To my children, Ehmar, Jaedy, and Elce
I watched a company of geese fly overhead as we raked leaves in the yard today, winging southerly for the winter. The oaks and maples have nearly finished stepping out of their amber and carnelian robes and soon will stand naked for the cold sun’s duration. The late autumn scene journeyed me back to a similar day which had taken place what seemed like ages ago. Watching the flock pass overhead and behind the tree line, I remembered another pair of wings that never found their way south. You’ve seen the pictures and you know the overarching storyline. But today I want to tell you the details about one of the hardest days of my childhood.
An orphan robin that we rescued last summer.
If memory serves, the scorching heat of June 1980 was mighty enough to burn even the most callused kid’s feet. Only a few times during that blistering summer did I make it into town where most of my friends lived. I spent those brief reprieves playing hopscotch at the park or sharing a bubblegum slush with my best pal, Holly, at the local ice-cream shop, The Blue Cow. The rest of my summer was spent on the farm. In retrospect, being raised as a country girl afforded me a wondrously enriching perspective on life that children raised in towns and cities lack. Years later, I am grateful and wholly indebted to my parents for their conviction to raise a family in the country. Now as I hurry between stoplights and fight through the mall traffic, I yearn for the simplicity and quiet seclusion of the open fields. But a spirited six-year-old would much rather spend lazy summer days splashing with friends in the West Branch of the Susquehanna instead of hoeing endless rows of wax beans. So while my friends delighted in the amenities of town life, Uncle Jason and I had to invent our own fun on the farm.
Insect hunts were popular. We would set out through the fields, competing to see whose butterfly net was fullest by the time Mom called us for dinner. Some days we would roll hulking rocks down the slope to the half dried-out pond to build steppingstone bridges from one muddy bank to the other. Sometimes on a dare, we would go into the chicken coop to snatch a nest full of eggs. By skillfully maneuvering a coffee can over the hen's head, we could safely plunge our hands into her downy warmth and make off with the goods. But our favorite and most compassionate activities always revolved around finding helpless creatures to save.
Living on a farm provides many opportunities to experience life and death, to roll them around in your hands and inspect them at different angles. I can recall several instances when Uncle Jason and I saved a field mouse from the clutches of an evil tom cat or nursed the runt of the rabbit litter back to life. Many times our rescues were unsuccessful and we tearfully buried the tiny bundle of fur under the plum tree next to the countless bundles that had gone on before. Farm kids can’t help but have strong ties with animals and we felt a deep obligation to protect them in whatever way our child’s understanding deemed necessary even as the adults clicked their tongues and shook their heads at our efforts.
One rescue stands out above all others. It took place on one of those heat-heavy summer days when we had nothing better to do than wander the farm in search of some form of entertainment. I had been keeping an eye on a particular robin's nest in the grape arbor next to the garage. Grammy had told me to keep my hands off, but I was determined to get a glimpse of the tiny fledglings I knew were nestled inside. Every day I would sneak up to the arbor and climb the vines and every day the mother robin would be huddled over her brood, eyeing me with intense suspicion. Finally, with Grammy running an errand in town and Grandpa preoccupied with machinery repairs in the barn, I saw my opportunity. Making my way through the knobby grapevines, expecting to catch the usual glare from the feathered sentry, I found the mother robin curiously absent from her post. Gleefully, I assumed I had caught her off guard and peeked over the tangle of horsehair and sticks to see her babies. Instead, I let out a gasp, and my feet hit the grass as I ran to the house. A most terrible scene had greeted me ... the aftermath of a night-time predator; feathers chaotically strewn about the nest and a small clawed foot wrapped around twig. There were no survivors, only remains.
Perhaps a 6-year-old’s incomplete understanding of the finality of death lured me back. In any case, my fear was canceled by curiosity and I approached the grape arbor once again. As I stood underneath, mustering the courage to take a second look, a slight movement caught my eye. A tiny robin lay lopsidedly in the tall grass. Pinfeathers had barely protruded from his wrinkled skin and his wings were too weak to avail him. Immediately I scooped him up and made off for the house just as Grammy was pulling into the driveway. I ran toward the station wagon, one arm waving madly, the other cradling the tiny bird against my body.
Holding the baby robin I rescued.
"I got a baby robin," I exclaimed in a breathless rush of excitement. "It's from the nest in the arbor.”
Of course, Grammy immediately suspected me as the culprit and severely scolded me for disobeying strict orders to leave the nest alone. I somehow managed to explain that, no, I was not a villain but a heroine who had saved the baby robin from inevitable death. She firmly took my free hand in hers as we climbed the slope toward the arbor. Looking back, I don't think she truly believed my story of spectacular heroism. Until she investigated the scene for herself, she assumed I was making up another fantastic story to cover my mischievous tracks.
As we walked, I asked a myriad of questions: “What are his chances for survival? Will the mother come back to find him? What if she doesn’t? How will he survive?” I was feeling my way around the central question — whether or not I could keep the tiny bird as a pet. Grammy remained silent as she pushed through the vines and peered into the nest. I stood impatiently beneath her with the robin chirping frantically in my hands. I was waiting for an answer, but the solemn expression on her face as she climbed down hushed my incessant chatter. She took my hand again and we walked slowly toward the house. This time she held me more gently and explained that she and Grandpa would talk about the matter before dinner. In the meantime, I lined an old dishcloth with a handful of grass in the corner of a sneaker box and put the robin inside where he continued calling for his mother.
