All of us knew, but no one talked about it. My nine-year-old brother Patrick was in disgrace. He’d been awakened that morning as Tom upended the 30-gallon garbage can on his bed, cigarette butts and ashes mixing with eggshells, used tea bags, and soggy newsprint that created a gray glue over his pajamas and the sheets. Tom, our father, never said a word. The garbage treatment was his way of “teaching us a lesson” for forgetting to take out the trash. I knew that. I was given the same treatment just last week when it was my turn and I forgot.
Later that afternoon, my brothers and sisters and I were in the kitchen making lunch. Suddenly everyone stopped for a moment, frozen in place. The bell was ringing. A thin, tinny sound that shook the room as we traded nervous glances.
“I’m not answering it,” I said immediately. “I just got him a beer.”
Pat countered with, “It’s not my turn. Besides, I’m still in trouble ‘cause of the trash.”
“But I don’t want to.” I started to cry. Maybe tears would get me out of it. I was eight years old and everyone said I had the “saddest brown eyes they had ever seen.” Of course I worked it when I thought it would get me out of seeing Tom.
“Mary, answer the bell. Pat, pour the Kool-Aid,” my sister Kate said, settling the argument. She was 13; in my family anyone older could tell you what to do and you had to do it. Everyone was older than me. The bell rang again and I hurried into the living room to answer it.
Tom bought the bell when we moved into this apartment just across the Hudson River, outside New York City. The seven-room, third-floor walk-up with bay windows was a huge improvement over the four-room coldwater flat we had just left. The long railroad rooms meant that Tom would have to raise his voice to be heard. The bell solved his problem. It was a two-inch tall gold plated bell. Initially he kept it on his table next to his vinyl, pea-green La-Z-Boy—the command center. Then he hung it from the top of the living-room doorframe with fishing wire strung though eyeholes screwed into the wall. It served as a less elegant version of a Victorian bell-pull, so he could summon one of us without getting up.
The sound of strings greeted me as I entered Tom’s domain, the living room. A small radio on his table was tuned to the classical music station he played all the time. One finger aloft, Tom had me wait as the English-accented host of the program announced, “and that was Tchai-cow-sky with his Violin Concerto Number 23 in D Minor.” I had just delivered his first beer of the day and had watched the familiar ritual. Present the can delicately to the lip of the mug, a gush of white foam followed by the slow steady stream of pale yellow. Elegantly, he clasped the thick, iced glass mug he allowed us to rinse daily but never wash. Tom kept the can; clinking it against the glass was his way of signaling us for another round. As the day wore on the clicks of the can on glass grew more frequent. The clink on the mug, different than the ting of the bell, was his way of saving us steps; we brought the beer in with us.
As I approached Tom’s chair I tripped on the carpet. “You need to lift your feet,” he said, his voice softly drawing me closer; a ladybug in spider’s silk.
Tom’s eyes never lifted from the Scientific American magazine he was reading. Long fingers motioned me closer. My heart beat fast. I started thinking about what he would say. What could have gone wrong so early in his day? Think, Mary! Think! I moved closer and closer. Finally he looked up, his eyes pinning me to the spot. I thought I was dead. He looked serious but he just said, “Come look,” pointing to the window. Perhaps Pat and I had left some spots when we did the windows yesterday. I looked back at Tom. “Look in the tree, dummy,” he said impatiently. I crept closer still.
“Careful,” Tom said quietly, “stay behind the drapes.” At last I saw a leaf move. There it was; a brown bird with a red breast fashioning a nest of twigs, paper and what looked like a piece of a Marlboro box. It flew away quickly and I looked up at Tom, afraid he would yell at me for scaring it away. He was smiling, his grey-blue eyes intent as he began his bird lesson. He explained about birds and their nests and how it was their shelter and they had to be strong. “This is a cardinal,” he said showing me a small green book on birds I never knew he had. I left the room pleased at what I had seen. Pleased that Tom showed me something. Pleased that Tom wasn’t in a bad mood.
I went back to the kitchen. We had to be quiet—Mom was still sleeping. She worked as a waitress and usually didn’t get in until three or four in the morning. It was Sunday and we kids were sitting down to lunch, mashed sardines mixed with minced green olives with pimento and lemon juice on white bread.
