Most of the time we saw our aunts, uncles, cousins and various relations by marriage only at weddings, the occasional christening and, of course, at funerals. We were Irish after all. Relatives were spread out around the edges of the city, and probably not overly sociable anyway what with the many hot tempers and long memories. Certainly no one was known for their hostessing or cooking skills.
The exception to that edgy family dynamic was Thanksgiving, and that was due to my grandmother Elizabeth and her mandatory annual feast. She invited one and all whether they were speaking to each other or not, and she would not take no for an answer. She saw things a little differently, “I don’t suffer fools gladly”. End of discussion.
It didn’t really matter, because once the opinionated aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws got to Liz’s house you’d have thought they were all just one big, happy, lovestruck clan anyway. They even tossed a football around occassionally, fancying themselves like the Kennedys, attractive, vital, and willing to forgive. One thing they had in common was a sense of humor, much of it self-deprecating. There was a lot of laughter.
My parents, brother, and I usually got to Grandma’s early since she was my mother’s mother and daughters were expected to help out. That was fine with me since it mean I could claim a spot on the stairs that lead from the front hallway to the second floor and peer through the bannisters to watch the other guests arrive. Grandma’s three sisters, Mary, Josephine, and Christine, could be counted on for a grand entrance, larger than life in their long, fur trimmed coats, louder than anyone else, and always laughing or crying or voicing an impassioned plea for forgiveness or bestowing absolution on someone for some offense. I thought they were giants, and I was terrified of them in a strangely enjoyable way. It was years before I realized they were average -size women whose histrionics heightened their stature along with the emotional temperature in Grandma’s narrow house. They were all married, yet they always swept in together, perhaps having left husbands and offspring behind to follow once the drama subsided.
As more people arrived, the noise level rose, the women fussed about in the dining room, and the men stationed themselves in the kitchen, drinks in hand, passing comment on every topic of the day. It was the perfect holiday set up for kids; no one paid any attention to us as we ran in and out, re- forming the alliances formed at our last family gathering probably months ago.
There glasses raised, of course. Every now and then one of the uncles would pause while refilling his glass and observe as my cousin Maureen and Iix clattered by, “Ah, that’s Kay’s girl, a lovely lass” or, “Will you look at Maureen there with all her freckles. Isn’t she a picture of her mother as a little one? ” But within seconds their attention swerved back to politics and sports. They seemed not to notice the little boys at all unless one stumbled into the kitchen with a bloody nose or skinned knee.
Seemingly hours later the twenty-pound turkey, sausage stuffing, gravy, potatoes, turnips, something green, maybe peas, rolls and cranberry sauce, nicely rounded just as it slid from the can, were set out in the small, crowded dining room. We, a mob of cousins aged three to thirteen, fought over and finally settled into our seats at the children’s table on the enclosed back porch, blessedly free of adult scrutiny.
I’m really not sure what exactly was so special about being together this way, in that year, but we were very happy. Maybe the memory is enhanced by the fact that it was the last time we were all together in that house, in that innocently affectionate way.
After many toasts to each other and to those no longer with us, after dishes were done, and the youngest began dozing off, the older children were rounded up and nudged through their thank you’s to Grandma and goodbyes to the cousins. Talk focused on likely traffic on the George Washington Bridge and a next gathering at Christmas. By 9 pm the house was silent and growing cool.
Grandma headed down the cellar stairs to put more coal in the furnace. I never heard the details, but she fell and broke her hip. We spent the next, I don’t know how long, it seemed like months but was probably weeks, visiting her in the hospital. A broken hip was a bigger deal back then before joint replacement surgery was routine, before patients were encouraged to move about, before hospital stays were greatly reduced.
Grandma never left the hospital; soon after Christmas she passed away–as did those fondly remembered Thanksgiving dinners.
We still saw each other, of course, at the weddings and funerals that mark the march of our lives, but no one stepped up to embrace the whole clan for the holiday dinners that offered such easy camraderie.
I’ve managed to recreate some of it by having Thanksgiving Days at our house with our three children and their spouses along with five grandchildren, my brother, sometimes other far flung relatives and always various friends. Much is different, of course, from the meal itself (vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free, and the daughter-in- law who can’t abide soup, any soup). Then there are the electronic devices seemingly on every surface, although I’m proud to say none are allowed at my holiday table. We play soccer not football after eating. Still, much remains the same–maybe most significantly the children’s simple joy in being allowed to run free with their cousins away from adult hovering to form their own childhood memories.
