The Weight of Feathers

posted in: Father, Family | 0

Not at all heavy because they cover bodies of light bones that want to rise.

When my father died, it was the first death of the older generation. He had declined slowly, and I had seen him only intermittently. He in South Carolina with my mother, where my sister and I had left them when we went north. For years it had pleasant to come home to the warmth of cumquats on his little tree in Thanksgiving, or dark green magnolia leaves on the doorway wreath at Christmas. I rarely visited in the ghastly summer heat.

When he died, it was late July. The weight of grief was almost too much for me. I wrote about his funeral with the open casket where his wide Italian nostrils rose out of his face like tunnels and the rest of him was reduced to bone. That sufficed only for a time. Then I needed something that would carry me across miles and miles, here in Minnesota, and largely alone.

On my daily walks I began to collect feathers. First, I smoothed them with my fingers, brushing off the dust and repairing the tears. These tender repetitive actions soothed me. I identified what feathers I could–pigeon, crow, occasional red cardinal or striped woodpecker –and brought them home and arranged them like flowers in a tiny vase.

When they began to spill out of the vase, I used them as bookmarks, stuck them in flower pots, and finally–in meditative solitude and crazy tears–began to attach them, one a day, to a face mask I’d made out of papier mache with a covering of torn pieces of light brown construction paper. The orientation of the face soon became lost–every surface tufted with feathers. After the first few, I was inspired to write one of my father’s sayings across little flags of white paper I used to glue and hold the feathers in place: “Per de la madonna! Oh, dio! Cindelaccia, Cindelina. Eh, paesan, come vai? Piano, piano (which means go slow in Italian).”

Like grief, there was no orientation to the mask. It mimicked my mental confusion, the sudden eruption of memory, the signal feathers of grief. Eventually I began to look outward. I put up a bird feeder in the back yard. I acquired a bird bath. Over the twenty years since his death, this activity has expanded to five feeders, two bird baths, five bird books, two pair of binoculars, and the sightings of chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, pigeons, house sparrows, cardinals, goldfinches, purple finches, grackles, starlings, crows (occasionally), white-throated sparrows, a few thrush, thrashers, chipping sparrows, wrens (not seed eaters, but more common than before), robins who love the bird baths, a few passing, stunned migrants: a song sparrow during a snow storm mid-November; an oriole, a bluebird, not migrants but never settling nearby; a few flickers, many wood peckers, not seed eaters, but drawn to the trees I planted twenty-five years ago which are now grown tall.

Every winter lately, a bevy of hawks have captured pigeons and let us watch the grisly yet majestic dismembering. Now, everywhere I travel I am captivated by birds: osprey in Florida; white pelicans along the summer Mississippi, loons, grebe and mergansers on Lake Superior. Once in a summer drought, two tall blue heron in splash pools along the North Shore. Not to mention the myriad warblers in the woods who baffle me year after year. I still bring home feathers, but my grief has turned to unrelenting joy and attention. That’s why it’s almost impossible for me to believe that a farmer in western Minnesota could smash the eggs of white pelicans–this reported in yesterday’s news. For me birds carry away grief and replace it with joy, reminders of all that touches us briefly, season after season, with their wings.

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