My mother Audrey was a birdwatcher. In the 1960’s, when she began pursuing this curious habit, four percent of the U.S. population admitted to bird watching. Who watches birds? What normal human being goes out into the woods after work, or worse—while on vacation to look at tiny creatures who don’t just walk or run, but fly away when they notice you peering at them? They aren’t particularly cute, and not cuddly, and they are not, you know, like us, the way we know chimpanzees to be like us, or imagine dolphins to be like us.
I could never square the birdwatching with who my mom was. It seemed an appropriate hobby for the British, or elderly virgins, or 19th-century poets who write silly poetry about virgins and birds. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but my mom was a midwestern iconoclastic woman: robust, sexy, tough, the first in her family to graduate from high school and then college, a woman who loved stiff drinks and spicy food, traveling alone, and who was the only divorced woman among all the moms in our central Illinois town in 1969.
She’d had enough of my dad’s anger, flirting, and criticism of her; she encouraged him to leave when he got a big job offer on the East Coast. I was eight, and I heard her tell a girlfriend, “I said, Richard, let’s not pack up the troubles in the old kit bag. You go to New Jersey. Please, Richard.” Audrey had her job as a high school teacher, her house, her friends, and me. And birdwatching.
Audrey was much happier after Dad moved away. She re-decorated the house with used Scandinavian furniture; we went to Mexico; she had boyfriends, she got an M.A. in Art History. And she birdwatched, as she always had. I thought birdwatching was the most boring thing in the world.
My mom not only birdwatched incessantly and scratched out the “life-list” of the hundreds of birds she’d spied in Florida where we went every Christmas and stayed in Honkey-Tonk motels in the Keys, or on the camping trips we took to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Kentucky, she actually played bird calls on our record player. I’d wake up on Sunday morning to loons, or towhees, or grouses.
“Kir, Can you tell what that is? Can you identify it?”
“It’s a bird.”
My mother remarried when I was 19, and my stepfather Dan was also a birdwatcher. They birdwatched together, and compared life lists, and listened to those Peterson Guide to North American Bird Records the way other couples listened to Frank Sinatra. Oh, the Dark-eyed Junco. The Brewer’s Blackbird cry.
I loved my stepfather, a writer, a very kind man who loved me simply and straightforwardly, and when he died suddenly, run over while crossing the street, I was heart broken. I was 26, and shortly after his death, my mother and I spent time together in a cabin on a lake near Madison Wisconsin, where I was getting my Ph.D. Audrey had been badly hurt in the accident, was relegated to a wheelchair for weeks.
At the cabin she was angry at Dan for dying, dopey on painkillers and–to be honest, a pain in my ass, whining and miserable. I was supposed to be studying for my oral exams.
As I rowed us out on the lake, a heron, long-necked and elegant, landed on a rock near us.
“That’s Dan.” My mother said.
“You don’t believe in the afterlife, Mom.”
“Listen, Kirsten. I may or I may not, but: Birdwatching. You’ll Come To It.” I kept rowing. And rowing.
Ten years later, my mother died while I was on a flight to see her. I knew she had cardiomyopathy—a swollen heart. Incurable, but we’d been told she had 3 to 5 years to live. When she phoned to tell me that she’d called an ambulance because something felt very wrong, I got on a plane from Ithaca, New York to Urbana—to the house where I’d grown up. She died in the kitchen, while I was still on the plane, flying over Detroit, probably.
After the coroner left, and the body had been taken away to a funeral home, I noticed two things:
- She had left out a Halloween costume she intended to wear when she would visit my 6-year-old son and me in Ithaca in a few weeks later: a cheerleader costume. How embarrassing that would have been, my 66-year old mother in such a ridiculous get up.
- Her Peterson Guide lay on the couch, the life list in the back with over a hundred checks by the birds she had witnessed: flying, cocking their heads, landing on wires.
Birdwatching, you’ll come to it.
Twenty years later, I’ve tried to be the mother, the woman that Audrey was. I’ve not yet come to birdwatching the way she might have wanted. No active birdwatcher, I–though I do take some interest in the puny, feathered creatures that light on my patio, or chirp at me from trees. They are artful in their way.
When I see a heron, I believe I’m seeing at least a reminder of my stepfather.
When hearing a chickadee—chika dee dee dee , or the cedar waxwing with its thin, lispy tsee tsee tsee, I recognize the sound. Never paying attention, I somehow learned this music from my mother. And from her Peterson’s Guide, I’ve begun to steal some language: “Three sweet notes followed by a lower note and a trill.” “A gurgled melody, rising then falling.” What a way to know almost invisible creatures surrounding us.
This music that emerges out of thin air, sometimes at night when my window is open, could be the songs of the dead. Warbling. Trilling. They might be observing the comings and goings of the living. No judgement; this underworld stance maintains neutrality.
Wings flicker in trees, beaks open and close, tiny claws clutch a telephone wire. Birds happen to flutter through my life, singing like there’s no tomorrow.
I listen. I’ve learned that much.