“Do you see them?”
Mom stood behind my shoulder. The anticipation rolled off her skin like the spring sun dripping down my parents’ driveway.
“Hold on a sec,” I told her. My fingers pulled back the green frame of leaves. I peered inside the shrubbery.
Yup. Mom was right. There it was. Smack dab in the middle of the tallest shrub between the sidewalk and my parents’ garage.
The bird nest was the clear result of instinctual architecture. A tangle of twigs and twine. Lopsided, but sturdy. Mama bird done good.
“See them?” my mom asked me again. Her voice pitched high with expectation and excitement.
I lifted my heels off the ground to get a closer look. A bird chirped from one of the nearby oak limbs. The breeze twisted through the trees.
“Oh yep,” I whispered as I looked down. “I see them.”
Three oval eggs sat side-by-side in the bottom of the nest’s belly. Off-white with brown specks. Like they were covered in freckles, or dipped in Oreo cookie crumbs.
“Those are the cardinal eggs,” Mom explained. “Isn’t that cool?”
“Very cool,” I breathed. I counted the eggs again. 1, 2, 3.
Mom watches the wooded backyard like the paparazzi dying to get a picture of Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. A maroon-covered book titled “Birds of Michigan” and small set of black binoculars are always at the ready under the kitchen window, or on the back porch. Prime bird watching spots.
She told us that she discovered the nest a few days earlier. Cardinals are my mom’s favorite, second only to bluebirds. When Mom’s mom passed away when I was eight, we attributed a red cardinal to Grandma Phyllis. She loved to watch the cardinals from the big picture window at her house in St. Paul.
“There’s Grandma,” our family says whenever we see a rush of red wings. We feel better when we see cardinals. More hopeful. Less alone. I don’t know. Something.
Watching Mother Nature go to work never gets old for me. Unless she’s working the night shift during the winter, dumping king-size comforters of snow across our roads.
Still, I forget that Mother Nature wears a food chain that drapes around her neck. She does nothing without her ever-important accessory.
We have no say in the outfit. As humans, we are an impactful link in the chain. We help spur actions and reactions. Define the hunter and the hunted.
Mother Nature is not too shy to remind us where we all stand.
The following week after seeing the cardinal eggs, my husband and I went back to my parents’ house for a Memorial Day cookout. The afternoon was warm, the grass was green, and summer was ushering spring out the door like a gentleman who minds his manners, but can’t hide the fact that he wants the girl to leave.
We brought Daisy to swim in my parents’ pond. She’s obsessed with the water and loves to launch herself off the old wooden dock into the murky green-blue water. My brother and his girlfriend joined us. They brought Bentley, their German Shorthaired Pointer. The dogs were a couple of besties, galloping side-by-side after tennis balls and kicking up dead leaves as they tramped through the woods at warp speed.
The round metal grill sizzled when Mom placed the hot dogs on the grate. I could hear Dad and Adam laughing by the pond, followed by the whoosh of a splash from the pups. The air smelled like hot charcoal and new grass and fresh air.
With a book in my lap and cheap black sunglasses on my nose, I sat near the front yard in a red folding chair. The black netting of the cup holders were chewed away (courtesy of Daisy), leaving empty holes I could put my hands through. The sun felt warm. I felt happy.
My eyes followed wings as the mama cardinal flew in and out of the shrub, feeding the eggs that cracked open to become breathing babies. I smiled at the sight.
“Do you want to see the cardinal nest?” my mom offered my brother’s girlfriend, Sage. Once Mom finds a new nest or identifies a bird, she loves to share the knowledge.
“Sure,” Sage said. I kept my eyes on my book. It was just getting to the good part. The main character and the guy she liked were about to get together.
I looked up at the sound of my mom’s shriek. Panic caked her face as she held the cardinal nest high above her head. Sage had her own hands full as she tried to hold back her dog, who was lunging at the nest with intensity and strength.
“Bentley, no! NO.” Sage scolded. She tugged at the dog’s collar, pulling against the weight with a heave.
“She can smell the birds, she knows they’re in this nest, I can’t believe it.” The words tumbled out of my mom’s mouth as quickly as she thought them. She looked at me, exasperated. Her eyebrows furrowed across her forehead.
Sage pulled Bentley away while Mom tried to place the nest back into the bush. I sat in my chair, too stunned at the scene to move.
“Call your dad up here,” Mom ordered.
“Dad!” My voice boomed.
The dog lunged again, breaking free from Sage’s grasp.
