A baby sparrow gently held in one curled hand, a black-bulbed glass eyedropper in the other. My Mom sat at the kitchen table, a homemade circular plywood affair she had tiled in concentric rings of tiny squares of white and blue and blue and blue on curving rummage sale chromed steel legs. On the table sat a rainbow glaze-splattered ceramic boomerang ashtray – also the work of her capable hands. A cigarette perched in one of four identical divots and unfurled an endless curling smoke tendril, rising to lose itself against the brown-stained white acoustic ceiling tiles above. Between the ashtray and the ever-present cup of black coffee sat a little bowl of milk with bits of floating white bread. The eyedropper inhaled another load of milk and bread and took careful aim at the gaping baby bird beak. “Hold still, dammit.” The bulging newborn swollen-closed eyes bulged a little more as the eyedropper was rammed deep down the tiny throat to disgorge its contents into the belly of the little bird.
My Mom was not a person that anyone would call gentle. Hard strong hands. She seldom raised her voice, kept her own counsel. The cues to her inner life were infinitely subtle to a four-year-old boy. She had a way of lifting her lower right eyelid while simultaneously raising her left eyebrow that meant sure as shit you better stop whatever it was you were doing, stand perfectly still and pray she didn’t decide to bring the thunder. She was a short woman, although not small by any means. Her size and stature in the Midwest in the fifties was kindly referred to as “pudgy”. This was also the size and stature of most of our family dogs, a couple of which actually bore that name. She wore neither dresses nor makeup. “You won’t get me in no damn girdle!” Her hair, if it had been long, would have been wild and unkempt and so she kept it cropped short and therefore less-obviously under-cared for. In my earliest memories she wears a plaid lightweight wool shirt/jacket – shirttails hanging, worn at the elbows – that I’d give my eyeteeth to own and wear myself today. I know she spent the last twenty years of her life in either her bathrobe or a shapeless navy blue cotton-blend sweatshirt and slacks. Not precisely shapeless. It was the only shape she had.
She drank coffee with a will. A never-empty disposable solo™ cup was a permanent fixture of her table. She refused to dispose of it. With one notable exception, her first package of solo™-cup-holder refills remained undisturbed in the cupboard until her death. To her, the main virtue of the solo™ cup was the fact that one was not required to wash it: a fortunate and oft-overlooked bonus of its disposability. Because the solo™ cup is disposable (requires no washing) while being in no way degradable, one could infinitely postpone the disposal, thus avoiding the concomitant expense of replacement. She drank her coffee black. Had she taken cream, she would surely have been laid low by the accumulated lactophilic bacterial load.
She smoked. As we look askance at today’s sadly diminished smokers, huddled lonely and outcast in the rain, it’s hard to imagine the blue-tinged air of those glorious days when one smoked with a vengeance; with boldness, boasting, bluster, bombast and braggadocio; with the single-minded dedication of a coal miner after the tunnel collapse. Cigarettes smoldered in three different ashtrays, plus one, lit, to carry in her hand as she puffed from room to room. It’s a wonder we’re not all dead from nicotine poisoning. Time will tell.
Me? I was a squirt. Round widow’s-peaked crewcut head, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would unhesitatingly answer, “Dwarf.” Go with your strengths, that’s what I always say. Threats of “That’ll stunt your growth!” were to me a promise and an open invitation. My hopes were dashed as I eventually surpassed the maximum height limitation. Upon enrollment in Catholic kindergarten, I discovered that, thanks to Mikey Edgin, I would forever be the second smallest kid in class and so fail to reach this diminutive distinction. It was when my Dad took me to see Pinocchio that I found my enduring ambition: to become a real boy. I am still working on that. I have hope, though at this late juncture, after each night’s star’s unfulfilled wish, the appearance of my Blue Fairy seems increasingly unlikely. What I write is mostly true. Only the assiduous application of the wood rasp keeps my nose from giving me away.
When I was four, we found the little sparrow far below its nest, flopping blind at the foot of the tall lilacs that stood along our backyard’s west fence. My Mom had called it “poor thing”. She saw the cat waiting, licking its chops. Her lower right eyelid twitched upwards. Turning back to the stranded chick, “Godammit”, Mom set her shoulders, decision reached, and walked straight to the fallen chick, ignoring the mother sparrow diving again and again at my mother’s head. She resolutely scooped up the flailing chick and carried it back into the house.
“Can’t we put it back in its nest?” “I ain’t climbing no damn tree. Even if we could get up to that nest, the mother wouldn’t take it if it smells like us. Might abandon the whole bunch if she knows we were pokin’ around.” She lined a shoebox with newspaper and sat it beneath a bare suspended lightbulb. It gagged me just a little bit each time the eyedropper got jammed down that tiny throat. I got used to it. The bird got used to it. I’d sit on the oilcloth-covered chair, fingers gripping the table edge with my chin resting on the table between them and watch the thrice-daily ritual. Sated, head lolling sideways, the bird looked like a fuzzy gray golfball with birdie head, wings and feet sticking out at twelve, two, five, seven and ten. It would roll over backwards and collapse on the floor of the shoebox while we stared over the edge (“Maybe it’s dead.”) until we could see a slight movement of the head or a shuddering breath. (“Maybe not yet.”) It lay in a stupor under the warm light until hunger brought its gaping mawed head once again screeching to wakefulness.
It grew, fledged and flew. Flying through the house, pecking breadcrumbs and tiny worms of raw hamburger from our outstretched fingers, it returned each night to the little cage that hung under the corner cabinet in our kitchen. Splashing in a bowl of water set on the floor of the cage. At four years old, a week seems a lifetime. The bird became part of the household. “Damn Bird” my mother named it. Along with Damn Dog, Damn Cat and Damn Kids it had become a regular part of our damn menagerie. “Get that damn bird off the table.” “Will that damn bird never shut up?” Or, chuckling, as the sparrow swooped to snatch a fat morsel in a death-defying raid on the cat dish, “Would you look at that damn bird now!” “When are you gonna get rid of that damn bird?” my Dad asked after a particularly close strafing run at his dinner plate.
“Son of a Bitchin’ Bird.” One late spring day Damn Bird pooped in Mom’s coffee. The change in title from damn whatever to son-of-a-bitchin’ whatever invariably presaged a radical alteration in the circumstances of whatever creature was under the great misfortune to receive it. The sparrow, sensing a sea change in its circumstance, sprang from its perch on the edge of the solo™ cup (the inverse pyramid of its wide rim and narrow base having never been designed for avian use), overturning it and sending a wash of coffee and bird poop into the ashtray and across the tiny tiles of the table, extinguishing the cigarette and any small hope of its continued kitchen residency. “That’s it.” She snatched the bird midair and thrust it into the cage. Slammed down the cage door. Marched through the back hall and out the back door. She tore open the cage lid, grabbed the sparrow and threw it into the air. Damn Bird circled my Mom’s head once, twice, three times, each elliptic circuit larger than the last. Walls and ceiling no longer there, the sparrow spun up and out and was gone. I stared up at my Mom high above me, at the lilacs high above her, at the now-empty blue sky beyond that, a taste of flight and freedom lingering just at the edges of my skin. I followed her inside and watched as she lit a cigarette and reached for a fresh solo™ cup. As far as I know, we never saw that damn bird again, but I suppose one sparrow looks much like another.