Friday, February 3, 2017

Relative Matters

Fish Market, Mixed Media
Below is a story I originally wrote in 2008 and titled it Relative Matters.  I have kept the story semi-private but after recently completing a course in habitat stewardship I decided to post it. 

A good part of my winter of 2008 was spent hanging out with fish in my studio; in particular, a Whiting that went through stages ranging from fresh, frozen, slowly decaying, baked, and partly disemboweled.  It was a winter where I was preoccupied with many upcoming events. My daughter was graduating from college and relocating, fortunately, closer to home. But the logistics loomed large for me.

Four years earlier, when Esther left for college, I became obsessed with songbirds and was determined to have a “bird garden”. Ceaselessly, I scanned the internet trying to gather information for this project. The first year of the garden, I sat for hours at my kitchen window waiting for something to appear other than a pigeon.  One day, in almost a complete state of despair at the failure of my garden, I cried out to God to give me a sign that I should continue with this seemingly futile experiment.  Within seconds, two noisy blue jays flew down into my yard, raised a big racket, then departed. I was amazed that a prayer was answered so obviously and quickly. During these months, it never occurred to me that my obsession with birds was a way to ease my loneliness for my daughter. 

Over time, the bird garden grew in size and complexity and eventually attracted the normal range of creatures – cardinals, chickadees, catbirds, finches, and, of course, pigeons. As Esther’s college years passed and I got used to a quiet house, my obsession with birds was replaced with an easy enjoyment.  I accepted the fact that my current cast of visitors was never going to be exotic, but I had succeeded in building what I referred to as my Field of Dreams.

 For the most part, Esther’s move was uneventful. I found myself having some of the same feelings I did four years before; not so much the loneliness, but the concern you have for your children when they start something new.  But it was Spring and there was much work to be done in the garden, so I set my focus to those tasks knowing that we would survive the geographic transition. 

It was long since I watched compulsively out my window for "exotic" songbirds, but I did have a habit of surveying what was going on when I was within six feet of a rear-facing window.  As I walked by the back bedroom, I decided to glance out at the yard. In the feeder was a medium size white bird with dark tail feathers. At first, I thought it was an albino dove that had been hanging around the yard, but the shape was rounder. I decided to go downstairs to grab the binoculars.

By the time I got downstairs, the bird had turned around in the feeder and I had a frontal view, which
showcased a pronounced pinkish breast.  A grosbeak!  I stood mesmerized.  I recalled all the advertisements for bird feeders that I saw inhabited by grosbeaks and thinking to myself “Yeah, like I am going to get a grosbeak”.  But it was really there! REALLY! In MY backyard!  In the middle of Philadelphia!

Sketches from prepared specimens
I stood, stunned, staring for several minutes. I notified my husband and pointed proudly, “Look, A Rose Breasted Grosbeak”. Once he commented on the bird, it helped verify for me that I was not hallucinating.  The grosbeak visited the feeder throughout the day, and I saw it again the next morning. I called my mother to the window and proudly showed her my grosbeak, as if I had given birth to it, “Oh", she mused, " isn’t that pretty!”

 On Monday, my artist friends and I went to visit a mutual elderly friend who, knowing my enthusiasm for birds, pointed out the dead robin in his driveway.  This was the perfect chance for me to tell everyone about my grosbeak. Kit, who was a birder, shared in my enthusiasm. Others within the group made polite comments, most likely to get me to stop talking about birds.  The gathering broke up in shifts and I headed back to the city with my friend Anders to grab dinner.

Before going to dinner, Anders and I decided to stop by our art club to get a sneak preview of the Members’ Medal Exhibition. The exhibition was especially meaningful because the club awarded three medals - Gold, Silver and Bronze – that had roots dating back to the beginning of the organization some hundred years before.  It was a terrific honor to win one of these medals.

As we started looking at the work, I was caught somewhat by surprise at the site of my painting of the Whiting I had just wintered with. It seemed so different, framed and on display, than it did in my studio. Upon closer look, I noticed a small post-it note attached to the frame. I went over and looked at the note, which read “Gold”. When Anders saw the post- it, his excitement overflowed. “Please don’t tell anyone,” I asked, explaining I needed time to process the information by myself.

The week before the award ceremony, I received many messages of congratulations. When I received my medal, I was very pleased but, for some reason, it didn’t knock my socks off the way I always thought winning such an honor would. The same week leading up to the award ceremony, I kept vigil by my window in hopes that the grosbeak might return. He never did.

Some weeks later, my friends were discussing if a work of art ever moved them to a euphoric state. Julianna described how her knees had literally buckled before The Florence Pieta.  What came to my mind was the image of my feeder where, for two brief days, a rose breasted grosbeak took his meals. 


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