I don’t know what it’s like to have a child, I’ve never had one. Not yet anyway. Everyone says it’s the most primal thing you can experience and that it connects you to all living things, animals and plants and all of the natural world that breathes in and breathes out. It’s the ultimate act of creation and unconditional, eternal love, they tell me. I don’t know, right now it seems painful, like I just keep thinking about that baby in my belly right now and how it’s gonna come out of that little place of mine down there. I’m only twenty-two and kind of having a tough time without my mama here so there’s a lot to be afraid about, I guess. I do talk to her every day in my own way and look for signs that she is there. Yeah, what keeps my feet on the ground is thinking about my own mama and everything she did for me and how I hope I can be that kind of mama to my child.
She was a gentle little bird. Small in stature but looming large in spirit, she was like a smart and delicate wren; the way she would pretend she was not intently observing me engaged in mischief, her manner of nibbling at small portions of food all day long, her stashing away of tiny essentials in her purse – a safety pin, a Q-tip, a piece of gum – which she would produce at a moment’s need, how she would alternately flit about in quick movements then perch silently away from the chaos of an energetic child. One day when I was in middle school, my mom and I came home to find a bird trapped in our basement. The two of us engaged in a joyful pursuit of the bird, guiding it gently up the stairs and out the back door, which my mama handled expertly with superb grace.
My mama was nonjudgmental and kind, possessive of a peaceful wisdom that only another old soul can recognize. She could see my hidden talents and abilities and encouraged me to grow into myself in my own time. My special thing as a kid was books. I still remember resting snugly in my mom’s lap at age four while she taught me how to read. As a child, we would walk hand in hand to the bookmobile every Tuesday night in the summers to explore new worlds. And every year under our Christmas tree was a special book for me and even if it was the only present, it didn’t matter. I loved holding it in my hands and touching it all over before removing the wrapping. Wrapping paper that she made herself with special words written all over it.
As a grade school teacher in town, mama spent her days teaching remedial reading to the slow kids. Her patience and dedication were bottomless, though she was often so tired out from the work. After school, I’d walk to the library and wait for her to get me on her way home and we’d talk about our day and maybe stop for an ice cream or get groceries for supper at the Venture. There was a big bakery counter just inside the store and on our way out my mama would always wink at me and we’d stop and get two giant chocolate chip cookies, bigger than your hand those cookies were!
“A little sugar is good for you,” she’d say, “Keeps the mind alert.”
On Saturdays, she would take me along with her to visit housewives in the neighborhood hoping to sell some of the household and beauty products she sold for a local company on the side. We’d sit with the lady of the house and maybe a kid or two and her Samples Kit would be spread across a table: cucumber creams and apricot scrubs, minty air fresheners and lemony kitchen cleansers. It was a good day if she’d sold enough for us to go have hamburgers and French fries afterwards at Johnny’s Luncheonette downtown.
One day we came home on one of those Saturdays that didn’t go so great and found a little hummingbird’s nest in the tree in our front yard with a baby poking its head out of the top. We hadn’t noticed it until that day I guess because it sort of blended in with everything until now. There was movement, new life. We saw the mother on a flowering shrub nearby that was bursting with red and yellow, gathering up something. We stood and watched for a good half hour, mama silent and calm.
“Ok, let’s leave them be,” gesturing me to follow her back inside our own nest.
As I got older, I needed mama less. I started going to the mall or to the park where my friends and I would meet up to kiss boys and smoke cigarettes and talk about getting out of our town one day or how many kids we were gonna have with our rich, handsome husbands. We didn’t know a thing about having a kid or even notice how much our mamas did for us. We just left them in the background to worry about us and hope we didn’t get into too much trouble. My mama saved me on more than one occasion from fates I couldn’t have known, as though watching carefully from a nest on high. I made it through high school ok, got a job working as a waitress while I plotted my escape.
When I got it in my head to go to a college in Florida sight unseen, she helped me make the move. I don’t even remember how I thought we were gonna pay for it and she never even said a word about it. Upon arrival, I just knew it wasn’t right. And she knew it, too. Sitting across from me at a local diner that day, she sensed my unhappiness as I left my Reuben sandwich untouched and forked coleslaw around my plate.
“Honey, is this where you’re supposed to be?”