“Daaaaaahhhhhhd,” I yelled again.
“Whaaaat?” Dad answered, his voice losing volume as it carried from the back of the pond.
“Come here!” I called back.
“Oh no, no, no, no,” Mom shrieked again, covering the branches with her hands as Bentley lunged at the birds.
“Bentley, stop it!” Sage repeated. She pulled the dog back and tried to step away from the shrub.
Dripping with pond water, Daisy came galloping toward me, Dad and Adam behind her. I set my book on the ground and stood up from the chair.
“Come on, let’s go pups,” I directed. I jogged back toward the pond, away from the scene of the crime. Daisy followed me, while Sage redirected Bentley back toward my brother near the pond. With Daisy refocused on the pond, I turned again toward the shrub, where Mom and Dad and Adam stood.
Adam took the nest from Mom. It still held the three balls of bird inside. He began moving branches, peeling back the shrub’s layers for a place to reposition the nest. Mom reported to Dad what just had happened.
“The mom probably won’t come back now, huh?” Mom asked Dad. “Since we messed with the nest?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
I went inside the house. My gut told me the baby birds were probably goners, which made me feel sad and quiet and weighed down, for some reason.
I told myself they were just birds. There are a lot of birds. These things happen. It was just how Mother Nature worked. You can’t change her rules.
But, I thought as I pictured my mom’s face as she held the nest above her head, they were my mom’s birds. Cardinals. Grandma’s birds.
A few minutes later, I heard the back door open, then shut. Mom climbed up the stairs and found me in my old bedroom.
“Bentley’s a bird dog, she’s designed to do that,” Mom reasoned. I nodded. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. A result of Mother Nature’s food chain, and instinct, and circumstance.
They’re just birds. But my mom was my mom. And I knew she was upset, as much as she tried to hide it.
“Do you think they’ll be OK? I don’t know if the Mama Bird will come back now,” my mom repeated. Yup. This nest situation was traveling the Worrisome Route along the train tracks of my mother’s mind. A never-ending loop.
“Did you put the nest back where it was?” I asked.
“Adam tried, but he couldn’t,” Mom glanced out the window. “The branches were knocked all over the place. He put it a bit higher than where it originally was.”
“I’m sure they’ll find it,” I said, referring to the baby birds’ parents. We had seen the dad, a burst of bright red feathers, feeding the babies just as much as the mom.
Despite my words, my own instinct inside my gut poked and prodded at my brain. We had always heard that birds wouldn’t have anything to do with their babies if they had contact with humans.
Mom and I went back outside.
“Let’s move the nest,” Dad suggested when he saw us in the driveway. “Put it inside the garage while we eat dinner so Bentley won’t try to get the birds again. After dinner, we’ll try to put the nest back.”
Mom reluctantly agreed. The baby birds, nestled inside the only home they knew, were transplanted to the roof of the red Ford Focus inside the garage.
We went inside and ate hot dogs with red ketchup and yellow mustard. Taco salad with crunchy Doritos on top. Ladles of thick beans and glasses of lemonade.
We didn’t talk about the birds.
After dinner, Adam and I left to meet his family for ice cream. I tried to put the whole Nest Situation out of my mind. What was done was done.
Hopefully Mom felt the same way. I imagined the complex map of my mother’s mind. Lots of Worry Trails.
Yeah, doubt it.
We returned to my parents’ house to pick up Daisy an hour later. As Adam drove down my parents’ gravel driveway, I could see the outline of my mom by the shrub near the garage. Dad sat in the red chair with the chewed-out cup holders. Adam parked. We stepped out into the evening air. An orchestra of crickets had replaced the afternoon’s bird symphony.
“They can’t find the nest,” Mom said as soon as my feet hit the cement. Her voice dropped with disappointment. “We put the nest back, but we had to put it higher. In a different spot.”
“The mom came back,” Dad added, “but she’s so dumb, she went back to where the nest originally was. She couldn’t find them.” He shook his head in frustration. Dad has spent his life trying to patch the sadness holes that get poked in my mom’s heart. When they were newlyweds and Mom was missing her home back in Minnesota during Easter, Dad hid eggs around their apartment for Mom to find.
He hates seeing her upset…but he hates when he can’t do anything about it even more. I guess I was the same way, too. We try to be the protectors of Mom’s happiness. As much as we can, anyway.
“I tried to feed them,” Mom said. “Dad found me some worms.” She held up a red lid that held the squirming dark earth eaters. “They had their mouths open when I went to feed them, but then they heard my voice and shut up.” She sighed. “I shouldn’t have talked.”