“There was this bird,” I told my brothers and sisters, “and it was brown and red, and it’s building a nest right in front of our house. Can you believe it!”
The female cardinal I came to know was happy in our tree. I tried to see her every day but her home was nestled in the crutch of a wide branch, just outside the window by Tom’s chair, and no one got that close to Tom voluntarily. Before long the cardinal laid her eggs. Tom was proud, I think. It was as if he had created this perfect nature scene outside his window and doled out opportunities to look at his creation. Tom called us in to show us her nest and the three small eggs barely visible inside her twigged home. We were careful to stay behind the heavy embossed red drapes Mom had sewn herself.
Finally the day came when the babies hatched. I never saw them actually hack their way out of the shells. I did see them being fed. Their wide-open mouths looked raw, their eyes scrunched up till they were all mouth, all hunger. The cardinal perched on the edge of the nest, her three chicks shrieking for food. She patiently doled out some nasty maroon stuff that Tom said was probably a regurgitated, “that means thrown up,” worm.
The baby birds became the discussion of the house for days. “Pat, do you think they’ll leave us?” I asked.
“’Course they will,” Pat answered, looking all-knowing. “See, they can’t fly right now but soon they will.”
“But what if they fall before they learn to fly?” I asked.
“Well, mommy birds must teach their young to fly, of course. You can walk, can’t you?” he said snidely.
My mind spun with questions and worries for these delicate creatures that had come to live with us. Would they get big? Were they boy chicks or girl chicks? We weren’t allowed to have pets but I imagined that these cardinals were our pets. They belonged to us. They chose us. I imagined the baby birds grown up, soaring through the neighborhood, following me to school, and building their own nests right next door before settling down with their own chicks. I fell to daydreaming, chicks eating seeds from my hand, letting me pet them; eventually they could come to love me as much as I loved them.
The next Saturday was rainy and the wind scraped branches against our windows. Pat, Kate and I ran down the stairs to go to the park. Any chance for escape, rain or shine, it didn’t matter to us. We just got to the bottom of the stairs on the stoop, and Kate stopped. I bumped into her. I had my head down to keep the rain off my face. I looked up and there in the street just behind a parked green Volkswagen bug was the nest turned on its side. Two baby birds were in it, tufts of feathers, really; the third was not in sight. Crying, we picked up the nest. Kate took it curved into her arms like she were carrying a baby and walked across the street to the park.
We looked for a spot to bury them, crying all the while. “Why?” I kept asking.
Kate answered, “It was just too big a storm, I guess.” She found some rocks and we dug a grave by the fence. The entrance to the park was paved so no one ever played in the grass by the fence. We said good-bye, tears and rain misting our faces. It was my first experience with death. It felt like something wondrous and special had left my life. On the walk home, it had stopped raining and the wind had died down some. Just as we turned the corner to our house, we saw the mama cardinal perched on the telephone wire across from our house. She was calling. She was looking for her chicks. I listened to that mother’s screeching croon for her babies and I thought, birds really do cry. She called for a long time.
When we got upstairs we told Tom what we had seen. He said, “Oh, well, that’s life.” Kate wrote a book about the cardinals. She used a steno pad and wrote down their story. Later she bound it with rubber bands, put on a green plastic cover and gave it to me; she was the first in our family to write a book. Although the steno pad has been long since lost, I still recite parts of that story to myself.
Tom left the apartment one day and came back lugging a huge grey suitcase. He almost never left the house. We all wanted to know what was in the case. What could be so important as to thrust him out into the world? I watched from the doorway to the living room as he opened the case. I saw a black camera with Canon, one n, written on the front of it. Bright yellow boxes of film and an assortment of metal and plastic accessories were nestled in grey eggshell foam. He sat in his chair and unpacked each piece, fiddling with switches, looking through the lens while clicking the shutter. It seemed a bit weird, even for Tom. He was taking pictures of the bay windows across the room from him.
Eventually we figured out that Tom wasn’t really photographing the windows. Inspired by his weekly viewing of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom—one of the few “educational” TV shows Tom allowed us to watch—he was attempting to begin a new career as a nature photographer. Of course, being Tom, he would approach nature in his own way: from the comfort of the great indoors.
