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The Crow

There was a crow here the other day. I’m used to the cardinals and the starlings and the wrens and the sparrows and even the blue jays coming to the living room window and looking in, expecting snacks. I was not ready for this galumphing black bird to, basically, fall out of the sky and land on the window ledge with a thump. He, or she, seemed to move in slow motion, which made sense, being at least three times the size of any other bird in sight, and not especially agile.

After a moment of confusion (those hard landings are jarring when you’re not prepared), the crow lifted its wings, and in slow motion again, galumphed off to somewhere else, out of my view.

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(not my picture)

I always think of birds, and flying in general, as inherently graceful. I think if them catching the wind and stretching their wings like ballerinas. But the crow was nothing like that. It was awkward, and slow, and sort of human. I felt a kinship with it, because that’s probably how I would fly, if I could fly.

I haven’t seen the crow again, which makes me even more curious about that strange visit. Of course I had to google crows. One fun fact, crows have very good memories for human faces, and can really hold grudges. If one particular human does a crow wrong, the crow will share the story with all of his friends, and the whole community will hold the grudge, and recognize that particular human face forever.

It’s as if crows invented Twitter.

One of the articles I read explained that a group of crows is called a Murder because if one crow dies, the rest will come together to figure out who or what killed their friend. They’re like the detectives of the bird world! I’d like to think that my visiting crow was out on an investigation. Maybe he thought I was harboring a criminal on my window ledge (probably one of the blue jays. Those guys are assholes).

I just wish the crow would come back to visit. I could offer him some tea, and maybe a ginger snap or two, and he could sit down and to tell me how the mystery ends.

Cricket is waiting impatiently. For the cookies.

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“Cookies?”

The Bird Came Back

 

Last Sunday, while I was answering heartfelt condolences on the death of Mom’s friend Olivia, and sharing the joy of a visit from a bird who seemed to be acting as Olivia’s familiar, the bird came back. This time she came into the apartment through the small opening next to the air-conditioner in the living room (where Mom leaves bird snacks year round, just in case). The bird visited the quilting closet again, of course, and the light fixture in the dining room, but then she became more bold and stood on the kitchen counter to eat pizza crumbs off of a plate, and walked on the living room rug, looking for any treats Cricket might have left behind (as if that would ever happen).

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Psst. Check the pink thing.

Cricket tolerated the invasion moderately well, until the bird stepped into Cricket’s food bowl to sample the kibble, and then wet her beak in Cricket’s water bowl. The bird even had the temerity to wander under Cricket’s couch! Cricket ran after the bird at that point, and was flummoxed by the whole flying thing.

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“I must guard my couch from interlopers, Mommy.”

The bird landed on top of curtain rods and lamps, checked out cookbooks, and stood on my computer chair for a good long time, looking over at me with what looked suspiciously like Cricket’s side eye expression.

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(This is my favorite picture – photographed by Mom and her magic camera.)

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“These had better be vegan.”

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“This chair is just right.”

At bed time, instead of remaining in the living room, or the kitchen, the bird followed me and Cricket into my bedroom, investigating the tops of my bookcases, and the notebooks on my bedside table. She even followed Cricket into Mom’s room, and stood on the blanket, about a foot away from Cricket’s tail. We were starting to wonder if we had accidentally adopted a wild bird.

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“No. Just say no to the bird.”

 

Mom did research on Carolina Wrens, through Google and bird-wise family and friends, and she found out that this is the time of year when they go house hunting, to decide where to nest in the spring. Of course, we started to worry about how much bird poop we’d be dealing with if the bird decided to bring her whole family to live in our apartment, but there was also something gratifying about even being considered for such an honor.

 

When Mom woke up in the middle of the night (she and Cricket are big fans of the late night snack), she was sure that the bird had left, but then she saw a pile of feathers on the radiator in the living room. She was afraid that the bird had died, but it turned out that this was just the bird’s sleeping pose, puffing her wings out to act as a blanket, and stuffing her head down to mute the outside noise.

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Ssh. It’s nap time.

By the next morning the bird was gone. We were able to clean up all of the lingering bird poop, which is surprisingly tenacious stuff, but there was also a sense of loss, and then hope, that maybe the bird will return again. Maybe this will become a weekly Sunday visit! Cricket would not be thrilled with a bird in the house on a regular basis, but, for me, it was nice to have another pet again. I think Miss Butterfly would have approved.

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“Birdie!”

(Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Naomi Mankowitz. Any pictures that look less than perfect were taken by me.)

Olivia

 

According to the New York Times, Olivia Cole died a week ago Friday, on January 19th, which was only a few days after the last time my Mom had spoken to her on the phone. At first, we weren’t sure the news was real; maybe someone had confused her with her mother, who died this fall. But her mother had a different last name, and lived in NY, while Olivia lived in Mexico, and the news stories had that detail right. And then we saw a quote from her agent, and too many more details that made it all sound true.