I took a step toward the shrub and pulled back the higher leaves. Sure enough, the baby cardinals sat there, fluffy and alive. But their eyes were shut. So were their yellow mouths. They knew I wasn’t their mother. It was the ultimate game of “Can’t see you, so you can’t see me.”
“I need tweezers,” Mom complained. “I’ll try to feed them again, but the problem is, the worms get stuck to my fingers.” She went inside.
Adam stood next to me. Dad sat in the red chair. Quiet.
“Are the birds gonna die?” I asked him. I could always get straight to the point with Dad.
“I don’t know,” he answered, raising his eyebrows in uncertainty. “They say it’s hard when you mess with the nest.”
I nodded. My heart fell.
“Guess we’ll have to wait and see,” Dad said.
I glanced back at the baby birds, new and fresh and helpless. Waiting. Their innocence broke my heart. Their instinctual reliance on their parents in order to live. The fact that they knew food would come…and the fact that we knew it probably wouldn’t.
I pushed the thought out of the way. These things happened, I reminded myself.
They’re. Just. Birds.
End of story.
But they were more than that, I reasoned. The birds were a symbol of my mom’s happiness. Her joy at finding the eggs, and showing the nest to all of us, at watching the babies grow. Now the scenario was stunted, and she blamed herself. We all felt helpless at the disruption of my mom’s happiness.
Adam and I loaded Daisy in the back of the car. The air blew back our dog’s ears as we drove home.
“I’m kinda bummed about the birds,” I confessed.
“Me too,” he said.
I was glad I didn’t have to watch them die though,I thought. I tried not to picture the eventual lifeless birds in the brown nest. I tried not to see the clueless cardinal, returning to the same spot again and again, baffled by the fact that her babies were gone.
The next day, Mom called me. I was afraid to answer. I didn’t want to hear the details about the baby birds impending death, or hear the sadness in my mom’s voice as she put her worries on repeat.
Still, I pressed the ANSWER button on my cell phone. “Hey Mom.”
“Honey!” My mom’s voice crackled in my ear with spark. “Guess what!”
“What?” I stood still.
“We moved the nest back to where it originally was, and the parents found the babies.”
“Are you serious?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Yep,” she answered, breathless. “Dad said he saw the mom and dad go in several times to feed them, and now they’re out of the nest.”
“What do you mean, ‘they’re out of the nest’?”
“They babies are big enough that they hopped out. They’re OK!” Mom paused, then said, “I’ve named them.”
“Yes. Faith, Hope, and Love. I figured it was appropriate, you know?”
I smiled into the phone.
“I like it, Mom. Perfect names.”
“I thought so, too.”
“I can’t believe they’re OK.”
“I know, right?” Mom sighed with relief. “You should write about this.”
“It’s such a good story, don’t you think?” I could feel her smile through the phone.
Later that day, Mom texted me photos of the birds. Her joy pounced off my screen with multiple exclamation marks. I smiled at the close-up picture of one of the birds, staring directly at the camera with confidence while it sat on a branch. No longer stuck in the nest. One step away from total independence.
This one was Faith, Mom told me. My phone buzzed with another text.
MOM: You need to write the bird story!
So here it is, Mom. Here it is.
Another lesson from the birds.
I’ll take it.
On Sunday, we went to a high school graduation ceremony. ‘Tis the season for cake and caps.
Adam was worried we would be late. I could tell because he wasn’t saying much, and he stared at the road like he wanted to diminish the distance with his eyeballs. His nail-bitten fingers clutched the steering wheel at a perfect 10 and 2.
My husband doesn’t like to be late. Neither do I, but hey. It happens.
We looked at the screen in the center of the console. The dictator of our days. The digital clock read 12:53 in neon green. The same color as those Mr. Yuk stickers my mom used to put on her old perfume bottles filled with gold liquid that smelled like dried flowers.
“See?” I pointed at the numbers, our marching orders. “Plenty of time. We won’t be late.”
I adjusted my jean jacket collar over my rainbow-printed maxi dress. I like wearing beachy dresses because they are easy to put on and don’t require buttons or zippers. They aren’t confining. Like nicer-looking pajamas. This one was a gift from my aunt in Minnesota. I wear it on special occasions.
I flipped down the visor. Lipstick likes to embarrass me by covering my front teeth.
I gave the small square mirror a fake smile. All clear.
