Tag Archives: heron

Diversion: Houses and herons

My grandfather, who has been dead almost 60 years, lives on in the house he had built, a historic building that carries his name. And he lives on in Google, in the many archived electronic versions of his writings on neurosurgery. Leah told me she’d Googled him a couple of years ago, and a few entries had popped up under his name. When I Googled him a couple of days ago, I intended to see if I could find any internet images of his house. While there were no images available there was information about the house, and there were also pages and pages of his work, archived electronically, as well as writings about him. A paperback called In Memoriam: [his name], [his birth and death dates], caught my attention. It was from Amazon.uk.com, and it could be had for the princely sum of almost $50 (with the appalling exchange rate for the euro), and on an impulse, I bought it.

After I paid, it occurred to me that despite the moniker “paperback,” it’s probably his obituary, out of the newspaper, and if so, I already have a copy, folded neatly into the Bible I inherited when my mother died. Coincidently there were four Bibles, and I knew which one I wanted, the one that had belonged to my great-grandmother, with her name neatly inscribed on the front, and the date, 1887. I was afraid my sisters would want that one too, and I have never been one to argue over material things. However it was the oldest, the most worn, with yellowed pages and a ragged cover, and so I got my wish. I inherited, too, a silver dragon bowl from China (there is a fine story behind that bowl and the book my great-great aunt wrote about my great-great grandmother’s missionary trip to China, which has had a surprising resurrection, and is available still in multiple copies through Amazon.com — not reprints, I suppose, just version still extant, still circulating some 80 years later.)

But back to my grandfather and the Google search: As I scrolled through the list of entries under his name, I found a geneology of my mother’s father’s side of the family going back centuries, and made by my cousin (the son of my grandfather’s brother). I think the most common girl’s name in the family is Elizabeth, and that’s interesting because my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth (but named after my great-aunt on my mother’s mother’s side of the family).

And there, in that family tree, was my mother, her date of birth, and her date of death, and a live link that led me to the last letter she wrote before she died, which I typed for her because she was paralyzed. And there was her voice again, so bright and filled with life, apologizing for writing a “Dear everyone” letter, relating her life since the last communication as though her journey through the cancer were just one wild and never-ending adventure, joyful, with a certain happy ending.

Beneath her letter was Dad’s notice that she “has been asleep for a week now,” written a day or two before her death, and the words, “Her passing will leave an unfillable void in my life, she had such enthusiam and interest in all things and people.” It was followed by his brief and factual notice of her death, sent the morning she died. Beneath that was a notice from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer listserv, noting her passing.

I read it, and then I took Zeke to school, and on the way back from dropping her off, as I drove the exit ramp to the road that would take me to work, I looked left, and saw a heron on the winterbrown grass, so close I wouldn’t need a zoom to get a decent picture if I had had my camera — which I didn’t. I thought of Loren’s heron pictures, how clear and precisely they capture the details of the great blue heron, the curve of the neck, the long decorative feathers that sweep down from the back of the head, the cool yellow eyes. I could see all those details as the heron turned his head and watched me drive on to work, and then the details blurred as I felt strange tears of surprise and grief and joy, all at once, fill me and overflow.

Love thy brother… and thy sisters

Continued from here:

“For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever….you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune….you should not have looted his goods on the day of his calamity…. As you have done it shall be done to you.” Obadiah. 1:10-15

My mother witnessed gruesome fights between her mother and her mother’s siblings when she was growing up. I wrote about them in my creative thesis, a novel, turning my mother’s memories into my fiction. My thesis director told me people just didn’t behave that way. “You’ve been sheltered then,” I said. “They do.”

My mother lived in fear that we would fight after she died, as her mother and aunts had fought after their mother’s death. “I’ll come back and haunt you,” she said. “I don’t want you fighting.”

