This is the sixth spring I’ve looked out my office window at a small open-sided metal box under the eaves with a stiff wire protruding from it. Picture a little gray model of a theater’s stage and you’re close.
Tiny bird couples start fluttering in under the eaves beginning around April Fools’ Day. One perches on top of the box and the other on the wire. One ducks under onto the shallow ledge of the box, then the other takes a turn, checking it out for a nest. They fly away never to be seen again, replaced by other couples that come and do the same routine. Some even bring twigs. I especially like to watch as one bird flies away to forage while the other remains perched. Often, when the forager returns with a twig to place in the box, the one who has waited will drop it with disdain. Like: “Are you kidding me? You brought this?” All finally realize the box is too small to accommodate them and their future families. By now, close to Mother’s Day, no couples come looking.
My sister Liz had birds when we were kids, parakeets that were all named George. Some Georges were found in the morning, feet up in the cage, but some left us quite alive. Liz liked to take the Georges out of their cage to talk with them and let them fly around a room. She trained them to light on her fingers or shoulders or — the best perch — on her head. Some found open windows on hot southern Illinois days.
One George, perching on Liz’s head, was so quiet and content he was forgotten when she walked outside. We searched and finally saw him gripping a telephone wire. Liz called for him to come home, but George’s heart was in the wind.
Or at least that’s what our mother told us. A Queens girl her whole life, she had to find a new nest for her husband and five children in Mount Carmel, Ill., a little river town on the Wabash. Leaving New York, the only place she’d ever known, for a small Midwestern town would have produced trauma in most people. She shrugged it off. My father had an opportunity and that was that. “Never turn down money” was a code she lived by.
Married at 19 to the brightest boy in the neighborhood, who was a year older, and a mother at 20, she was the daughter of an immigrant Irish girl and a first-generation Alsatian who worked most of his life as a New York City cab driver. (One of her brothers would follow him in the profession and, for a time, so did her youngest son.) The vivacious, no-nonsense, adventuresome New Yorker quickly took to southern Illinois, being charmed rather than upset when people would ask: “Miz Clancy, would you please say the word c-o-f-f-e-e?” And when she did — deadpan — she had as much fun as the locals.
I first heard Hank Williams on a little radio in my mother’s kitchen as she made breakfast for us. “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/ He sounds too blue to fly/The midnight train is whining low/ I’m so lonesome I could cry,” she’d croon along with Hank, but she didn’t seem lonesome. A born anthropologist, she was rapt listening to prices on the hog report after humming along to Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
My father and a partner had taken over a struggling factory in town that made electronic parts. He was the salesman of the duo, selling the line all over the country. There were times he’d be on the road six weeks at a stretch. She had to be lonesome. I knew this because when my father returned she was alight with love for him. I was lucky, growing up in a house of peace, where humor was prized, and with parents who were besotted with each other.
She kept the nest in good working order, always, with seemingly no stress, but I know she hid it. She was stoic, but the opposite of a scold or stern. Sometimes, when waking in the middle of the night, I’d see dim light coming from the living room of our little ranch house. Peeking in, I’d see her in a pool of white, reading. The record player was turned low with a Broadway show tune drifting to me and my indefatigable mother looking very tired.
Counterpoint to the murmuring of “Some Enchanted Evening” would be the sound of Hank’s midnight train whining low, clattering across the railroad bridge to Indiana. It was as if she were the only living soul in the world.
There were books all over every house we lived in — Mount Carmel, two places in Chicago, two places in Queens and Laurel. She taught me to read sitting in her lap in front of a typewriter when she’d take a break from work she was doing for my father. All five of her children, no surprise, grew up hungry for words.
We were raised Catholic and the old faith still sticks with me, more for an identification with family and culture than belief. She was a believer, but also had beliefs in other things, saying, for example, that there really was something to reincarnation. She knew, she’d say, that at one time, in another life, she’d been a seafarer of some kind.
It was easy to take her at her word, since her heart was always in the wind.
The author is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].