Becoming Your Parents One Squirrel At A Time
When we first married we were very young and we would make observations about what “old people” did; we’d make vows of what we would be like when we were “old” ourselves, how we’d behave, how we’d dress, how we’d never mention our aches or pains at a party, discuss the medicines we took, what a doctor had recently told us, how different young people had become than we had been when we were growing up, or, as our parents would so frequently share, what funny thing new thing they’d seen a squirrel doing at their backyard feeder, or how the badly the Stellar Jays and Towhees had fought over the new block of suet they’d put out.
If a part of us could step back in time and give our present selves a good look up and down, I couldn’t say how Kathy and I have faired at many of those commitments, but I do know that we haven’t succeeded very well in the realms of not mentioning our knees and my back, our bewilderment about “young people” and their use of cellphones, and we’ve entirely ignored our commitment to not stand on our deck like our parents and be taken in by the behaviors of the squirrels and birds in our backyard – case in point- I’m writing about the squirrels and birds in our backyard as I presently breathe.
This fall from the squirrel/bird commitment started early. In grade school our oldest son had to build a bird feeder and like the finger paintings that took up residence on the refrigerator and the many slab-cut, clay coffee mugs that had brief stents on the fireplace mantle, the birdfeeder, as soon as it had been graded by the teacher, came back home to become a deck-railing fixture outside our kitchen window. The old movie cliché was true. “Build it and they will come.”
I was only in my early thirties at the time, but this descent into our becoming bird and squirrel watchers like our parents – including our narrating the experience to each other as we watched – was rapid. On my lunch hours in a park, I made friends with a squirrel who had one blind eye, a deformed left paw, and a spirit quite unlike the folklore and Native American stories of squirrels being rude and trouble-making gossips. It was a hard time in my life – things were tough at work – we had four children – finances were hard, and I found myself frequently having to act as if I knew what I was doing. The universe dropped the squirrel into my life as a borne listener who politely and humbly shared my lunch, and who always sent me back to work feeling better than I had before he had sided-up beside me on a bench or at my feet if we were, by conditions, standing under an umbrella. I remember to sometimes looking forward to lunchtime when I had difficult staff issues to deal with during the morning. And there was the Friday I took walnut halves to feed him and felt so sad knowing that all my lunch hours starting the following Monday would be in another city. The experience of the injured squirrel was kind of like I’d spent an hour with a no-copay therapist. I called the squirrel Carl. Mr. Jung would have seemed too formal.
Our children grew up, the house emptied, and the old birdfeeder lasted a rickety-while on the railing of a rental we occupied while we built a smaller house and a younger and a hardier looking feeder. The days, the months, the years, the new feeder, and families of squirrels and birds hopped and flew past our witness.
Now, both of us older than our parents ever lived to be, I realize, as I watch and notice – every day – the movement of wings, feathers, ears, paws, tails, ears, noses – the ways of being of other creatures, that this, this watching, this luring, this feeding, has been in many ways for me, a practice of mindfulness.
Years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with a couple who were aviary experts I think and the interviewer asked them what bird would they most like to see? One of them answered, “The one we are currently looking at.”
I remember that answer – its enormous meaning to me at the time. I was just out of the hospital and worrying about the outcome of my next breath. My arms weren’t working really well, but I could throw birdseed out onto the deck. It was one of the things that would make fear pause.
We watch. We notice the moment; ourselves in the midst of living our lives.
In the present several squirrels visit our feeder every day – dozens of birds come by. In the past year, a rabbit has come to hop out from the woods each morning.
It’s autumn. A little Pine Squirrel that comes by every day looks as if she is about to have babies. The rabbit keeps the grass trimmed and is putting on weight for winter – some of the weight from the apple skin and carrot trimmings I’ve been putting out.
A sparrow – one we rescued as a fledgling from drowning in our birdbath last year – has arrived every day since its near-death experience to eat the seed we spread and leave out for about fifteen minutes on a bath towel we used to use to wipe our old dog’s feet.
I think we’ve become far larger versions in this whole squirrel – bird and now rabbit watching business than our parents ever were. We just try to be less exuberant in sharing our backyard wildlife stories with our children.