Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Power of the Red Bird

I'm not sure how else to share this other than to reprint a excerpt from my 2004 book, The Things I Wish I'd Said. (scroll down). Hopefully, you're in the mood for reading. Regardless, let me explain the brief genesis for this post.

I just checked Facebook for the third time today and this photo and message appeared on my HOME page:
A cardinal is a representative of a loved one who has passed. When you see one, it means they are visiting you. They usually show up when you most need them or miss them. They also make an appearance during times of celebration as well as despair to let you know they will always be with you. Look for them, they'll appear. 
(Photo posted by Facebook user: Gordon Matson/shared by Karen Gardner).

First of all, thank you Karen, my dear friend, for sharing this post. I believe she is aware that I, along with my sisters and brother have associated the cardinal with our mother, who passed in 1999. We, in fact, often give one another the gift of a cardinal in various forms--especially photos and ornaments--and share cardinal sightings at personally appropriate times. It keeps our mother alive. 

But our mom and the cardinal were especially on my mind because Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 (Martin Luther King holiday) would have been her 95th birthday.

Have I seen a cardinal recently? Except for this lovely photo on Facebook,  no. Not yet. It'll be several weeks before the cardinals are back in Tucson. And to date, I've NEVER seen one in the Northwoods. I thought I heard one once--shortly after she died, and I even checked with a naturalist who told me they were migrating further north--however, the cardinal has eluded me in northern Wisconsin. But this photo of multiple cardinals along with its message really touched my heart.

Gordon Matson, whoever you are, I think you're right.

Here's the excerpt from my book. It was the second book I had published and is a very personal account of my life. I was a newspaper columnist in the San Francisco Bay area during the early 1990s and this book, published in 2004, contains a collection of my original columns coupled with responses or followups written a decade later. As this excerpt ultimately explains, the book was inspired by my mother, her death, and the collection of my work I inherited upon her death.

The first part of this excerpt (in italics called "Summer of Old") was written circa 1993. The followup ("Summer of the Redbird") was written for the book 10 years later:

Summer of Old

It was a summer day in a suburban backyard. Sitting in lawn chairs on a cement patio were neighborhood mothers drinking coffee and talking mother talk. Their young children kept the swing set squeaking in the distance, their shouts and giggles blending with the buzzing drone of Midwestern cicada.
        Two young girls, one eleven, the other twelve, competed to see who could swing the highest. Their skinny legs worked hard as they pumped their way into the sky, and with each arc the metal legs of the swing set lifted off the ground like a rocking chair. When the girls finally reached their limits, they let go of the chains and plunged into the soft green grass.
        It was a draw.
        “I bet my mother is smarter than your mother,” said the twelve-year-old suddenly.
        “No way,” said the other girl. “My mother is older than yours. Everybody knows that older means wiser.”
        “Naugh aw,” the twelve-year-old cried. “My mother got out of school last and that means she remembers more stuff they taught her. Your mom is so much older than my mom that she’s probably forgotten everything by now.”
        This sort of made sense to the eleven-year-old, but she wouldn’t give in. “I think my mother’s smarter than your mother,” she said.
        “Okay then,” said the twelve-year-old, “we’ll prove my mother’s smarter by giving them a test. We’ll ask them both how many miles it is to go from here to Philadelphia.”
        The eleven-year-old, thinking this sounded like a fair test, agreed.

        Leaving the pendulating swings behind, the two girls marched toward the patio where their mothers sat next to each other cross-legged. Wasting no time in proving her mother was the smarter; the eleven-year-old quickly asked her how many miles it was to Philadelphia.
        “I don’t know,” said her mother, who sipped her coffee and failed to see the look of disappointment on her daughter’s face.
        “My mother knows,” bragged the twelve-year-old. “Right Mom?”
        “Well, I think it’s about 750 miles,” she said. “We’re planning a trip there next month for my cousin’s wedding.”
        “See!” shouted the twelve-year-old. “I told you so.”
        The eleven-year-old, not realizing that the test was rigged, walked back toward the swing set feeling ashamed because her mother had failed her.
        Her mother was fifty-three. At the time, the eleven-year-old-girl figured that was more than half of 100 and that was too old. She had never even known her grandparents and figured that if she were to have children some day, they probably wouldn’t know their grandparents either.
        She felt gypped.

