Memory Birds

For 31 years my parents lived in their home on 37th Street in Evans, Colorado. This was the first home that they bought, and they raised both of my sisters and I there. The house is 2500 sq ft on a half acre of property, filled with trees, roses, lilies, and many, many perennials. They added onto the house twice, and rebuilt once more following the flood from the South Platte in 2013. Dad also built an outbuilding that housed his garage and woodworking shop, and my sisters and I had a playhouse in the backyard where endless imaginary games were created. The deck was a pirate ship; the porch swing was carried along by flying pegasus; and the yard was explored through the perspective of barbies, hot wheels, and pretend games of acting older than we were. 

10 blocks away on a dirt road was my Grandparents house, which was situated in a line of old historic farm homes hidden behind a giant warehouse building. Grandma and Grandpa’s home was built in the late 1800’s, a white two story farmhouse on an acre of land. Grandpa was an avid gardener and the property was filled with vegetable gardens, 100 year old trees, lilacs, roses, sweet peas, and all manner of hidden places. I can still remember what it felt like to walk among the amaranth, celosia, and corn as a child, where my tiny body was hidden completely from view. In the vacant field next door with a small grove of elms, Grandpa and I erected a 3-walled hidden house out of old boards. This was my forest and I would cart toys into it to hide and search for leprechauns and gnomes. 

Between the two homes and their yards, I spent my childhood learning how to garden, to make art, and to create imagined worlds. This series is called Memory Birds, and is in homage to this time of imagination and growing up between the two houses. My Grandparent’s house was sold in 2010, following my Grandparent’s passing, both of which were of course a long emotional process. Currently, my parents are in the process of selling their home, as they embark on a new adventure in Illinois, and once again, I’m working to reconcile my feelings of the loss of ‘home’, and the new absence of the people who accompany it. This series is a processing and exploration of my parents moving and leaving their home after 31 years in it.

The Swan

THE SWAN

My earliest bird memory is of feeding the white Swans that floated elegantly in the small lake at Linn Grove Cemetery. I was very young, only about 2 or 3, and the birds seemed so large to me. They were perfectly white, with mysterious black masks on their faces. And their intrigue was coupled with the quiet solitude that the cemetery offered among beautifully tended grassy acres, where people had planted flowers for their loved ones. 

We would go for walks in the cemetery regularly. It was only a block away from our rental house, and it was a rare and nice occasion when my two young, working-class parents had the time together to do so. We were poor, and they were learning to be parents to me, their first born. Our house was a small two bedroom with a large front yard and a detached garage. I can still see how the light came through the curtained living room windows at certain times of day, sometimes golden, sometimes green or blueish. I can hear Woody Woodpecker laughing on the TV, and the change to the news sounds of early evening. I can see a fuzzy layout of the rooms of our home, and smell the grease from dad’s motorcycle in the garage. I can remember the way the dog food tasted on my tongue when I decided to join our family dog, Bear, in her evening meal at three years old. I can still feel the weight of all of the rocks I had filled my pockets with. 

I spent their working days playing at my Grandparent’s house. I would play in the sandbox, work the water pump on the windmill, eat soft cheese singles with saltines, and take afternoon naps with Grandpa. There was a cardboard refrigerator box that provided hours of entertainment until it broke down too far. My morning routine was to unlock my playhouse (an old coal shed) and empty it of all of the discarded kitchen utensils so that I could set up my ‘house’. 

There were many walks on the ditch bank behind the property with Grandpa, admiring the Russian olive trees that I later learned had been put on the plant-ban list. Or walks to the 7-Eleven up the street, where I would encourage Grandpa to buy me a slurpee. I would discover years later that all of those slurpee straws had been saved and washed, in case they were needed again. Grandma read me books and told me stories and let me help her bake. When I went home at night, it was to the quiet calm of our home near the cemetery, and if they were able to take me, I would practice learning to ride my bike along the narrow streets of the cemetery.


The Robin

THE ROBIN

In the summer of 1991, we moved into our new house at 310 37th Street. Our downtime at our new home was always full of the same things: homework and house projects. My parents spent most of my childhood working full time and in their efforts to go back to school–mom for her Bachelors and Masters in English, and dad for the same degrees in Psychology. And while they loved learning and exploring, it was all in an effort to rise up from the retail and service-based jobs of their past into something with a long-term career goal in mind. They wanted stability and solid income, but also the better work environments that were supposed to come with. 

