If there were one bird to be sent down to help me through the first spring after my father’s death, the Baltimore oriole would have been it. Thus, I was forced to take particular notice of its arrival.
The oriole family had been camped outside my kitchen window for days. My husband and I had been slicing oranges for them since we first spotted the male in the trees. Quickly, they became so bold and voracious in their appetites that no manner of splashing and banging as I washed my dishes seemed to disturb them in the least. If it were not for a pane of glass between us, I could easily have reached out and touched them over my kitchen sink.
All through my childhood, I remember spring after spring watching with my father for the elusive oriole to appear in our yard. Some years it did. Some years it did not. It was always a thrill to spot. Deep tangerine orange offset by bold, black markings, I can still remember specific sightings of the bird even forty years later. One particular sighting has never left my mind.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Another love I shared with my father was of his flowering almond. Its mass of endlessly-petalled pale pink blooms always transported my imagination to Japan where I dreamt such flowers festooned the landscape, along with cherry and peach blossoms. In an industrial Midwestern town in the 1970’s, you didn’t often see much that spoke of the mystical or exotic, which is why I believe my father’s yard captivated all the children in the neighborhood. He had statues of Confucius, and Foo Dogs, an impish figure he called Puck, and the laughing Buddha who now graces my yard.
On this particular spring day, the almond was in full bloom and as we looked from the large bay window over the yard we were delighted to see an oriole land right on top of it. It was like magic, seeing them both together, these favorite blooms and the rare and brilliant bird.
And as we watched, transfixed, that bird proceeded to pluck a bloom. Then another. And another. And that bird stayed there for what seemed to be most of the afternoon, pulling and plucking until every single bloom, which had previously enveloped all the branches of the bush, was gone.
This was my first lesson in non-attachment. I could feel the alternating dismay and bewildered resignation finally give way to humor in both my father and myself as we watched one thing we dearly loved, destroy another, equally loved.
What else could we do? Scare away the bird we so rarely saw but always searched for? All we could do was appreciate them while they both were there, the bird and the flowers. When he was done, the oriole left and they were both gone. His very act of his destruction made that year’s blooms the ones I remember most clearly now, along with his plumage, making this scene one of the most vivid, and colorful, of my childhood memories.
All through my adulthood I have kept up the practice of looking for those birds.
Some years I see them. Some years I don’t.
This first season following his death, the orioles frequented both at my father’s yard as well as at my own. Both places we fed them oranges. Both places they stayed for many days in a row, feasting.
Well into the second week of their visit, I heard a plink plink plink on my kitchen window. I looked out to see the male standing on the deck railing looking at me, wondering after his breakfast.
I cut him half an orange, contemplating his actions while I ate the other half. I was going to put out a Clementine also, but I hesitated as he had gone through so much of our fruit already. Suddenly I felt the need to ration my supplies. Already I was starting to take him for granted and was determining just how generous I would be with him. After all, citrus fruit wasn’t cheap to come by anymore, not in this economy and with the weather having done its share of damage.
Humans are funny that way, always measuring one thing against another, trying to determine what is fair and what losses are acceptable stacked up against what we hope to gain. Where is that line we draw that separates the special from the mundane? I doubt there is a married person alive who hasn’t wondered at exactly when they stepped over that line, or how close they might be to doing so.
I did put the Clementine out eventually when I got nervous after the oriole flew off and didn’t immediately return. I checked the window all afternoon as the line from the Paul Simon song repeated in my head, “nervous when you’re holding it, nervous when it’s gone.”
The oriole did not return that day. Nor did I see him the next. And even though there was evidence that something was nibbling at the oranges, I never saw him again that entire season.
Another spring is upon us. My own almond, once again, is in full bloom. Orange slices have been hung outside my window and are now desiccating, untouched, in the April sunlight. As I scan the trees for the flicker of a tangerine wing I am left alone to ponder.
What is more valuable, the blossom or the bird? The bird or the fruit? The fruit or the coin? Oh, how we always weigh and cast our votes according to our whims and how satiated we feel in the moment. And oh, how quickly those moments can change.
Still no sign of the bird.
I turn from my vigil at the window. It is a mystery to me, how any of us ever survive our paradoxes.
Springtime has become, for me, as full of absence as it is of bloom, as bound to death as it is to new life. Mushrooms sprout from the fallen limb of the massive oak. Ferns unfurl among last autumn’s withered leaves. Everywhere around me beauty consumes beauty while resurrections emerge from every tomb.
I have always loved the way the seasons mark the passage of time. Perhaps it has been time itself I have loved. I linger. I always seem to want just a few more moments…for hugs that last a little longer, for spaces to extend themselves just a bit wider between notes of songs and lines of poems so that I might absorb them, for time to draw in a few more breaths of perfumed evening breeze before I go indoors.
And yet, with time comes decay. Time marks absence as much as it does arrival. They have become inseparable for me. I have been with several lifeless bodies now, some in their virgin state, some altered by the embalmer’s hand. I know full well how quickly time transforms a body once the life has left it. I have smelled it. I have seen it. I have touched it. Those hours of transformation are no different on the clock than the hours spent together in life and yet…and yet it seems we recede so very quickly in the end. It’s as though we are sand castles just beyond the tide line, standing solidly all day long under the bright sun only to dissolve into nothingness in the blink of an eye when the evening comes and the Moon has her way with the tides.
So, do we love time or do we protect ourselves from it? Six hours spent together are six hours gone. The beginning is the end, the circle comes full round. A bird alights on a branch and in the flash of a thought disappears while we search for the courage to bear watching as the last blossom is plucked, grateful we were able to be there at all.
To read this memoir from be beginning, go here.
Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.