        Thirty years ago it was rare for women to bare children past the age of forty. (One exception: My Catholic family. Numbers five and six were conceived by “accident,” and I was one of them.) More commonly, women bore their children early and certainly lived to see their grandchildren.
        We’ve all seen this trend change in recent years as women have become more career-oriented and now tend to wait longer to start their families. The eleven-year-old with the over-fifty mom is no longer considered unusual.
        Today, however, I’m a thirty-one year-old with a seventy-three year-old mother. That’s not too common. I feel like I only recently got to an age where I could relate to her and my dad as people rather than Mommy and Daddy and now I’m watching them age.
        It seems to have happened over night. Suddenly I find myself calling them “Pop-pop and Na-na” just like their nine grandchildren. And I also find myself tuning out while this white-haired man recalls yet another World War II story and this small, wrinkled lady tells me about an upcoming trip to South Carolina for the third time that evening.
        “How many miles away is that?” I want to ask.
        I feel, suddenly, like grains of salt falling in a three-minute egg timer are measuring my time with my parents. And I feel guilty because I think of things I’d rather be doing instead. I feel angry because they’re getting old and there’s nothing I can do about it.
        I feel like that eleven-year-old girl walking toward a swing set wanting only to fly off into the sky.
        I feel gypped.

A cardinal ornament shared between siblings.

Summer of the Redbird

     I didn’t include that my mother’s favorite word was “shit.” But I wish I had. She had never used or even heard the word until she was married and had her first job. One of her coworkers said it and my mom “liked the way it sounded.” She especially liked the way it sounded in multiples. “Shit, shit, shit,” is what I usually heard when she was mad or frustrated.
        Now I’m a forty-something year-old girl and my mother is dead. She’s been dead for five years and that pang of feeling ripped off continually creeps up on me without warning. I am a motherless child. At any age, that’s a painful title. You know what it feels like?
        It feels like shit.
        Not long ago my husband told me I haven’t been the same since my mother died. “You’ve lost your passion,” he said. It was a rotten thing to hear—worse than “you’ve lost weight” when you haven’t changed the number on the scale in years or “you look tired,” on a day you’re feeling particularly well. It was not a surface comment I could easily brush aside like a stray hair on a wool sweater. It cut deeply into what was left of my invaded spirit, especially because I understood what he meant.
        My mother always knew me to be a passionate, spirited person. There was rarely an in- between where my moods were concerned and Mom never failed to point out this fact. She often sent cards illustrating her opinion of my spirit: A little mop-headed girl throwing her arms open wide and a smile glistening toward the sky. Or a ballerina in a perfect, beautiful pose with a caption reading, “follow your dream wherever it leads.”  In tirades about war or the disappearing middle class, for example, or through discussions over hormone-injected dairy products and our need to grow organic vegetables, there was very little question where I stood. But ever since my mother died, these issues have lost their importance for me. As part of me died with her, my focus has shifted inward and remains more on my immediate family than on bigger issues I’ll never fully understand. I still have opinions, of course, and go out of my way to see that my girls drink organic milk, but my passion for life issues outside my little realm has faded.
        In my material life where I’ve lost seemingly important things like wallets, address books, and computer files, each has found an adequate substitute to serve its purpose and satisfy my need. With the loss of my mother, however, I can’t find anything to replace the hole in my heart that opens each time I think to call and ask her a question, or share with her something my daughter said that reminded me so much of her. It’s an odd, brief pang, and before my instinct to call her develops into a full thought that might lead to the physical movement of picking up the telephone, I push it aside. Silly me, I think. And it’s over.
        I guess we all find ways to cope with our losses. My dad, alone after fifty-six years of marriage, uses the phrase “Mommy left me” so often that it sounds more like a case of divorce rather than death. Some people talk out loud to their deceased loved-ones. It’s been suggested to me more than once that I “talk to her” on the days I feel like calling. But speaking out loud in an empty room isn’t something I do.