Olivia was dead.

Olivia is dead.

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Olivia and her Mom

It still seemed so unlikely, though. She was just in New York in December, traipsing across the city by foot, despite her rheumatoid arthritis, because she didn’t like spending money on taxis. She even refused to take a cab when she had to be at the airport at five o’clock in the morning, and instead chose to wear most of the clothes, so she wouldn’t have to carry them, and take the subway at three o’clock AM, in the middle of winter.

Mom was worried about that trip back to Mexico, with twenty four hours in transit, and called Olivia a number of times to check if she’d made it home safely. Olivia had a landline, but no cell phone, or email, or even a computer, so when Mom didn’t hear back, so she emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel and finally heard that Olivia had made it home safely. It still took a few weeks for Olivia herself to call, though. She didn’t like to use her phone for international calls, so she would borrow her friend’s computer-based phone system, on Mondays, to make her calls. She called on MLK day, and the two old friends talked about the need to take care of oneself, and about the foundation Olivia wanted to build, to help finance early education for children of color.

Olivia was one of my mom’s lifelong friends, from their years in the drama club at Hunter High School, and she would pop in and out of our lives every few years, sending tickets to plays she was in, and visiting when she came to New York to see her Mom. The first time I met her in person was when I was eleven, when she played Mama in A Raisin in the Sun at the Roundabout theatre in Manhattan. Seeing Olivia on stage was just like seeing her in real life: she was a character. She was larger than life. She was stubborn and opinionated and fiercely intellectual, delving into the Shakespearean canon for life lessons in even the most obscure of areas. She loved acting, and reading, and opining, but she didn’t like fame, or compromise.

Then Mom received the email, this Thursday, from a high school friend, with the attached announcement of Olivia’s death in the New York Times. The article said that she’d died of a heart attack in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she’d lived for the past thirty years. Mom called to me from the living room, sounding odd, and the only word I understood was “Olivia” and I thought, that’s weird, Olivia wouldn’t call on a Thursday. When I reached her and she repeated “Olivia’s dead?” as a question, I was sure it was a mistake. Yes, Olivia was 75, and had rheumatoid arthritis, and no sense of her own limits, but she took good care of her health and went to all of her doctors on her most recent visit to New York. She hadn’t mentioned any heart issues to my Mom, but then again, she wouldn’t. She was full of plans for the future, and still full of piss and vinegar, never changing, and never really aging.

 

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Three old friends on a recent visit

Since we were still not quite believing the news. Mom emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel for confirmation. The email came back, yes, Olivia was found on her porch, sitting upright in a chair, reading an old article about Barack Obama. Friends hadn’t heard from her in a couple of days and decided to check on her, and they found her there on the porch. The comfort for the people who knew her is that this is exactly how Olivia would have wanted to go: reading and thinking and full of hope for the future.

I had to go to my internship soon after the death was confirmed, but Mom’s high school classmates stepped in, sending messages on their class listserv, offering memories and kindness and compassion. These New York girls grew up knowing that all that mattered was how smart you were, not the color of your skin, or which neighborhood you lived in; and a woman could become anything she wanted to be: a lawyer, a doctor, a mother, a teacher, a writer, or an actress.

There’s a sweet coda to this story. We had a visit from a bird last weekend, two days after Olivia’s death, though we didn’t know that at the time. The bird stayed in the apartment for a while, resting in the quilting closet, and on the vitamin bottles on the entertainment center, and then in the light fixture in the dining room. The bird seemed to want to stay with us, fluttering from place to place indoors, even though the window in mom’s room was wide open. Looking back at that visit, after the news of Olivia’s death, Mom is convinced it was Olivia, saying goodbye. Because that would be a very Olivia thing to do.

 

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The Yellow Warbler

 

Last week, I met a little green and yellow bird. She was standing on the front stoop of our building, with her mouth open, stunned. She must have flown into the glass door and lost herself for a minute. Mom noticed her on the way into the house, and, thinking this was a baby bird and I would want to meet her, she came upstairs to tell me about our visitor. I padded downstairs in my pajamas and socks and sat down next to the little bird on the Welcome mat. On closer inspection, the bird seemed to be an adult bird, just small in stature, and very shocked. At first, I even thought she might be a fake bird, someone’s idea of an ornament for the season, made of cloth and wood, but then she fluttered her feathers, just a little. I reached out to touch her, trying hard not to scare her, and she let me rub her head and neck with my thumb. That seemed to release the muscles in her neck just enough for her to close her mouth and tilt her head towards me. But she was still moving in slow motion and staring into space. Mom suggested picking her up, so I gently wrapped my fingers around her folded wings, feeling her rapid heartbeat against my palm, and held her loosely in my hand. She stretched one leg, and then the other, stepped up onto my fingers, and then pooped into the palm of my hand. And then she flew away.

