Just as the sun rays started breaking through my bedroom window, I heard mother calling excitedly, "Girls, get up. Get up. We have a pair of indigo buntings in the garden." Sister Kathy, four years my elder, and I stumbled out of bed. In our p.j.'s we headed for the back door as quickly as our half-awake feet could carry us. Mother was already outside, inhaling the cool air of that April morning. Pointing her finger toward the freshly turned dirt in the garden, she called out, "There they are." Kathy and I blinked at the handsome birds. Mother explained, "The brighter one is the male."
That sunrise experience, one of my favorites from childhood, happened in Mason City, Iowa, when I was about five years old. However, it was only one of a flock of stories related to mother's love for birds. Often she recalled memories of being married in the garden of an Oberlin College professor and being serenaded by a cardinal throughout the ceremony. Mother had just completed a course on ornithology and she had knowledge of many birds. Cardinals held a special place in her heart.
Father enjoyed telling us children about mother's distressing experiences with pheasants. Father served a church in Huron, S.D., my birthplace. During those dreadful days of dust storms and the depression, fresh meat was a luxury. Many men of the church hunted pheasants, sometimes presenting their kill to our family. Reportedly, mother groaned when she saw friends proudly offering their gift of a dead bird, but one by one she removed the feathers. She learned, years after leaving South Dakota, that there is a simple way to remove feathers and skin with one simple action.
My childhood memories of traveling in an old Ford over country roads include frequent stops to view feathered friends: meadowlarks resting on rail fences, red-wing blackbirds sitting on telephone wires, woodpeckers perched on tree trunks. "Hand me my field glasses," Mother would request. A satisfied smile from her showed us how grateful she was to observe these gifts of creation.
When we moved to Toledo, Ohio in 1938, Mother was quick to install a wren house out by the clothes lines. Vacations at our cabin on Long Lake, Michigan provided opportunities for bird watching. Mother kept a notebook of bird sightings, always noting the date. Her book included goldfinches, many varieties of warblers and sparrows, plus dozens of other species and, Mother's favorite, the great blue heron. On days of calm water, Mother would get in the boat, row into a neighboring bay and wait for her blue heron. What a catch for her to see that giant bird plodding along the shore.
Wherever my parents lived, Mother kept her field glasses handy. In the late 1980's Mother and Dad moved to the Beatitudes Campus of Care in Phoenix. Macular degeneration gradually destroyed her eyesight. Nevertheless, she went outside frequently to listen to the surrounding sounds. When we were together, she would enthusiastically exclaim, "Listen, I hear a mourning dove." And with her inner vision she was probably reviewing other feathered friends, enjoying a bird's eye view of her life.