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The Mama Bird

            There was a mama bird in the rhododendron bush again. I have pictures, from years ago, of a robin’s nest in the same bush: from the little blue eggs to the baby birds as they grew and stretched and learned how to fly. But the rhododendron bush has grown much bigger over the years, and the current robin built her nest further inside and a little too high for me to get a glimpse inside the nest, even with my phone. But I loved watching her build her nest, and watching it grow taller and sturdier each day. She mostly wove in branches, but she also took other materials from the yard to add softness to the inside.

The previous robin family

            I could see the mama bird throughout the day, each time I took the dogs out for a walk, and she would be sitting on her nest, chin up at one side, tail up at the other side, so proudly guarding and warming her eggs, turning like a sundial throughout the day. I made a point of greeting her each time, and wishing her good luck, and asking her when the babies would be born, though she never answered me. There’s something about baby birds and their rubbery, alien-like vulnerability that makes me feel so hopeful.

            My neighbors and I would check in with each other to share news of the mama bird, sharing our thoughts about her marvelous nest building skills, and her ability to ignore our dogs. No one else was able to get a picture of her either, as far as I know.

            But then she was gone. One neighbor was tall enough to check inside the nest, after a few days of not seeing her, and he said that there were no broken egg shells, no signs of habitation at all. He said he hoped that meant she had taken her eggs somewhere else, maybe somewhere further out of human reach; but she’d spent so much time building the nest, and she’d spent so much time sitting on the nest, that it seemed unlikely, to me, that she would pack up the whole family and move at such a late date.

            I don’t know what happened. Maybe another bird came along and stole her eggs, or maybe the eggs fell out of the nest and another animal carried them off. Or maybe it was a false pregnancy from the beginning. When I was younger, I had a dog who had a lot of false pregnancies. Dina, a black lab mix, would create a nest for herself underneath my parents’ bed, scratching the carpet for nesting material until all that was left of the carpet was the webbing underneath. She was convinced that she was about to have puppies, and she even produced some milk, but there were never any puppies. The repeating cycle of expectation and loss overwhelmed her, with the hormones rushing through her body making her eyes glassy with confusion. I felt Dina’s grief in my own body and it has always stayed with me.

Miss Dina in later life

            Around the same time that the mama bird was creating her nest this spring, and beginning to roost, flowers blossomed on the pawpaw tree, twenty or so feet away. And then, after the mama bird disappeared, the deep red pawpaw flowers fell to the ground, leaving behind the beginnings of pawpaw fruit, little clusters that looked like hands starting to stretch out. We had our first homegrown, ripe, paw paw fruit last year, and I’d like to think this year we might have two, or even three.

The pawpaw hand.

            It’s painful to feel hopeful so often and have my hopes dashed, like Dina and her false pregnancies, and yet I’ve found that it’s even more painful to try to live without hope. It’s sad to think that the mama bird lost her babies, or never had them in the first place, but it would be even harder to have never seen her sitting on her nest, dreaming of her future, in the first place. And watching the small pawpaw fruit start to appear fills me with wonder, independent of whether or not they become full grown fruit; though I’d prefer to have a small harvest by the end of the growing season, of course. But just the harvest, without the hours and days and months of hope leading up to it, wouldn’t be enough. The feeling of hope, more than anything else, is really the point.

“Uh, we prefer the food.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?         

Bird Town


We used to have a colony of feral cats in the backyard at my building, or so I’m told. Over the past few years, the feral cat population has been gradually dying off, or leaving town, without being replaced. There is only one cat who has come by this year – I’ve seen him twice now – and he is a huge grey and brown cat, who looks like he may have swallowed one of the local raccoons. I tried to take his picture, but he faded into the background so well that all I could see were his eyes flashing back at me through the camera. As a result of the decreasing cat population, though, the local bird population has been exploding.

We have two, very loud, bird families living adjacent to our apartment: one under the air conditioner in Mom’s bedroom, and one under the air conditioner in the living room. Mom says they chose those spots because of how the air conditioners are set up, with a piece of wood on the window ledge, allowing for a hidden nest. But I think she was just looking for a nice way to explain why there was no bird family under MY air conditioner. The fact is, Mom likes to feed the birds – there was a frenzy over the bowl of poppy seeds she put out a few months ago, and the leftover Passover matzo was a big hit – so I’m pretty sure that she’s the draw.

A few weeks ago, we started to hear the baby birds squawking in their hidden nests, their voices gradually lowering each day, but still crying out for food, hour after hour, when their parents went out to hunt and gather. For Mother’s day, Mom shared her chocolate crepes with the bird family in her bedroom window, and in exchange, the parents agreed to pose for pictures.

mommy sparrow

Mommy Sparrow

daddy sparrow

Daddy Sparrow

There’s something about all of that squawking and singing that brightens the air around the apartment – though Cricket finds the babies’ voices a bit hard to get used to, and she really doesn’t understand why they get to eat chocolate crepes and she doesn’t.



