I thought had escaped the beautiful, benighted South for good when I left Alabama for graduate school in Philadelphia in 1984, though now I can’t imagine how this delusion ever took root. At the age of twenty-two, I had never set foot any farther north than Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the time I got to Philadelphia, I was so poorly traveled—and so geographically illiterate—I could not pick out the state of Pennsylvania on an unlabeled weather map on the evening news. (more….)
On the morning after my mother’s sudden death, before I was up, someone brought a basket of muffins, good coffee beans, and a bottle of cream—real cream, unwhipped—left them at the back door, and tiptoed away. I couldn’t eat. The smell of coffee turned my stomach, but my head was pounding from all the what ifs playing across it all night long, and I thought perhaps the cream would make a cup of coffee count as breakfast if I could keep it down. (more…)
In spring, I search for nests. I part the branches of shrubs and low-limbed trees, peering into their depths for a clump of sticks and string and shredded plastic — the messy structure of a mockingbird’s nest. I squat and look upward for a cardinal’s tidy brown bowl. I stand even with the end of my house and look from the side into the ivy climbing the bricks, searching for a tiny avian hammock tucked into the leaves by house finches. I check the fern hanging under the eaves for the vortex tunnel built by a Carolina wren. (more…)
Weeks ago, when they first appeared in the neighborhood, I assumed they were starlings. A flock of starlings is the bane of the bird feeder — a vast, clamoring mob of unmusical birds soiling the windshields and lawn furniture, muscling one another aside so violently that no other birds dare draw near the suet. But this flock stayed high in the treetops, far from my feeders, too far away to recognize. Then a cold snap kept all the puddles frozen for days, and every bird in the ZIP code showed up at my heated birdbath to drink. (more….)
Every monarch in the world is hatched on the leaf of a milkweed plant somewhere in the continental United States, and almost all of them spend winters on fir-covered mountains in central Mexico, in clumps so thick that tree branches can crash to the forest floor from their weight. (more….)
The rains we’ve been waiting for, yearning for, have finally arrived in our part of Tennessee, and the sugar maple leaves are falling now in great clots. Rain is falling and leaves are falling and my youngest son, like his brothers, has received his Selective Service card in the mail, and today I have returned to my house to find a lone black vulture standing in my front yard. (more…)
Two years ago, a day before the baby bluebirds were due to hatch, I checked the nest box just outside my office window and found a tiny hole in one of the eggs. Believing it must be the beginnings of a hatch, I resolved not to check again right away, though the itch to peek was nearly unbearable: I’d been waiting years for a family of bluebirds to take up residence, and finally an egg was about to shudder and pop open. (more…)
It’s October, when your birthday always seems to fall on the most splendid day of the year. Even if it’s a work day, you must find some time to set aside your small whirring machines and your contentions. Maybe there is a creek that all summer has been still and dry and now is wet and tumbling with tiny twigs and leaves and sweetgum balls. Maybe there is a field gone golden with weeds, with finches perched in the seedcrowns. Maybe there is an old train track that hosts no trains but lays out a whole parade route of purple thistles, or a dirt road where the close pines have set down a thick carpet for your hurting feet. Maybe there is a lake where a bald eagle sometimes fishes, and you think to see it dive, to hear its wings rise up to break its fall, to watch its yellow feet pull a sleek brown fish from the green water.
“Marry an orphan,” my mother used to say, “and you can always come home for Christmas.” What she should have said was: “Marry an orphan, or you’ll have four parents to nurse through every torment life doles out on the long, long path to the grave.”
As it happens, I married the opposite of an orphan, a man whose relatives live deep into old age despite diseases that commonly fell others: cancer, sepsis, heart failure, emphysema. My husband’s elders get sick, and then they get sicker, but somehow they persevere.
“Okay, you have to slow WAY down here,” I’m saying. Sam, at the wheel, doesn’t respond. He’s not ignoring me; he’s concentrating too hard to speak. His hands, correctly positioned at 10 and 2 o’clock, grip the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles are white, and his face, furrowed in concentration, is beginning to turn red. It occurs to me to wonder if he’s actually holding his breath. Then it occurs to me to wonder if he’s forgotten how the brakes work on our 12-year-old Camry. This is not his first time behind the wheel, but he’s never parked before, and he’s approaching the last row of spaces in the supermarket lot without decelerating in the least.
It’s two o’clock in the morning, and I’ve had a bad dream, the kind that makes you afraid to go back to sleep. So I’m padding around the house, checking on my brood. Sam, 15, is all knobby legs and elbows sticking out of the trashed bedclothes. Seeing him now reminds me of the tiny clutch I used to feel standing in his doorway when we first moved him out of the crib: how small he seemed, how vulnerable, his knees tucked under his chest. “As long as he sleeps with his bottom in the air, he’s still a baby,” my mother used to say. But no one at my house sleeps with his bottom in the air anymore. Even Joe, 9 the baby of the family, is a smaller version of Sam, tangled up in the sheets, and the corners of his room are stuffed with bike helmets and baseball bats and lacrosse sticks.
Four years ago, through a fluke of YMCA scheduling, my two younger sons ended up on the same fall soccer team. Sam, my eldest, had abandoned soccer years before in favor of baseball, so each week I had to sit through only one soccer practice instead of two, the Saturday obligation was over with one 40-minute game, and I had a single absurd jersey color to wash each week instead managing one load for fluorescent orange and another load for Barney purple. Plus, the coaches were brilliant—offering just the right combination of skills, encouragement, and gentle reminders that soccer players don’t tackle each other, especially not when they’re on the same team. I know a gift from God when I see it, so that team is exactly where my sons have stayed ever since. (Henry, 11, plays in his own age bracket; and Joe, 9, plays up.) All the other soccer moms I know are jealous. They think I’ve pulled off some kind of cosmic act of fraud. Isn’t total subservience to the demands of the league the whole point of being a soccer mom?