            Knowing Mom was an avid reader of my weekly column, I sent copies to her each week. She kept the long, narrow clippings folded into accordions and tucked inside a small, flower-covered photo album. It was a brag book she filled not with pictures of the grandchildren I put off delivering, but the recorded meanderings of my life three thousand miles away from her nest. Each piece was lovingly filed according to date and they were interspersed with other feature articles I had written for various publications. I didn’t know she had this album until just days after she died and my siblings and I combed through her lifetime of possessions, where we found piles of books filled with photos and clippings, and collections of papers keeping track of the lives of her five children. When one of my sisters found the brag book of my columns on display inside Mom’s red secretary, she suggested I take it. But I didn’t. I was happy to confiscate her 1940s Hummel of a little girl and a deer, (and I know two of my sisters have their eyes on that red secretary), but I didn’t feel ready to take the brag book.
            After my husband made the comment about my waning passion, however, I felt determined to somehow get it back. And so, as a first step, I asked my dad to send me the brag book. I was ready to review my past—to see my former self through a mother’s eyes.
        The exercise resulted in this book.
        I confess that the above column, “Summer of Old,” was not a part of her collection. (I found it on an old computer file.) I didn’t have the courage to send it as I felt it would insult my mother, and even though aging and growing (and commenting on aging and growing) is an enormous part of a parent-child relationship, I would never knowingly or willfully insult her. In my current stage of the relationship where I play the role of parent, I make most of the comments. (“It doesn’t look like you brushed your teeth;” “Comb that hair! You look like a ragamuffin;” “Do you really want to wear those pants with that shirt?”) These types of comments are my entitlement as a mother and they fall out of my mouth like drool on a pillow. I’m parenting with my mouth open and I simply can’t help it.
        My children’s comments on my appearance are limited; however, I count on them to rush toward me when I’m dressed to go out and tell me I “look pretty,” just as my sister and I did on nights when White Shoulders perfume intoxicated our senses and we knew Mom was “gizzying” up. We watched her cascade down the front hallway stairs like a Hollywood movie star and crooned, “Ooh, Mommy, you’re so beautiful.”
        Today my daughters have become my sister and me in the wafts of White Shoulders anticipation and while I relish their positive comments, I’m not sure how I’ll feel when they start commenting on the deepening lines in my face or curly gray hairs spouting from my scalp.

        I didn’t notice my parents turning old until I moved to California. While they were always older than the other parents in the neighborhood, this didn’t make them any less attractive or really any different from the other creatures stirring around in the alien world of grownups. But when I put together a collection of photos as part of my mother’s eulogy, I saw her look changed gradually with the decades, just as it was supposed to. She evolved from a dark-haired, wide-faced beauty to a small, almost angular woman, who clearly preferred not to have her picture taken. She became the woman I picture in my head when I think of her today.
        My mother was a tiny woman. Small by the standards of most, but tiny by mine. As I grew tall and shot past her while still in elementary school, I remember her quoting her height as five-foot-three and a half. That “and-a-half” was her little exclamation point. No one or nothing but age and osteoporosis could take away that half inch from her chart. I imagine she was five-foot nothing by the time she died. And according to our dad she weighed about eighty-five pounds.
        She may have been small, but she had an enormous impact on my life.
            She was eighty years old and she died doing what she loved: Water skiing. She didn’t get up on her old, wooden ski on her last day, but gave it another valiant effort and suffered a stroke, a massive hemorrhage to the brain stem. With the help of his neighbors, who were out that morning taking coffee on their dock and looking forward to watching Mom’s morning ski, Dad performed CPR until the ambulance arrived, and by helicopter, she was taken to St. Louis University Hospital and kept alive long enough for her children to arrive and kiss her goodbye.
        The day after my mother died and I found myself in the sweltering July heat in the front yard of her home, I stood next to her favorite redbud tree. In the years just before her death my annual visits were always in April, which is when the redbuds in Missouri explode with small purple blossoms. I have many photos of my daughters and their Nana taken in front of that purple tree. In July, however, its leaves were full and green and there were no signs of any buds, purple or red. In the furnace of the afternoon, I stared at the tree as if in a trance and wondered if the intense heat had caused my mother’s stroke.
        All at once a cardinal landed on a branch of the redbud and pierced the thick air with a shrill whistle. This bird snapped me to attention with its second, repetitive call, and then sucked me in like a worm as it sung a recognizable, rhythmic chirp. If you’ve spent any time in Illinois or Missouri as a child, you recognize the call of a cardinal the same way you know the sound of your mother calling you to dinner.
        But I’ll never forget that particular bird.
        Although it was male, the cardinal in the redbud tree was just like my mother: It was beautiful, familiar and comforting, and it came when I needed it most. Behind its chirp I heard not only every cardinal that had ever sung for me before, but I also heard lyrics telling me that everything was going to be okay. I couldn’t help but attach to this bird a spiritual message, which is repeated to me again and again by all the redbirds flying in and out of my life. And that message is: Life is beautiful and it flies by quickly. Remember not to lose sight of your passion.