There’s another bird family in the back yard. In one of the Rhododendron bushes, just below eye level, a Robin made herself a nest. At first it seemed like a strange place to choose, but as the flowers have blossomed and the leaves have spread, the Robin and her nest have become very well hidden. I have to bend down to get to eye level with her, and it’s almost impossible to get a good picture of her, through the leaves and flowers. Once her nest was finished, she proceeded to deliver four beautiful blue eggs, one each day, and then she sat herself down to wait.


Really, she’s in there.

robin's eggs 4

And so are they!

I stopped by to say hello to her a few times a day, when I took the dogs out for their walks, and I made sure to ask her how she was doing, and how the eggs were coming. I even put some of Butterfly’s kibble down near the nest, but not too close, in case she didn’t appreciate sharing a dog’s food. I had the strongest impulse to grab one of those blue eggs one day, and had to clench my fists and walk it off. I decided to manage the pull I felt towards that nest by stealing pictures of the babies, instead of risking the temptation to steal the babies themselves.

As I left for work on Tuesday morning, I checked the Mama robin as usual, and she was standing instead of sitting on the nest, and I wondered why (and asked her). That’s when I saw two baby bird beaks lifting into the air. I went back inside to tell Mom that the babies had arrived, and to get my camera. I got a picture of side eye from the Mama Robin before she flew off, and then a few images of blurry pink shapes with white hair puffs here and there, because the babies were sleeping in a tangle and hard to distinguish from one another.


Mama Robin gives good side-eye


Blurry Robin babies

I try not to check on the babies more than once a day, but it is fascinating to watch them as they separate into identifiable individuals. Mama Robin keeps flying away when I arrive, landing in a nearby tree and squawking at me from a distance. She seems to have recognized that I that I’m not a danger to her babies; at least I hope she knows that. I choose to believe that she’s just running away because she’s worried that I’ll catch a picture of her on a bad feather day.

Even mommies can be vain.


Robin babies on Day Two


Robin Babies on Day Three


Robin babies day 4


The Baby Substitutes

Me and baby Cricket

Me and baby Cricket


Almost from the beginning, I carried Cricket like a baby, she grabbed around my neck with her front paws and wrapped her back paws around my waist, or whatever was closest. She’s kind of a cross between a dog and a monkey the way she can use her limbs like arms and legs. I wanted to make the most of the hugs and baby-like things about her in case I never got to have a human baby. Maybe I was being too fatalistic.

I used to think I was in therapy almost entirely to prepare for motherhood, to make sure that I would be functional and kind and smart in raising my children and not take out any of my weirdness and depression on them.

Throughout my twenties, I had a dog with serious neuroses – separation anxiety, fear of strangers, fear of bridges, panting out half her body weight and releasing hair in piles every time I left the house. I practiced on her, learning how to be a mom to her, how to set limits and offer comfort and accept her as she was and teach her what she could learn.

Dina in her mild old age

Dina in her mild old age

My prospects for becoming healthy in time to be a mom before my eggs wither and splat are not good. I’m not quite at the point of no return yet, and with reproductive technology, that point has been pushed off even further. But I already feel the loss. I thought my number one goal in life was to be a writer, and it was, and is, but it turns out that being a mom was second, not fourth or fifth like I would have thought.

Theoretically, I could go to a sperm bank, or foster a child, or adopt. Mom would help. But I don’t feel like I’m up to the challenge. And I’m not sure if I would like children as much as I like dogs.

There are a lot of things that just aren’t the same about parenting a child and a dog. Children grow up and go through many different stages of development and need to learn how to be responsible for themselves and think independently. You can’t clicker train a child if you want them to make their own decisions about right and wrong some day. A dog remains on a leash or in an enclosure and never learns to drive or gets a credit card or finds a job or robs a bank.

Cricket is a lot of hard work. If she were a human child I would say that she has ADHD and maybe a conduct disorder. And I would say that, as a parent, I struggle with disciplining her and setting clear rules and keeping her busy in productive ways. I feel like instead of building better parenting skills from raising Cricket, I’ve become resigned to the way Cricket is.

Cricket, biting the hand that feeds her

Cricket, biting the hand that feeds her

I accept that I will have a shorter amount of time with Butterfly. She only came to me at eight years old, after a hard life, and her breed’s life expectancy is twelve to fourteen years. But what I’ve learned from Butterfly is that I could adapt to raising a child who is not a baby when they come to me, and is already formed by difficult circumstances. So, again, the dogs are my practice for little humans.

My adopted Butterfly

My adopted Butterfly

But they may also be all there is. I may never give birth or adopt or even foster a child. I may never be financially, emotionally, or physically ready to be a mom. And if that’s the case, then the dogs ARE my kids. And I need to take as much joy and education from their presence as I can.

My girls

My girls