If I were born a boy, my father always told me, they would have called me Robin.
When I was little, my mother would say, “Take your hairbrush out to the garden and clean it there. The birds can use your hair to line their nests.” Enchanted, I’d flit down the back steps to the boxwood bushes and tulips. Running the comb through the dreaded brush to loosen the strands, I’d chat with a robin, who tilted her head with interest: “Here you go, birdie. Take my hair for your nest. It’s very soft.” For a minute, I am the bird lady in Mary Poppins, not feeding the birds, but offering them something of use for their shelter.
Nest building is the job of the mother bird, of course. No one teaches mama birds the way I learned to pass the potholder loops over, under, over, my fingers clumsily learning rudimentary weaving. Female robins are deft, intuitive, tucking strands, adapting materials, with beaks far more clever than my chubby fingers. They make homes for their babies out of grass and thread and bits.
Cordelia stands on the back porch of our summerhouse. She is in conversation with the birds.
“Do you hear, Mom? That’s the chickadee answering me.” Cordelia has taken an American Songbird music class in college. Her melodious calls are hard for me to distinguish from those of real birds. She sings; the birds answer. It is a chorus, a symphony of bird song in our backyard. She grins. My mom would have loved this duet. I am awed—it is as if, like Cinderella, she can call the birds to her to do to her bidding. Our children have so many selves, so many bits that inspire us, even as they reveal that they are separate from us.
“And there’s a dove. You love doves,” she grins.
I do love mourning doves, my mother before me. Their throbbing coo brings my mom back to me—doves, who reuse robins’ nests to lay their own eggs, sort of like a rental property, so practical. It was my own practical mother who taught me how to identify songbirds, first by helping me collect feathers one summer and looking up in her bird book the bird to whom each feather belonged: Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, Junco, Woodpecker. Then, together we made a scrapbook, pasting bird silhouettes onto construction paper and piercing the top corner with a shiny brad. Towards the end of her life, I sat with Mom, her chair tilted to see out the sliding glass doors to watch her feeder, gleeful with the arrival of goldfinches, furious when aggressive jays dive-bombed the sparrows or chickadees.
“Get away from there,” she’d holler, rapping her cane against the glass. Her bird book still rests on the shelf above where her chair used to be. Though she has flown away, each summer, we fill the feeder off her porch. I mix hummingbird nectar, suspending crimson feeders across the front of the house to entice the tiny, jeweled creatures to sip and hover, honoring my bird-loving mom. Where do they go, I wonder, when they finish drinking? I have never seen a hummingbird nest in the mountains of Pennsylvania. I have read that they are infinitesimally small, exquisitely constructed. Perhaps I do not know where to look.
One bright September afternoon, I see the Kindergarten having recess in the courtyard and join them.
“Look at our fairy garden, Ms. Klotz,” Ariya trills. “It’s magic. A new chair and a gazebo and statue!!! They came last night—magic!”
“Magic, indeed,” I confirm, hoping I had remembered to take the price tags off the bottoms of the tiny items.
“And over here, Ms. Klotz, look over here,” Caroline peeps, tugging my hand, urging me toward a pile of grass and leaves on a flagstone.
“We made a soft landing—see?” She points above us and I see a nest snuggled in a crabapple tree. The nest is empty, but Caroline is prepared:
“In case a baby drops out. It would have this soft place to fall.”
A soft place to fall. No matter that it is September and the little birds are long flown away—we all need a soft place to fall.
“That is splendid, girls,” I murmur, “just splendid. Those baby birds are lucky to have such clever, thoughtful engineers. “
“Their mommies would be happy, Ms. Klotz,” chirps Caroline, “that they have a soft landing place.
“Yes, I think their mommies would be very glad.”
“And then the mommy bird would fly back down and pick up her baby and tuck her back into the nest,” clucks Grace with confidence, her golden hair downy in the light.
I nod and we move onto hopscotch. Just for a moment, magic and fairies are stronger than any preachy drivel about what really happens when birds fall from the nest. Isn’t that it, really? The fear all of us have as mothers—that one of our own will crash, won’t have her landing cushioned, won’t be lifted back into the nest? In fact, if a baby bird survives a fall, we should not intervene. Her mother is still watching—sometimes from as far as a block away–and she will do her best to feed and care for the baby as long as humans don’t interfere. Lots of babies fall from nests.
Birds, nests, families, stages.
As a child, I watched robins raise their broods each July in the snowball bushes that flanked our porch. From the kitchen window, I could see the babies stretching their necks up for worms, the parents attentive to their demanding toddlers. We would watch the flying lessons, standing quietly not so close that we made the mother nervous, but from a few steps away on the porch. I hated the occasional tiny bird, barely looking like a bird, which we discovered beneath the snowball bushes—a yolky, translucent, bloody, mass.