Patricia Papa, personal essay DRAFT 1 [prompt: write up to 1000 words about a time when you gained a new insight into an old friend or family member]
A Weekend To Remember
My dad looked like Fred Astaire. You know, that skinny dancer in musicals from the 1940s and ‘50s: Easter Parade, Holiday Inn, Broadway Review. There were dozens, all featuring the debonair, fleet-footed Mr. Astaire and, usually, a somewhat less talented but beautiful female partner. Dad was a dead ringer, at least in the looks department. Family photos capture the raised eyebrow, the casually crossed long legs as he leaned against a blossom-covered stone wall in a cream colored suit, jaunty fedora in hand. It was a dapper look and a nice one as fathers went, not movie star handsome by any means, but sophisticated, suggesting a man-of-the-world. Nothing like Dad’s real-life persona, that of a quiet, rather unassuming family man. I knew very little about my dad growing up. He was not a big talker, certainly not about himself. Mom did most of the talking; she and Dad seemed happy that way; and family gossip such as it was came exclusively from Mom’s side. By the time I left for college Dad and I had formed-or more likely fallen into-an easy if unspoken alliance as the quieter, less volatile members of a family of quick-tempered, easily offended Irish extroverts. So when my sorority decided to have a Father-Daughter Weekend I didn’t think twice about inviting him. The Father-Daughter Weekend quickly evolved to become a surprisingly big deal for a group of silly, boy-obsessed 19-year olds. Maybe we were all daddy’s girls at heart. Anyway, I remember hoping Dad would come even though I thought he might not since Mom wasn’t speaking to me that week. I don’t remember why. But they went everywhere together. Would he come alone? “Of course, wouldn’t miss it”, Dad called to say.
Yellow Bird belonged to a family of two young children and two very busy parents. He was a gift to them from a family friend after they had moved into their new house. At first the children thought that now their parents would surely get them a puppy, since they had a lovely yard they could all play in together. But the parents had too much to do with their jobs and growing children and a new house with a lawn to mow on the weekends.
“We’ll see about a puppy once we get settled,” said the mother.
“When you are a little older and can help take care of it,“ said the father.
The children were unhappy that they would not soon be getting a pet.
“How about a cat, then?” asked the girl. She was the older of the two.
“Cats scratch the upholstery, and the litter box has to be kept very clean, or it will smell bad,” said the mother.
“I’m allergic to cat dander,” said the father.
“What’s that?” asked the boy? He was almost six and was curious about new words.
“It’s something on their skin that is like human dandruff and it makes me sneeze,” said the father.
“What’s dandruff?” the boy asked.
“Dry skin that falls off your scalp,” respond the father.
“Yuk,” said the boy and walked away.
A hamster was too much like a mouse for the parents to accept, and fish were too boring for the children to get excited about, so the months passed with no pets in the new house.
Then one day a lady the children didn’t know came to the house for supper. The mother was very happy to see her good friend from college again.
“What a lovely home you have here, Dot,” said the lady, “and such adorable children. You must be so proud – and so busy.”
The mother smiled down at her children and then back at her friend. “Yes, Beverly, I am very happy. But I am also very, very busy. The children would really love a pet, but we just don’t have the time to take care of one.”
They sent out for pizza, and then Mrs. Beverly left.
Two days later a man called to make sure that someone was home, and then he arrived from the pet shop with a birdcage. Inside the cage was a small yellow bird. Even though it was all yellow like a canary, in fact it was a parakeet. It had a small crest on its forehead and tail feathers the color of bright sunshine. The bird was only four months old, the man told them. There was a note attached to the cage that read, “The perfect pet. Just give it food and water and let it sit on your finger from time to time. Love, Beverly.”
The children were quite excited. Once the bird got used to its new home, it chirped and danced around the cage when the children came near. After awhile, they began to take it out of its cage. It liked to perch on the boy’s outstretched hand or the girl’s shoulder. Sometimes it flew around the room and landed on the father’s head. Everyone loved the bird, but no one could find a better name for it than Yellow Bird.
