Mama called to tell me the woods were being razed, all the maples and pines and the supplicating oaks. We spoke for a while, sharing more silence than words, memories of childhood and motherhood filling the empty spaces.
Standing at the wooded edge behind our new old house.
“Robyn, make sure I can see you now.”
The remnants of forgotten seasons crunching beneath my feet.
Despite my fascination — at the sights and sounds and the strong earthly smells — Mama never would let me roam too far. She watched me from the patio as the birds watched me from the trees, announcing with panicked chirps my encroachment upon their world.
“Mama,” I said, “none of the birds will come down to play. They just stay up in the trees. I can’t even see ‘em that good.”
“That’s their home, honey. You have to coax ‘em out is all.”
Mama showed me the way, with patience, love and a sprinkling of seeds. I knelt at Nature’s altar — tree stumps and logs — leaving my small offering while whispering words of hope.
A cardinal was the first to flash through the air. Feathers redder than fire, a touch of white on his crest. He tossed back his head and lifted his sweet voice. Right then and there I named that bird Sweetness.
As if answering his call, more birds fluttered from the trees. Chickadees, titmice, blue jays and wrens. I suppose Mama knew all along the birds would eventually come, but for me it was a surprise, a wonder and a joy. To a shy little girl, those birds were my friends. A balm against loneliness. A comfort to my grief.
“I wish daddy could see ‘em,” I said.
“He sees ‘em, honey. He sees you too.”
That spring, Sweetness and his mate built a nest in our backyard, an arrangement of sticks and straw hugging the arm of an ash tree. When the fledglings flew, Sweetness taught them how to survive. He showed them the bounty of our feeder, the fresh coolness of our bath.
“He’s a good daddy to those birds,” I said.
“Yes, honey. Yes, he is.”
The seasons came and the seasons went. Summer, fall, winter, spring. As the birds began their courting, mating and nesting, I watched and waited for my friend to arrive. But Sweetness never came back. Never sang for me again.
Thirty years later, memories of discovery still lay buried in my heart. So busy thinking about my friend, I’d forgotten all about my mama.
“Robyn,” she said. “You okay?”
“Yeah, mama. I’m fine.”
“Maybe you can come home this weekend. Before they cut ‘em all down and put up a bunch of cheap houses.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I’ll let you know.”
I told Mama goodbye and then stepped onto the deck. In the distance the evening sun streaked red across the sky. I watched as it dropped low beneath the trees, feeling the hush and the calmness covering the yard. I closed my eyes and wrapped myself in stillness. For a moment I heard nothing, but then I heard the singing. Sweet and melodious, if only in my mind.
While writing for both juveniles and adults, Kevin Luttery spends a lot of time watching the birds outside his window. This piece was inspired from his unpublished middle grade novel, SWEETNESS.