Adam pulled into the school parking lot and cut the engine. I looked up at the big orange letters adhered to the brown-red building. GO VANDALS. A collective community cry that reverberates from the football stadium to the Whippy Dip, across the dirt roads and corn fields and back to the gymnasium….which is where we needed to be right now.
I glanced at the clock one last time as we stepped out of the car. 12:58. The ceremony was scheduled for 1 p.m.
Today, it was Adam’s cousin Elijah who would wear the long black gown and mortar cap and drape the orange satin ribbons across his shoulders. He was second to last in Adam’s long line of family members who have gone through the Vandal school system. Once Montana graduates next year, there will be a drought in this bloodline at the high school.
My flip-flops thwacked against the concrete with a pace that labeled me Late. One step behind, Adam walked with his steady, sure gait. He never appears frazzled or rushed, even when he is.
We opened the heavy glass doors that gave way to the high school lobby. I was hit with a wall of energy buzzing in the air like a swarm of bees…. the flavor of excitement that only exists when Something Big and Life-Changing is about to happen.
A long line of teenagers in black and orange cut across the lobby, weaving like the body of a milk snake. A few faces glanced our way—tan girls with shimmery eye shadow, tall guys with dark hair—while bobbing their knees and overlooking each other to get a closer look into the gym entrance. We’d learn later that the 2018 class barely stretched over 40 students. Small in size but big in possibility, the salutatorian said during her speech.
“Just in time,” I whispered to Adam. He nodded.
We passed the line of anxious seniors and leaned against the doorframe that opened to the gym. The bleachers were packed with people that looked familiar but not exactly recognizable, either. In the rows of metal chairs grouped across the wooden gym floor, I saw a hand rise above the sea of faces. I traced the fingers to the elbow to the neck and found the face of Adam’s mom.
“There,” I said, grabbing Adam’s shoulder and pointing. He took a step inside the gym.
Adam had worn the same black cap and gown years ago. That was before I knew him. While he was busy graduating, I was ten minutes down the road, two years younger and a grade behind, building my own world in another small town that was the same but different: red instead of orange, Bulldogs instead of Vandals, names like Courtney and Katie and Jessie, and Marty and Stefan and Kelly, instead of Bobby, Pat, Rachel, Ashley, Shane, Trevor.
With seconds to spare, we said hello to Adam’s parents, his aunts and uncles, and settled in for the ceremony. I turned around. Big, thick metallic black 2018 balloons connected to an umbilical cord of white ribbon wound around a white archway. I looked out into the rows of faces— grandmas, grandpas, moms, dads, friends—all just as connected to these humans as the balloons to the ties.
The familiar notes of Pomp and Circumstance began. The students marched in, two by two, like an eager army.
I waited. Then, my mind pressed play on my memories.
It happens every year. My personal Pavolivian response. No matter how many days distance myself between the then and now, this time of year transports me like a time machine. Back to the Then. To graduation, and St. Charles, and 17-year-old me…a girl with blonde highlights and big dreams and naïve notions of what the world offered me, instead of what I could give to the world.
With every bite of buttercream party cake, with every nostalgic slide show, every carefully curated photo board, I often think of my Thens in comparison to my Nows.
Then, I wanted to be a magazine reporter.
Then, I had numbers in my phone that I don’t use anymore.
Then, I thought I knew everything because I thought I had nothing to lose.
My heart had less cracks. My brain had less wisdom.
I still talked to her. I hadn’t forgotten him.
My feet had yet to touch the Atlantic Ocean.
My hands had yet to hold his.
The losing comes with the learning. And the growth.
Inside the gymnasium, the ceremony continued. The Senior slideshow had a few technical difficulties. A baby with blonde curls squealed. The band played, the awards were given, the hands clapped, the names were repeated.
Once they were declared graduates, the students didn’t toss their caps into the air.
Maybe they didn’t know they were supposed to.
Maybe they didn’t want to.
Instead, the group walked out just as they walked in. The school song played and their world surrounded them one last time before cracking open to reveal a wide sky hovering over a rolled-out red carpet of new opportunities. If they wanted them.
As I jumped into a photo with Adam and Elijiah and moved with the current of family, I pressed pause on the memories. The feeling of standing on the edge of the familiar and looking out at the dreams that dot our skyline like boats out to sea.
And I realize…that fresh & new isn’t reserved for graduates. The gratefulness for where we’ve come, and the excitement for where we’re going? We're allowed to feel that way...and to endlessly search for that feeling, again and again.
Life brings new seasons. New chapters. New choices, and chance, and change.
And hey…maybe some buttercream cake.