for Mom on her birthday
The only stretch of pavement for a mile around was our driveway. It was a capital U that sloped from the dirt road above our house to the garage. In the negative space of all that asphalt, my mother planted a few boxwoods along the perimeter, daffodils and crocus to bloom in spring, and a variety of perennials that exploded like fireworks throughout the summer and fall. A tulip tree dropped wooden flowers that looked like closed umbrellas. Patches of violets were a short walk down the road to the left, just past the blackberry bushes and sweetfern. They were actually in someone else's yard, and I snitched them often to bring them home for my mother to put in whatever lilliputian vase she could find.
What really ruled our home was not flowers and plants, but birds. We were visited by them at a schedule more regular than that of a train station. My father built a tray feeder that stretched along the length of the two kitchen windows. In the spring, the windows were cranked open to let in the scent of thaw and warmer air. A dogwood tree sprawled in a gnarly bloom of levels just beyond the kitchen and it was a safe perch for finches, chickadees, sparrows, titmouses, and the occasional cowbird that my mother admonished for its bad habits. Woodpeckers drilled the oak that supported our treehouse. Goldfinches flashed their sunny band uniforms, and a family of them lived in the little red birdhouse Mom put out one year. Bluejays deviled the little birds with their bold markings and beaks, and called out like soldiers. The cardinals seemed built for cheering up winter, and hallmarking Valentine's Day.
Inside, our kitchen was golden and checkered. Baskets hung on the wall like nests. A sign that read "Virtue" hung above the kitchen table. On a spring morning, as my sister and I gulped a thick vanilla Carnation Instant Breakfast or wolfed a piece of toast, I shared "a really weird dream I had," as Mom gazed out at the feeder. She'd spot the first robin of the season, ask if Kristen had recorded last year's sighting in her journal, and claim that it seemed "awfully early this year." One morning Mom sang off key at the kitchen sink, and we wailed about how horrible it was, how out of tune and off key. We asked to turn on the dishwasher. I felt immediately like I'd choked a swan. We squelched the song and ignored the beauty of our mother because she was the safest place for us to test out cruelty, but this didn't make us any less rotten. Cowbirds.
The front of our house had large windows that perplexed the birds of our woods. There were many afternoons where I'd arrive home after school to a small box on the porch with a bewildered bird inside it, all hunched down with its tiny eyes clamped shut in a dazed meditation. As sad as it made her that her birds dashed their brains into dizziness, my mother loved every instance she got to hold a patient inside her cupped hand - to feel the varied textures of its feathers, the light quick huffs of breath, and the wiry legs. She'd tell me all about the discovery of the bird on the porch, how close our cat Pyewacket came to finding it first, and the wonder of holding it in her hands. I listened, or didn't, lost in thought about how I'd started to dissect a cat in biology that day, the scent of formaldehyde still lurking in my pores, the word fascia caught in my mind.
My mother's birds never stayed long. I always thought we might keep one as a pet, but in an hour or two, the box would be vacant, the slow bird revived again. I'd hear Mom retell the story to Dad at the kitchen table when he returned from work.
My sister and I have twin graduation photos, taken three years apart. We stand at the lower curve of the driveway, flanked by our parents. We both wear the gold drapery of a gown, the sleeves like wings ready for takeoff. Not long after those photos were taken Mom watched us, a little bewildered ourselves, drive up the slope of that driveway and off into anywhere, anywhere else. She knew just how to catch, how to hold, and when to release.