Some time later Grandpa came in from the barn and I listened to my parents' conversation from the other room. I couldn't catch everything, but I heard all the important details.
"David, I looked and there was nothing left. The mother must have been taken, too, because there were just feathers left in the nest. I don’t think there’s a chance of her coming back. The robin Jenny found in probably the only one that made it."
"I know, Carol. Even if she did come back, she wouldn't likely accept it. But I'm more concerned about Jenny. You know the chances of survival aren't very good. You know how she gets attached to animals, especially when she thinks that she can make them better. Is it worth that trouble? It might be better if I took care of it myself.”
With my brother and the baby robin.
Two months later the temperatures were as hot as ever. The forecasters talked of record-breaking highs and I believed it. As much as I enjoyed it, I was happy to know summer was winding down. Mid-August had arrived and with it, the preparations for going back to school. But this particular day I had set aside for working on new skills — Beebop's flying skills. Ever since that evening two months before when my parents had been discussing the robin's fate, I had been preparing for this day. Tearfully interrupting their conversation with promises of faithful caretaking should the robin live and quiet acceptance should it die, I convinced my parents to allow me to keep the rescued fledgling as my pet.
Finding an appropriate name was the first order of business. I decided on "Beebop" since that seemed to be the closest sound to a robin's cheery warble he could muster. Next, I moved him from the confines of the sneaker box into an inverted potato crate complete with an old chestnut tree branch which served as a perch. Because worms were hard to unearth in the dry, dusty clumps of sun-parched dirt, Beebop flourished under a regimen of chicken mash and milk, forced down his throat with a popsicle stick. As the weeks progressed, I realized his need for exercise. Daily, I would take him outside and encourage him to explore the nearby forsythia bushes. Grammy had explained to me that in the fall Beebop may begin to instinctually want to join the other robins in their journey south. It was part of my responsibility to prepare him for this important departure.
Beebop on a practice run.
We had been making great strides in independence over the last few days. Beebop would fly about for a few minutes or so before returning to my outstretched arm. Grammy and Grandpa commended me for my persistence, watching in wonder as I would toss Beebop into the air and call him back again from the maple tree. And I began to resent the coming of fall and his inevitable egress.
I remember the last weekend of summer. A cooler breeze was blowing across the fields, bending the Timothy grass in graceful arches. The trees had begun daubing yellow and red splotches along their stretched out arms. Already, a few of the less tenacious leaves had fallen to the ground. I squinted into the sun to watch a flock of robins surging up from the lower pasture. They were gathering for their journey south.
A final photo with my pet robin.
Grammy and Grandpa had invited some friends over for a final summer picnic. As the adults stood around the picnic table talking about their usual adult things, I quietly slipped into the house and took Beebop out of his potato crate. Walking onto the patio, I asked if anyone wanted to see my pet robin fly to the maple tree and then back to my arm. Indulgent smiles turned my way as the grown-ups stopped their conversations and gave their attention to me. I took Beebop in my outstretched hand and with a powerful toss, propelled him heavenward.
Similar to slowly advancing a movie frame by frame, the scene that followed to this day plays through my mind. I still desperately want to stop the tape, rewind it, re-measure my steps.
All eyes turn up as I let Beebop go.
I hear a harsh crack.
Then a dull thud.
All eyes turn away.
I stare wide-eyed and horrified as my little friend lies motionless on the concrete.
In my haste, I had carelessly misjudged the angle Beebop would take as he left my hand. I had propelled him into the patio roof, breaking his neck in the process. Our company shifted uncomfortably as Grammy bent down and picked up the limp body. Quiet conversation resumed as everyone tried to politely overlook the terrible terrible accident which had just taken place. Grandpa took me inside and led me to the couch where I sat in stunned silence, his face contorted between words of compassion and chastisement, his lips quivering with a thousand words, none of them able to connect with his voice. There was no need for discipline. I would handle the flogging of my heart just fine in the hours and years to come.
Later that evening, we dug a small hole under the plum tree. I held Beebop in my hands just as I had done the day I rescued him, tears from a torn heart soaking into the old dishtowel that we wrapped around his broken body before gently placing him into the ground. The dipping sun sent crimson rays across the fields and the shadows of Timothy grass bowed low as if in prayer as I finished scooping the dirt into his grave. I sat alone beneath the plum tree, my mind churning over the awful end of summer and all the ways in which I wanted to write a different ending. If only … if instead …
It’s been over 35 years since that fateful summer day but not a single robin warbles in our yard here at the end of the cul-de-sac without me once again returning to the grape arbor, patio, and plum tree. So why share a memory that has no happy ending, no hope for a turn around or heroic rescue? Why not leave the snapshots of a little girl’s innocence in the shoebox where none need know the guilt that’s written all over them in her adult mind? That would be the easy path to walk but I wouldn’t be sharing the whole of my life with you if I were to only pick the stories that end well and warmly. One day you’ll have your own chapters of sadness and regret and I want you to know that you’re not alone in them. They’re a common lineament to this life we live and they’re surmountable, survivable, if a bit scarring.
We continue to rescue the ones that fall.
I want you to know that yes, by all means, you must keep rescuing the ones that have fallen. The victories are so very worth the perils. Fantastic adventures often begin with a hand that’s unafraid to reach out. Just ask Grammy about the chipmunk. The one I rescued. The one who lived in the house with us for 6 years. But that’s a tale for another telling.