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(from google images)

I’ve been told that having a bird poop in my hand is supposed to bring me good luck, but it was the few moments I was able to spend with that little bird that felt magical to me. The way she allowed me to be her in-between place, her respite, between trauma and flight.

Mom, of course, googled and found out that the little bird was a female Yellow Warbler, with her yellow throat and belly, her green overcoat, and her long skinny feet.

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(from google images)

And I realized that my short moment with the little warbler felt like a sped up version of my years with Butterfly. Because, it turned out, I was Butterfly’s respite too, between her first eight years in the puppy mill, and her flight into a new world. The little miracle of the bird’s visit, and the big miracle of my time with Butterfly, were both incredible gifts, and I am trying to believe that I deserved them.

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The Clumsy Bird

 

A few years ago, I started working on a children’s story about a clumsy bird, but I couldn’t figure out how to finish it. I knew who the main character was: if there was a tree or a power line or a roof in her way, Lola would smack into it. Her mom took her to every doctor she could find and the bird doctors did every possible test on Lola. They diagnosed her with bad eyesight, then partial deafness, attention deficit disorder, maybe a neurological movement disorder of unspecified origin, or bird seed intolerance, but nothing seemed to stick.

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This is what I think Lola looks like

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This is what Lola thinks she looks like

The last doctor Lola went to was a specialist in flying disorders. He squeezed Lola’s feet, and rotated her wings and had her fly to and from his medical nest twenty times. And then he stared into her eyes, with his wormy breath going up her nose, and said, “You’re fine, go away.”

The flight back home was long and Lola’s Mom had to tie a rope between them to avoid an accident along the way.

Of course Lola had an older brother, who was embarrassed to be seen with her. And mean girls in her flying class (aka gym), who made fun of her for her awkward flying technique and tendency to fall out of the sky.

There was a boy bird in Lola’s class who was taunted for being “as blind as a human,” because he couldn’t see where he was going as well as everyone else could. Lola was nice to him, thinking they were in the same situation and could offer each other support, but he resented her sympathy. He called her clumsy, and taunted her along with the rest of the class, just to feel like at least he wasn’t as low down on the social ladder as she was.

I kept looking for ways for Lola to save herself. She was an inventor, by necessity, and created parachutes and nets and trampolines out of whatever she could find in the garbage. She spent months in physical therapy with the seagull at the beach, who was a little too hard core. He made her stand on pebbles to stretch the webbing in her feet, and wrap her wings around the trunk of a tree, and then he’d drop her into freezing cold water to shock her brain, but nothing changed. And then she was sent to the wise goose, who worked at the median of the main road. He spoke in riddles, while walking in constantly changing patterns to help retrain her brain. It didn’t work, but at least with the goose Lola felt less self-conscious, if only because he wasn’t like anyone in her own community, and he didn’t laugh at her for being different.

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This bird is one hard core trainer

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“Are you saying I’m fat?”

But what I really wanted was for there to be something in the bird world that would work better than in the human world. I wanted the elders of her community to come up with a non-stigmatizing way to help the disabled birds who lived amongst them. I imagined bird community conferences, with the elders sitting in the sacred tree, and the younger birds left to line up on the telephone wires, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the birds creative and compassionate enough to make the clumsy bird feel welcome.

I have this block against writing better endings for my characters than I have experienced for myself. It feels like lying in a way that fiction doesn’t usually feel like lying, to me. But I want better for Lola than to have to be in it alone, hitting up against walls that shouldn’t be there. I just don’t know how to get that for her.

 

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“You can do it, Mommy. I believe in you.”

 

 

 

The Flight of the Baby Birds

So where did we leave off with the baby birds, in the rhododendron bush in the backyard?

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They really were in there.

First they were pink and a bit fluffy, and then they started the hard work of growing feathers, which meant they needed a lot of sleep, with short breaks for eating and nuzzling with Mom.

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The four babies slept in an undifferentiated pile, in a nest that became progressively smaller and smaller, or at least that’s how it seemed.

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One day, the oldest of the babies saw me coming with my camera and flew out of the nest. The next day, they all saw me coming and flew off in different directions. But not too far.

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And the following day, they were gone.

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A week or so later, I saw one of the baby birds, a teenager now, standing on top of Mom’s temporary greenhouse in the backyard. He had a speckled breast, alfalfa-like hair, and clumsy long feet. When I got too close, he decided to fly to a nearby window, where he saw his mirror image flapping desperately in the glass and lost his footing (winging?) and started to fall, barely catching one long toe on the window ledge below.

Clearly, flying is much harder than Mama Robin made it seem.

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P.S. Miss Butterfly has healed so well from her surgery that she was up to a visit to the groomer.

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“Now that I look beautiful, don’t you want to give me a chicken treat?”

 

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.

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Mommy Sparrow

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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.

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“Harrumph.”

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.

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Really, she’s in there.

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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.

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Mama Robin gives good side-eye

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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.

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Robin babies on Day Two

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Robin Babies on Day Three

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Robin babies day 4