A bird in the hand

A bird in the hand

Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN.

Merri Ukraincik
Merri Ukraincik

You might not notice the birds at first, even the ceramic ones suspended from the dining room chandelier. But there are faux-feathered creatures throughout our home, including the life-sized goose I acquired from Lord & Taylor when its Manhattan flagship store closed last December.

We became bird people after my mother-in-law, of blessed memory, passed away. She nicknamed my husband her little bird when he was young, and a bird collection seemed like a sweet way to keep her spirit with us. In the beginning, I limited myself to buying one each year on her yahrtzeit. Then I started picking up birds wherever I found them, which turned out to be everywhere. We now we have too many to count. 

We also developed an attachment to real-life birds, though that was coincidental. A mother robin nested in a planter on our apartment terrace when our sons were still very young. To watch her was like looking at the breadth of motherhood in a crystal ball. She built her nest, protected the eggs, and fed her hatchlings until they grew feathers, took flight, and set off to fend for themselves.

Once we moved into our house, we put up a playset, giving our boys the chance to soar on the swings. We hung a bird feeder on the large maple in the backyard, too. The rousing bird chorus and visits by lovely suburban species have made the battle with the squirrels, who think the feeder is for them, worth the fight.

We’ve also been lucky. A new nest has appeared in the red maple out front every year. We make a ritual of checking in on the fragile eggs, our excitement over the hatchlings’ pending arrival building with each passing day. It reminds me of these lines from Emily Dickinson:“Hope” is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops — at all.

Eager and hopeful this spring, I began to peer into the tree in late May, though there’s been no sign of a nest as of this writing. It feels like a palpable shift in the atmosphere, an emptiness where the chirping of baby birds should be. I wasn’t terribly surprised when the man who mows our lawn knocked on the door a few weeks ago, asking if we’d like him to dismantle the swing set. Change was already in the air.

Like most outdoor equipment, the set has required annual maintenance, which we kept up since we had it installed soon after we moved in 15 years ago. But as our boys grew and lost interest, we began to procrastinate. “We should stain it,” we’d announce in June before choosing to wait for cooler weather. The first frost would arrive before we’d gotten to it, at which point we’d agree to put it off until the following spring. By the time the landscaper offered his dismantling services, carpenter bees had feasted on the support beams. Other sections had splintered, the wood having dried out in the blazing sun.

It is a blessing never to be taken for granted when children grow up and, at the right moment, move out on their own. When our youngest got his driver’s license just before Passover, we had a glimpse of the future and agreed the time had come to cart the rotting swing set away. Days after the landscaper’s knock on our door, the set disappeared into the back of his truck, leaving an empty swath of grass behind.

By then, well more than a decade had passed since anyone pleaded, “Mommy, push me on the swing! Higher! Higher!” Now, our sons, men really, come and go like fireflies on a summer night. They’ve hardly noticed the swing set’s absence, while I look at the gaping space where it once stood and realize how deeply it’s imprinted on my memory of that era in our lives. 

We hosted an event for our synagogue just days after the swing set’s departure.   Our rabbi spoke beneath the shade of the maple tree, and I was grateful to him for imbuing our home with words of Torah. But as I sat there, my eyes darted between the newly empty spot in the corner (Was the swing set ever there?) and the panoply of birds, so regal and determined, shuttling between the branches and the feeder.

After our guests left for home and the sun began to set, I gazed out the kitchen window onto the yard. Time marches on, I thought to myself, emptying and filling up our lives all at once. I listened for echoes of the boys’ long-ago shouts of delight to the tune of the evening’s birdsong. And I brimmed with hope that we may yet see a bird’s nest in our tree before summer reaches its inevitable end.

Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.

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