        It also sounded a little bit like my mother saying, “shit, shit, shit.”


Gayle said...

Thank you Michele

Unknown said...

That's a beautiful post michelle

Beth said...

love, beautiful story

Mary said...

My mother just passed away last week. As I'm reading this post, I'm sitting on my porch & I heard a cardinal. As soon as it hit me that that's what it was, I jerked around but didn't see it. Thanks you for this beautiful post when I most needed it.

liz McQuaid said...

You best check your photo credits. The Cardinals photo was stolen by GordoN Matson off the Birding Ohio FB page!

Anonymous said...

Please let Mr. Matson know that it is illegal to steal photography, even digitally.

Anonymous said...

My husband passed away 3 weeks ago...was out shoveling more snow...all was quiet then heard a `cat call` whistle, looked up & saw a beautiful crimson red cardinal...made me cry, then smile! He is ALWAYS watching over me :)

Quinn said...

Really nice article. Enjoyed the excerpt! We have many Cardinals all year in this area. It is comforting to think of what they represent.

Unknown said...

Timely for me. May I share your post on my blogs.

Unknown said...

Lovely tribute to your Mom. I too have seen cardinals many times
and miss my Mom who has been gone more than 20 years.

Paulina G said...

Dear Michelle, What a beautiful story. So glad I read it. On Thursday afternoon, I came home from getting my hair done, only to find a beautiful bright red cardinal at my back sliding door. I thought it was the cutest thing in the world. It stayed for 3 days but we unfortunately had to cover up the windows because he would not leave and obviously make a huge "shit shit shit" mess all over the windows and back patio.....not to mention pecking at the window constantly :-) Anyway, I had never heard the spiritual myth of the cardinal until I read your story and it put me to tears thinking I would stop at nothing to "get rid of" this pesky little bird. And now I can only wonder.....who was it that was trying to reach out to me....Your story about your family is beautiful....we should ALL not waste one single moment as time is so precious but life is sooooo hectic and sooooo busy and sooooo competitive....But after reading this, I will try to make certain I enjoy life so much more because it sure does go by like the blink of an eye.....

Anonymous said...

I have been frequently visited by a Cardinal since the loss of my dad in 2007. I never knew what it meant until I started seeing 2 cardinals in my yard shortly after the loss of my cousin's husbamd. I get happy tears when I see them...the more you look, the more they come visit! Thank you for you post Michelle!

Anonymous said...

We use to sit on my mothers back porch watching cardinals, there was always plenty, I never knew what they meant but my mother always loved them and know I know why. My mothers birthday was also January 20th she was born in 1926 I'm sure there will be cardinals flying on that day.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the most beautiful story I've ever read.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the most beautiful story I've ever read.

Enthusiasm Quotes said...

very amazing and interesting post, thank you for sharing
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Anonymous said...

A cardinal has been hanging around my house a lot the last few days peering in my windows siting on the fence. He came and sat on my fence as my daughter in law were sitting on the deck it hapened to be my mothers birthday! She passed in

pheno1 said...

I was born and raised in Virginia, where the cardinal is the state bird. But I have never heard the story before. I have three males that come everyday to feed and also one exquisite female. We sit on the front porch with their feeders probably no more then 12 feet from us and they also sit in the crate Myrtle tree and I can touch from the deck. Cardinals have always reminded me I love my daddy as he used to sit at the dining room table and watch the feeding tray he had mounted right outside the window. My mama and mother-in-law have long since passed over too so these stories of visitation only cement what I have felt for over 30 years!

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