Of course we fought. My mother’s friend, the one who reminded me she had called the heron Obadiah, said on her way out after the party: “Someone should right a book about you four girls. You’re all so different, and so interesting.” Someone did. Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible. OK, it wasn’t exactly like us, but close enough that Mum saw clear parallels. And one of the things that was most interesting, I suppose, was the very different way we dealt with her dying, so different that it caused a rift that threatened to destroy us.

But last week, from the moment we saw Obadiah on Friday night till the moment we saw her again on Sunday evening, we didn’t fight. We had a good time. And the party was wonderful.

When my mother’s friend reminded me of my mother’s pet name for the heron, I wondered what I would read when I tracked down what it meant. Then I found out. Obadiah is a minor prophet of the Old Testament. His writings are short, 21 verses packed into a single chapter. In it, he threatens the wrath of God on Essau and the Edomites. Why? Because Essau fought with his brother Jacob.

Obadiah. My mother knew what to do to bring us together. I don’t know how it happened. I just know that it did.

The Restaurant Heron

“Look,” Dad said. “A heron.”

Dad, Leah and I had just left a waterfront restaurant where, for the first time in the four years since my mother died, my three sisters and Dad and I were all together. Ruth May and Rachel had stayed behind for a drink, while Dad, Leah and I headed for the opera. And then, as we crossed the boardwalk bridge to the sidewalk, Dad saw the heron, not 20 feet away in the water in the dark at 7:45 at night, staring fixedly at we knew not what.

People passing by exclaimed too, as Dad pulled out his camera and tried unsuccessfully to get pictures.

“Oh well,” Leah said. “We saw it. All three of us.” Her words triggered something in me. I ran back into the restaurant and touched Rachel’s shoulder.

“Look,” I told her and Ruth May. When I turned to point out the window, I understood what the heron had been staring at. He was framed perfectly in the center of the window, looking at the table where we’d all been sitting together.

“It’s Mum,” Ruth May said, tears in her eyes. “I wish I had Liam here to see it.”

“She’ll be back,” Rachel responded, hugging Ruth May. “She’s always here.”

We had all been dreading this weekend. Actually, I hadn’t been, and Leah hadn’t been, but then again I don’t worry too much any more about family politics. Getting the four of us together might be a disaster, but I’m not going to go looking for trouble. If we can all just breathe and forget for a minute how hard Mum’s death was, we’ll be OK. But the Rachel and Ruth May? Well…. they dreaded it.

Leah was the one who insisted on the get-together. “I don’t want the next time we get together again to be at Dad’s funeral,” she said. “You know Mum wouldn’t want that either.” And she was turning 40, flying from Ireland for her birthday. She wanted us all there. When Rachel refused, Leah called on Dad, who called Rachel and insisted she come.

Now, looking out the window at the heron, Rachel leaned towards me.

“Even Dad knows about the heron,” she said. “Even if he doesn’t admit it in so many words. Did you know when he called me to insist I come to Leah’s party, he said, apropos of nothing, ‘oh, there’s a heron on the railing.’ Mum was there then, too, making sure I said yes, and he knew it.”

My parents had lived on the beach for nine years when Mum died. In all those years, we’d never seen a heron on the deck railing. Not till the one that showed up when Mum was dying and stayed there, watching her, till she died. And since then, at this time of year, the heron returns to the railing every year. I’ve never seen one on any of the other decks. Why our house? Why, for every meaningful event and moment in life, does a heron appear, sometimes to stay and watch us, as the heron last night did, and sometimes just to fly overhead, glimpsed for a second, then gone?

For me, it’s a sign that this weekend will go just fine. Mum’s back, uniting us again, reminding us that life is mysterious and inexplicable, and that she’ll always be here.

“If you four fight,” she said as she was dying. “I’ll come back and haunt you. You know I will. So don’t fight.”

I’m glad she chose the form of a heron, a flighted spirit, a natural inhabitant of these parts, but also usually aloof and wild. It’s perfect for her. For us.