Our nest’s contours don’t quite suit us as our children leave, return, leave more finally. We are in the in-between time now. One is really gone; one about to finish college; one in sixth grade. We will not have an empty nest for many more years. What we have is an emptying one. With two of our children grown—more or less—I wonder what the shape of my own mothering will become once they no longer live under my roof; once I am no longer charged with dropping impossibly long worms down tiny gullets or required to sit on top of all of them to keep them safe and warm. I waited a long time for them to arrive, and with the gap between the girls and our son, I will wait a long time, too, for them to be fully gone, but I am already thinking, mourning, what it will be like to be without them.
What’s the moment when we understand our children are distinct from us? Our two daughters went to school with me from the time they were in sixth and fourth grades. I liked having them near, seeing their heads bent over their lunches, always noticing them in their places during assembly. I miss the quick visit at day’s end, Cordelia bursting in: “Mom, do you have any money? We’re going to get smoothies.” Or Miranda appearing, once she was old enough to drive, with a smile: “Hi, Mom, brought you a latte.” I loved the immediacy of their lives unfolding around me.
Now, as our daughters skim into adulthood, I startle. They are the age now that I remember being just a blink ago.
I watched them live their college experiences, happy to welcome us for a show or a dance concert, but during those weekends, I felt extraneous, a visitor trailing behind me scraps of their childhoods, out of place, unwelcome in a dorm apartment. It is curious to observe one’s child at college, in her own nest, to resist the urge to tidy up unless asked, to greet friends whose names mean little to you because you never had a face to put with the name. I scrutinize their desks, searching for confirmation via post-its and Polaroids and dried bouquets that they are well and happy. These are their nests, not mine. They take us out for dinner, enjoy showing us their worlds as if we are tourists. We disrupt their flight path when we’re there. I recall my own mom visiting to see my plays in college. I loved having her and couldn’t wait for her to leave.
Our visits are important, though, to prepare myself for the fact that they are not coming home—for good. Going into their college space or into our oldest daughter’s first NYC apartment reminds me this is what it will be moving forward—me going to visit them; them coming home to visit, only to perch, not to land or nest. Nest. Twigs, sticks, floss, thread. Insubstantial yet enduring. Glued together with mud. How do nests withstand weather anyway? In Ohio, it’s not uncommon in the freeze of February to look up at a leafless tree and see a nest, exquisitely formed, still wedged in a tree’s limbs. Waiting? I find the work of raising the same family over many seasons hard; imagine if I had to start over several times every year, raising several batches of eggs and having them with me for only two weeks at a time?
Our house feels different when the girls are back and when they’re gone again, the molecules reorganizing. Their much younger brother anticipates their return with huge excitement, so huge he is bound to feel disappointed. They return, regress. They strew their possessions. The house heaves, expanding to accommodate them. We sit at the dining room table in our old places, eating meals, but the temporary feeling is excruciating; we are playacting what once was the rhythm of real life. And then, they fly away again, those older two. Their dad, brother and I stumble back into what it’s like to be without them each day, picking up a left-behind scarf, marveling, missing them. We feel bereft and relieved. Like visiting them at college in reverse
It is late summer when we find the corpse of a baby bird in our back yard. We know our two young cats are the culprits. A few feet away, a second corpse, and then we see the third. The mother robin shrieks, circling devastated. The nest of birds we had so enjoyed watching has been decimated. It is too much, these helpless little birds murdered by our own feline boys. My husband, Seth, brushes away tears with the back of his hand. “It’s not their fault; they’re just doing what cats do,” he, always reasonable, explains. We go inside, unable to withstand the mother’s desperate grief. The nest, empty, reproaches us all fall, all winter. “Do not build your nest there again,” I implore the robin when I see her again in the spring. But she does. Threads and grasses and straw are refurbished; mud is spread inside for a smooth finish, her chest a paintbrush. And this time, the babies survive.
Our own home is temporary. We live on the grounds of the school I lead. When I leave the school, we will need to go somewhere. Two years ago, almost on a whim, we bought a little house that we will, one day, remodel for our inevitable retirement. It’s down the driveway from our summerhouse, but unlike that one, this one is winterized and has a furnace. Last August, I take a few friends over to show it off. Though it is empty, it is full of possibility. I imagine our grown children bringing their children to see us there at Christmas. In the miniscule front yard, I crouch. An almost perfect robin’s egg winks up at me. I lift it gently, look around for the nest. Seeing none, I carry it inside with me and lay it on the windowsill, a reminder that feathering the nest is always the mother’s job, again and again. Nest and re-nest.
Ann Klotz is a writer and mother, who lives in Shaker Heights, OH, where she is the Head of Laurel School, a girls’ school. Her house is full of books and tiny rescue dogs. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, Literary Mama, the Brevity Blog, Mutha, Mamalode and elsewhere. An essay about becoming a teacher has just been published in the anthology What I Didn’t Know released by Creative Nonfiction. She blogs semi regularly for the Huffington Post. You can read more of her writing at annvklotz.com or #annklotz