by Mimi Hedl
On one of Dad’s early trips to Strawdog, he told me when I saw the first robin in spring, to think of him. He loved that bird. We were sitting on the bench under the crab apple tree where he’d go to roll his cigarettes and sit to look out at the world. He sat and looked a lot, overcome by beauty and appreciation so that joy would burst out of him in a shit-eating grin. He’d laugh, smile that crazy smile, and shake his head in utter disbelief and say something like, “Gee-sus Mariah!”
This year, a few days before spring arrived, I felt confused. Early in the morning, before the sun appeared, I went out to hang the bird feeder and the suet and was bowled over by sound pouring from every direction, in volumes so loud I needed earplugs. Everywhere I looked I saw robins. Not ten or twenty, and surely not that one to remind me of Dad, but hundreds, perhaps thousands. They were in the trees, on the ground, flying, quarreling, trying to steal the holly berries from the mockingbirds, drinking out of the bird baths, carrying on as if they owned the place and had called Strawdog home for years and years.
This has continued, every morning, early. More and more robins arrive, the expanding chorus becoming familiar. By 9 am they’ve moved on, a few remaining, scattered here and there, perhaps the ones who’ve won nesting rights. In the evenings, I see some in the cedars and other trees, bedding down for the night. I wonder how long I’ll have these visitors and what message Dad sends me and why I can’t decipher it. I also think of all the fertilizer they’re leaving behind and the pounds of meat they devour. Whatever the exchange, it seems more than fair because I have the pleasure of witnessing an amazing phenomenon.
When the neighbors arrived on their tractor, the bucket loaded with a gift of horse manure, Patrick said, “Your robins have come over to our place. I can’t believe how many there are! I don’t know what’s going on, but thanks for sharing.” I laughed as he emptied the bucket and asked them if this would be a good time for them to get starts of some shrubs and bulbs. Yes, they said, as they pulled out their shovels and jumped down from the tractor. We spent the rest of the afternoon going from bridal veil to forsythia to lilacs and everything in between.
Petra dug carefully and with respect. Forty years ago I could’ve been her, digging things from abandoned farm yards, along the roadways, from Eunice’s yard – a cranky old woman who ran a rototiller at 85 and who Ron would help in every way possible only to have her find fault. Petra kept saying how generous I was. “It’s not me who’s generous, Petra, it’s the earth. Gardeners love to share. Mostly! You may see my greed if you ask for a start of the Roman hyacinth.” Oh the fragrance of that early flower. I couldn’t choose between it, lily of the valley, lilac, mignonette and of course old fashioned roses. So what does someone with such a decision do? She grows them all, of course. Petra says she wants one of everything that grows on Strawdog and I smile at her enthusiasm.
She texted me that night at 9 pm and said they’d put everything in the ground and Yippee! I wrote back that I was impressed and hoped they’d take a long soak in their super-sized tub. They had done in five hours what would now take me more than several hard days to transplant, forty years after coming to Strawdog. Time moves on and reminds us, in case we hadn’t noticed, in not so subtle ways.
Having young neighbors move in right across the county road feels like a gift. I like hearing Patrick working, calling the dogs, driving the tractor down to the barn. It’s nice to call and ask them to help me move a cold frame or to troubleshoot a problem. Somehow the sounds of human life close by feels comforting after these years of the pandemic, isolation and a strange mental state from it all.
Don’t tell the birds this. I know they think of me as their main friend, and I certainly would feel lost without them. If I forget to put up the feeders, the birds let me know. When I’m stuck inside on a rainy day, I need to look out and see life. Watching their antics pulls me out of myself, especially when I start worrying about the state of the world. As many wise people have said, the world hasn’t changed, only our awareness. I celebrate the human spirit when I hear a Ukrainian say, “Yes, I may not survive this day, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a coffee with a friend or get my hair cut. We have to keep on living as long as we are.” Amen and hallelujah. I offer up my joy and every seed I sow to those brave people.
Maybe that’s the message Dad sends me via the robins. Celebrate life. Celebrate spring. Revel in the cheerful colors, the buds, the nest building, the return of old favorites and all the memories they hold. Forty years ago we cheered when we saw one bird and now “we planted it and they came”, a favorite adage of the native plant movement. Everyday I reinvent myself – or find myself. It’s an easy thing to lose, to forget who I want to be. I look across the road and see Petra’s forsythia shrub blooming! yes blooming, and I smile that same smile of Dad’s and exclaim, in his honor, “Gee-suss Mariah!”