And so it lived with the family and brought them joy. Then one day at the start of summer, just as the school year was ending, the mother was bringing in groceries from the garage at the same time as the girl had just opened the cage. Before anyone realized it, Yellow Bird flew into the kitchen, through the open door to the garage and outside into the endless blue sky. The children ran out to the backyard calling “Yellow Bird, Yellow Bird”, but the bird did not hear them. It soared up into a tall oak tree in the yard across the street, then flew back out again, letting the breeze lift it up above the rooftops, only to disappear from view as it melted into the afternoon sunlight.
That evening, no one could eat a thing. Everyone, even the father who tried to be calm and strong, cried with his wife and children. “We will get you another bird,” said the father.
“We don’t want another bird,” said the daughter.
“We want Yellow Bird to come back,” wailed the son.
“We will put a notice on the internet to let all our neighbors know about Yellow Bird. He can’t have gone very far,” the mother tried to reassure them.
But Yellow Bird did go far. He was free, joyously free, to fly high and then to swoop down low, to peck in the dirt like a mourning dove, to eat at a neighbor’s bird feeder like a sparrow, to sit on a prickly hedge like a goldfinch. He even thought he might be a goldfinch or maybe a warbler even though he did not have any black feathers anywhere. Neither the goldfinches nor the warblers were interested in being friends with Yellow Bird. In the end, he stayed with the sparrows. They did not try to chase him away from the seeds that fell from a feeder or from water in a bird bath or a rain-filled gutter. It was summer – warm and gusty, like a sudden storm, and the soft evening breezes cooled the air and caressed the leaves that protected Yellow Bird from the rain. He felt a happiness at being free that outweighed his sorrow from leaving the family who had loved him and taken good care of him. But he knew now what it was like to be a real bird and not a pet, and he thought he would never go back.
The mother put his picture on the internet and a few people responded that they were pretty sure they had seen Yellow Bird. But no one knew what to do to catch him and bring him home. One lady tried to put a pillowcase over him while he was under her bird feeder, but she missed, and Yellow Bird never came back there again. Finally, the parents had to tell their children that Yellow Bird was probably gone for good. The girl cried very hard, especially because she worried about what would happen to him when summer was over, and the nights would get colder.
“We will put out his cage and hang it from the maple tree in our front yard and put food in it for him and a woolen scarf over the cage to keep it warm inside,” said the father.
The children stopped crying. “Let’s do it now”, said the boy. And so they did.
For many weeks they checked the cage four or five times a day. They replaced the water but saw that the seed was never eaten because the other birds and squirrels were afraid to enter the cage. “Only Yellow Bird will go in there,” said the mother. “We must not give up hope.”
The parents bought a bird feeder and a bird bath that they set out in the yard near where the cage was hanging from a lower limb of the maple tree. Little by little, the leaves on that tree started to turn from fresh green like new grass to a darker green like cucumbers. The sun set closer to 7:30 instead of 9:00, as it did when they first got Yellow Bird. But the nights were still warm in early September when the children started back to school. Some evenings the family sat on the front porch staring at the bird cage, wishing with all their might that Yellow Bird would come flying home.
And then one morning when they were getting into the car to go to school, they saw a bright yellow dot flitting from branch to branch in the oak tree across the street.
“It’s just a goldfinch or a warbler,” said the mother. “But we will check the cage this evening to see if any of the seed is gone.”
All day the children thought about Yellow Bird. Neither could focus on their lessons. The girl was told twice by her teacher to look at her books instead of out the window.
“What has gotten into you today?” Asked the teacher.
Then the girl told the class the story of Yellow Bird. “Well,” said the teacher, “if he ever comes home we will all be very glad for you.” Everyone in the class agreed and promised to think very hard about Yellow Bird.
“Maybe your bird will feel the energy of all of us wishing him a safe return,” said the teacher.
That evening when the father, who was the only one tall enough to see into the cage, checked the seed, he could tell some had been eaten. “It’s probably a squirrel or another bird who has seen the cage all this time and is not afraid of it anymore.”
“No,” said the children, “it has to be Yellow Bird.”
Everyday now they replaced the missing seed, but they never saw anything in the cage.
Soon it would be the end of September. The first day of autumn when the night and the day are the same length, had come and gone. It was getting dark now around 7:00 and the temperature was falling overnight. Every evening the father put a woolen shawl over the birdcage.
