I can still see their black silhouettes—bats soared overhead against the dark of the night sky. The yard beyond was illuminated by a big farm light that buzzed on a pole, though it wasn’t much of a farm anymore. Pieces had been sold off over the years to encroaching industry; plastics companies that left mounds and mounds of synthetic scraps of all shapes and colors. Bits and pieces my brother and I would collect to play with as money or food or just to inspect and toss at the fence.
We played for endless hours at my grandparent’s house. We ate small, firm green pears until our bellies ached and we climbed the graceful, swaying willow tree, with the beckoning low branches that met at its base, stretching up like a welcome hug. Except for the bats, this was the place I felt safest. It was the place I felt most loved and where all our family came to gather. Cousins, aunts, uncles and all of us, around big lace-covered tables laden with my grandmother’s delicious, aromatic cooking and colored by the loot from my grandfather’s garden.
Mornings after I slept in the room that had been my mother’s, we woke to the smell of breakfast cooking. Thin, almost rubbery pancakes were plentiful to roll around fat sausage links and dip into sticky maple syrup that dripped down my chin. We drank sugary, milky children’s tea from my grandmother’s dainty porcelain cups, dotted with exquisite painted violets. I remember many summer afternoons when my grandfather and I walked in his garden; his bare, hairless knees peeked out from his shorts as a corduroy-slippered foot pressed a pitchfork into the loamy soil, turning it to reveal clumps of sweet, round new potatoes. It was my job to fish them from the earth and carry them enfolded in my shirt to my grandmother who scrubbed them and later served them doused in salty, buttery goodness. My grandfather’s large, firm finger disappeared into the soil alongside a fat carrot that would be left submerged until it matched or exceeded in girth and length. He handed me round, firm but yielding tomatoes, still warm from the sun. I bit into them like apples, and their juices dripped down in scarlet rivers off my filthy elbow. I was covered in dirt, pink cheeked and tow headed and nothing mattered but the bees and the bounty.
I remember my grandfather’s fondness for birds—budgies—I later learned this was an English thing when I was finally able to visit my maternal grandparents’ homeland, after they both were gone. He always kept bird feeders among the forsythias in view of the front picture window, and was proud of the many varieties he attracted; cardinals, my favorite, orioles, canaries, his favorite, gold finches and every other kind and color imaginable. A firm believer in hard work and a daily nap, he would lie back on the sofa, smoke his pipe and watch the birds. Once all the smoke-rings had wasped away and the scent of the blue-tinned, apple wood tobacco had faded, he would close his eyes in the stillness, only the ticking clock and his snores disturbed the cool silence I treasured.
Perhaps that’s why bluebirds came to tell me after six long years that my son would finally be; perhaps my grandfather sent them. Two days in a row, two bluebirds came to the feeder outside my kitchen window. I knew they were a sign; an omen that everything would be OK. We had just closed our restaurant and financially our future was very uncertain. There was the work trip to Britain my husband wouldn’t have been allowed to embark on without me, but otherwise there was only uncertainty: temperature charting, endless research on endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, chiropractic visits, drastic dietary adjustments, yoga, chakra balancing, progesterone cream, cleansing and fistfuls of supplements filled my days when our teenage daughters were in school. Failure and fear filled my thoughts, until I saw those bluebirds and experienced the lush, colorful spring of London. Suddenly my chronically acidic pH was perfectly in balance, and hope was my friend. This was April. And by June, I would have cause to take a pregnancy test again; prayerful that this time would turn out better than the loss we experienced two years before.
The bluebirds weren’t the only sign my grandfather sent. When I finally gave birth to the boy I’d waited so very long to hold, my grandfather, dead at 100 years of age just the year before, came to me in a deeply vivid, drug-induced dream. Not the bent over, feeble, occasionally sound minded, but impish and twinkle-eyed nonetheless grandfather, but the Grandpa of my youth. The one who sported Elvis Costello glasses, a dapper seer-sucker suit and a straw hat; all of his five-foot-four-inch frame with its great, strong farm hands the size of a man’s over six feet tall, with their “educated thumbs” that could crack walnuts and put every man in our family on his knees during the required, humbling handshake greeting.
Perhaps it was merely a memory of when I was not yet two and my baby brother was born; the hospital halls were lined with backless, vinyl, mustard-toned benches, and the hushed nurses hurried along in their skirts, white hosiery and clunky white shoes, not the scrubs and white Birkenstocks worn by my actual nurses. Someone else was with him. Man or woman, I’ll never know, because my husband woke me, thinking I was having a nightmare. But I wasn’t. I was deliriously happy to see the Grandpa of my youth, so very proud to show him my baby boy and grateful for the chance to thank him for the bluebirds.
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