On his first attempt at taking actual bird photos, he opened all four windows in the kitchen and spread birdseed on the table, inviting any and all feathered friends to visit. Before the day was over we had hosted three mourning doves and several finches and sparrows. They flew around the house, crashing into windows and leaving behind trails of white, runny bird shit that we had to clean up. Soon Tom decided that this was a little closer to nature than he cared to get. He decided that the best way to bring the birds close enough to photograph without actually inviting them in for lunch was to set up outdoor bird feeders and hang them in the tree branches surrounding our house.
Tom set to his bird feeder project with an energy he rarely displayed. Not only did he build the feeders himself, he also found a way to hang and fill them without having to climb trees. He took a three-yard-long wooden pole and attached a hook on one side of it and a metal V-8 juice can, its top cut off, to the end. We used the hook to hang the feeders, filled the can with birdseed and tipped it in. It was usually my job to feed the birds after school. I filled the can full of millet seed for the small birds, sunflower seeds for the larger ones. Although it was one more on a long list of chores, it wasn’t really one I minded. Watching the birds gather in anticipation of dinner was definitely more fun than scrubbing the tub with Comet or drying dishes.
We learned to recognize different kinds of birds. Tom explained how to tell the difference between male and female finches: males had a red breast. Soon it was easy to spot any male bird. Their plumage, regardless of the species, was more vibrant than the females’.
As his collection of bird photos grew, Tom bought a projector and screen so he could show off his work. One day we were summoned by Tom ringing his bell non-stop until we were all assembled. Lined up as we were, in age order, I felt like one of those kids from the Sound of Music whose father called them with Navy whistles. At some point he numbered us kids one through eight; I was eight. He then called your number derisively as a punishment; you were not even worthy of a name.
The room was darkened, heavy red drapes closed against the sun. Tom was a shadowy figure crouched over his projector. “Hurry up! Sit down, for Christ’s sake,” he said, as if we should have known what to do. My brothers and sisters and I scrambled for seats on the couch. I wound up on the floor propped against someone else’s legs, facing the huge silver screen it took Tom hours to set up. I still wasn’t quite sure what was going on at that point. Were we going to see a movie? Some kind of New Jersey-based Wild Kingdom?
A picture of a bird flashed on the screen.
“What kind of bird is it?” Tom snapped at us, as if it were some strange drill. The black bird on the screen didn’t move. I could feel everyone shifting uncomfortably. How long was this going to last?
Finally, Kate called out, “It’s a red-winged blackbird!”
Tom didn’t praise her for getting it right; instead, he snapped out, “What does it eat? Where does it live?”
I could feel the hateful black bird hovering over me like the raven in that poem our teacher read us at school. Where does it live? Outside the window, of course—where else would it live?
Click, click! The slide carrousel turned and again Tom asked, “What kind of bird is it?”
“A finch,” someone shouted out in the dark.
Tom moved through the slides, occasionally commenting on his photographic expertise. “Look at this shot. You can see every wing of the finch in flight. I was only able to get that shot with my new $400 lens Charlie at the camera shop recommended. You just can’t get that kind of speed otherwise.”
I couldn’t help wishing that Tom had left some of that $400 to buy us all new shoes. We each got one new pair in September from the Thom McCann’s and mine usually looked beat up by December. But I knew that questioning Tom’s decisions, about anything, was just not done.
Click, click! “What kind of bird is it? What does it eat? Where does it live?” Tom asked repeatedly. Blue jay! Sparrow! Robin! We all called out in turn. At least there was one comfort. The show couldn’t go on forever. After all, how many species of birds could live in one city block in urban New Jersey?
Eventually, as he did with so many things, Tom lost interest in birds. His photography hobby lasted longer, but it faded as well, his $400 lens gathering a patina of dust. He returned to full-time pursuit of his favorite hobby, the one that never failed him. The clinking of Tom’s red-and-white beer can against his glass mug was one of the few constants of my childhood: less melodic than birdsong, maybe, but a whole lot more reliable. Winter or summer, that tune never stopped playing.
About the author:
A native Jersey girl, Mary Callahan has worked as a waitress, restaurant manager, and youth minister and now teaches writing at Rhode Island College. Her work has appeared in Temper, Kmareka, and Foliate Oak.
Photo by: ©Gigi Thibodeau.