Yellow Bird watched as some of other birds flew away to the south, to a warmer place for the winter. The past winter had been particularly cold, and the changing of the seasons brought a sense of urgency to all the birds. These who would not migrate would need to prepare a shelter for the colder weather and find other food sources for when the ground would finally freeze up hard. One night, after a loud and gusty thunderstorm, as the temperature dropped into the 50’s, Yellow Bird sensed danger coming at him through the wind he so loved to ride on as he flew from above the rooftops and trees. He knew that soon it would be hard for him to stay warm enough for a bird who was born to live indoors. As more and more of his companions left, he began to think of how he might go back home again. He sat on a branch of another maple tree, like the one in his front yard, and tried to remember.
One day while he was circling above the rooftops of the neighborhood, he noticed a birdcage hanging from a tree like the one where he had taken shelter from the summer downpours. The tree was starting to lose its leaves, so now he could clearly see the cage from above. He had loved being in the wild when there were plenty of bugs in the dirt and when the warm sun lit him up like a big bright lightbulb. But now he shivered with fear of not being able to survive outdoors anymore.
He alit on the top of the bird cage and recognized it as his own. Yet he wasn’t quite ready to be taken inside again, probably forever. He on settled the one of the branches closest to the tree trunk where it was the warmest and waited.
Most of the nights were cold now, and many of the leaves that still protected Yellow Bird were fast turning dry and brown. He knew he had to make his decision soon or he would not be strong enough to survive. And then, as the sun was setting, he saw a shadow cross the yard and reach up to the cage. It was the father who every evening put fresh seed into the cage and the woolen scarf over the open bars to ward off the cold. He always left the cage door open, and he always looked around and up into the trees to see if he could spot Yellow Bird. The father sighed in a sad way that sounded almost like a sob. “Oh, Yellow Bird, if you are out there, please come back to us before it’s too late.” And then he turned to go back into the house.
Suddenly the father thought he saw a streak of yellow out of the corner of his eye. He heard a noise that sounded like the creak of something metal moving in the wind. He turned to see if there were still birds visiting the feeder so close to nighttime. And then he saw the bird cage move and heard the sound of scratching coming from the cage. It was almost completely dark now, but the moon had risen high enough to cast a warm glow over the front yard. The father thought he must be imagining something yellow in the cage, but as he crept ever so slowly nearer, he could see for sure that he was not dreaming. It was Yellow Bird! He reached up inch by inch until his hand was even with the cage door and pushed it shut with a clap. It startled Yellow Bird, who regretted for a fleeting moment that he was now a captive inside the cage. The father unhooked the cage and carefully carried it into the house so as not to spill a drop of water or further upset the bird inside who was beating its wings against the bars. He set the cage on the kitchen counter and opened the door so Yellow Bird would know he would not be trapped inside against his will. The bird flew out and came to rest on the curtain rod above the picture window in the dining room.
“It’s ok, Yellow Bird”, said the father, “you can live free inside, but please, please never fly away again.”
By now the children had showered, and they and the mother had come downstairs for supper.
“Shhh,” said the father as they entered the dining room, “Look who’s here with us for supper this evening.” The father pointed to the top of the curtain rod where Yellow Bird was perched. “I promised him we would never shut him up in the cage if he promised never to leave us again. I think he understands. Let’s eat and let him get used to being inside.”
The children had to cover their mouth so as not to shriek with joy from seeing that Yellow Bird was safely home. They were too excited to eat, and the parents allowed them to sit quietly on the floor and watch the bird. Finally, the boy could not sit still any longer. He got to his knees and put out his arm. “Please, Yellow Bird, come sit on my hand,” he whispered. “I’m so happy you are home.”
Yellow Bird looked at him and turned his head from side to side as parakeets do. And then he dropped down from the curtain rod with one flap of his wings and landed on the boy’s extended hand.
Yellow Bird lived to be quite old for a parakeet. He enjoyed the freedom of being able to fly around the house at will. He followed the children from room to room and also loved to sit on the father’s head after dinner to watch the evening news on TV. The mother never again brought groceries inside from the garage until she had watched the heavy door roll down and tap shut against the cement floor. What she didn’t realize was that Yellow Bird didn’t want to leave ever again.
The mother wrote about the story and put it on the internet. Neighbors responded to say how happy they were that the bird had returned. The local newspaper came to the house and took pictures of the family and of Yellow Bird and published the mother’s story. Yellow Bird became famous in the area as possibly the smartest parakeet who ever lived, because he had found his way back home.