Just that one question is all she asked. She waited for my reaction. Naturally, I burst into tears. She placed her tiny hand on mine.
“After lunch, we will just get in the car and drive back home together. You can figure out the rest later.”
I got my appetite back and ate that nice sandwich. She never said another word about it, just let me slowly return to my waitressing job and feel ok again.
When I told her I was moving in with my boyfriend Johnny a year later, she nodded and told me she had some stuff around the house I could take to get started. I know she was lonely without me there and I made sure to visit her at least once a week. But, you know, you have your own life and you’re trying to pull away from that invisible umbilical cord a bit more each day.
I was at work the day I got the call from mama’s good friend, Doris Winter, that mama had fainted at the school and was in the hospital. I left work in the middle of the lunch rush to get there fast. She never woke up but at least I got to hold her hand to say goodbye and feel her breathe out for the very last time. Doris was there, too. When it was all over, she handed me my mama’s purse, that purse that was her personal treasure trove of all-important things.
I rifled around through it a bit, popped a half piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint in my mouth, pushed around the paper clips and sewing needle kit, her little writing tablet filled with lists, an assortment of worn-to-a-stub pencils, and then I found this funny little red plastic key case I’d never seen before, the kind that you squeeze and it opens at a slit in the middle? Inside were three pictures of me crammed into the small space of that case: one when I was four, asleep in the chair where she taught me to read. The second one was of me on Christmas when I was in the fifth grade holding a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and grinning ear to ear. The third was a picture of me in my senior prom dress that we had sewn together, finishing the hem ten minutes before my date arrived! Along with the pictures was a folded-up piece of paper mixed in. Unfolding it I found the words in her scribbly handwriting:
“My creation, My love, My best friend”
The day after my mama died, a little bird appeared on my front porch. Now, we have lots of birds around – they flit about in the garden and surrounding trees but never have we had one arrive on our porch proper into our more personal space. Out of the blue, this little bird made her presence known daily, hopping around on the porch just outside our front door. One morning, when the front door was open and I was sitting at the table having coffee, she hopped into the foyer and looked around. I stood up sort of surprised and she looked at me, cocked her head, hopped back out and flew away. After a few visits I began to know, “That’s mama”. I just knew it as much as I knew the sun would rise and set. It made perfect sense to me that my mama would manifest as a bird after death and come find me. Fly to me. Comfort me.
As the visitations continued, I got to know her chirp. It was my cue to peek at her through the curtain, watch her on the porch or quietly open up the front door to see if she would come in for a visit. One afternoon, I was sitting at the table with the front door open as she announced her arrival. Slowly, she hopped into the foyer as usual. But this time, she continued on into the living room. In the far corner of the apartment, I had set up an altar to my mama with photos of her throughout her life since her childhood growing up on a farm in upstate New York, her favorite coffee cup was there, her wedding ring, a cryptic handwritten note to me that I found in a book in her dresser drawer, a spool of green thread, a shiny penny.
That little bird hopped a straight line over to the altar, stopped and stared at it as though taking an inventory of the items, then crooked her little head to look over at me. She stared at me for another moment before turning around to hop back out the door. Continuing to visit me regularly for a whole month, one day she simply disappeared. Transcended to another place, perhaps.
A year later, I was coming back from the doctor the day I found out Johnny and I were gonna have a baby. I was on my bike and all kinds of thoughts were floating through my head on that ride home about what Johnny was gonna say, what kind of mama I was gonna be, would it be a boy or a girl. When I rolled up in front of our apartment, there she was, that little bird, on the porch again as if she’d been waiting for me to get home.
I stood still and watched her hopping around on the porch and then I whispered, “Mama, is that you? I have some news for you.”
She hopped up onto the book I’d left on the ledge near the steps leading to the front door, happily chirping and doing a little dance for about thirty seconds before flying off across the sky to a place beyond the trees. I never saw her again but I know she’s there. Watching and giving me clues how to be a good mama, a good person. Yeah, even though I can’t see her, I know she’s waiting for me somewhere beautiful, waiting for the day we fly together again.
© Mary Corbin 2020
Nest is from the “Life Lines” collection. Featured artwork: “Birdland: Imagine Dance #1” – painting by Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission