the yard. Dave and I dug some up and wrapped them in damp newspaper, hoping they’d take in our garden. We have hostas from Aunty Cam’s house at #3 Stratfield in Worcester and we’d love to have a living memory of Thompsonberg Road as well.

The lawn ressembled a tag sale as chairs, rugs, tables and benches were parcelled out near the cars and truck. Gradually, those items dwindled as we stowed them away for the drive south.

Matt grimaced as he hauled an over-sized glass cask encased in basket weave to my car. “Whoa, I think you’ll be taking some of those mice with you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Take a whiff...”

“Oh my God.”

“Yeah. A few must have crawled in and died.”

“Ugh - Can you shake them out?”

No luck.

Of course, Dave wanted to commemorate the occasion with photographs. Mom and Dad posed gamely before the house, each holding a broom or shovel, “American Gothic” - Ingersoll style. Dad’s smile was a grimace, just holding on.

The U-Haul was running. It was time to go.

We did a final walk-through, patting the walls, wishing the house well, wishing happiness for the new owners. They’d told Mom and Dad of their plans for a renovated kitchen and new master bath, but other than that, they love the house and respect its antiquity. My parents are pleased: they’ve done their job in furnishing the house with caring stewards. It helps.

We went outside and Mom locked the door. Empty. Closed. Done.

Mom’s cheery bustle had carried her through the packing, but her face crumpled as we gave the house our final tribute. There were hugs all round as we were heading in different directions. Mom gave her three kisses - Mwah! Mwah! Mwah! The U-Haul pulled out first with Dad red-faced and weepy at the wheel. One by one, the rest of us followed, a subdued four-car caravan.

“Good bye house!”

Good bye...