As kids my sisters and I went through the normal routines of school, homework, dinner, after dinner TV or more homework. Weekends weren’t much different, but here enters the house projects. There was always a thing to be built, to be fixed, or to be done. Dad spent hours out in his woodshop working on these things, or in the house doing the same. Mom would help between writing and grading papers and tending to my younger sisters. Nice weather meant these activities all moved outdoors, with fences to move and build, gardens and plants to maintain, and all of the mowing–so much mowing! 

From the age of 9 or 10 on, not only did I mow our yard, but I mowed the full acre of my Grandparent’s house. By that time Grandpa was not able to keep up with such a hefty vegetable garden, and it had dwindled to just a portion of its former glory. That meant hours of circling the upper field and lower lawns in a riding lawn mower. Though older, my imagination was no less, and I spent the time envisioning my future as an adult, what my life might be like, and where I would live. But I also imagined houses. I built so many floor plans and layouts and exteriors. I pictured grand estate mansions, with opulent rooms and spanning pleasure gardens. 

It was during all of this outdoor summer improvement activity that I learned about how protective Robins are of their nests. There was a place in the backyard of my parent’s house, in a now long gone columnar Cottonwood, that Robins would nest every year. And every spring, they would divebomb our cats, dogs, and us if we came within 15 feet of that tree. They had every right, because it was at least two of the multitudes of cats we owned over the years that caught fledgling robins in their first flights, devastating what would have been a most enjoyable life. 

To this day, I’m somewhat wary of robins, and they’re not my favorite birds. Even though I see them as cranky and opinionated, I also have to admire how protective and ruthless they are when it comes to their young. This past summer, at my own home, a young fledgling was terrified and stuck on the railing of our deck after its first flight. My past experiences caused me to lock the cat inside and give both bird parents and young one some privacy to learn in, while I peeked out the window, enamored by the bird’s bravery.


The Blue Jay

THE BLUE JAY

When I was little, dad helped to clean out what was known as ‘the homeplace’. This was the house and land in Platteville that my Grandfather, his siblings, and a few of their kids had grown up in. They were farmers, and my grandfather was the 2nd or 3rd generation. Cleaning up the land meant that old farm implements, as well as blacksmithing equipment, suddenly appeared at both our house and my grandparents’.

Not many of dad’s siblings were equipped (or wanted) to take on such large items as our two properties could hold, and this is how we acquired a corn planter, a plow, an old grinding wheel, and an iron forge. All were moved from place to place among our gardens and yard, but the grinding wheel and forge probably saw the most change. Dad had both in his shop and used them every now and then, but more often than not, both were used as bird feeders.  

For the better part of the last 10 years, the grinding wheel lay on its side inside the metal forge, placed under the spruce tree we planted when I was 5. This particular spruce tree was one of a few debates over the placement and landscaping choices of each of my parents, and in this case, dad planted it smack in the middle of the front yard, directly in front of the window to the front door. As a young tree, this didn’t matter, but once it reached 6 feet, you could no longer see the street from that vantage point. That spruce became a safe haven for finches, robins, and other birds who eagerly awaited the birdseed and stale bread that my dad put out on the forge feeder each week. 

And here enters the Blue Jay. While the spruce blocked the view from our front door, the dining room window was just east of that, and in it was a large picture window that we could see the whole bird feeder from. I spent many meals watching the birds fight over their snacks, and the Blue Jays were the most pushy. They would yell and chase all others off to hog the morsels all to themselves. Or, two of them would square off yelling at each other as to who got what. They would park themselves in trees throughout the yard and scream at any passersby just for being too near their spot, for daring to enter their space. A cat would be 40 feet away and that was something to yell about for sure. Such loud, noisy things with so many opinions.

The Red Finch

THE RED FINCH

The forge feeder is likely where I observed red finches most readily, learning to spot their bright pinkish chests among the boughs of the spruce tree. But this is also one of the birds I most heavily associate with each of my parents when it comes to bird watching. 

We went camping and hiking a lot as kids, exploring the Colorado mountains and taking long weekend trips far away from civilization. We were tent and truck campers, and would pick remote, dispersed camping spots that allowed us to not see a soul for days. The quiet was coveted against our busy home lives, and my sister and I would make trails in the dirt and rocks for our hot wheels, or play imaginary games, pushing the bounds of how far we were told we could explore. Eggs and bacon made on our Coleman stove were the best, and my favorite dinners were grilled chicken, potato salad, and pork and beans. 

Our camping mornings were usually hikes away from our selected spot, and dad would have his binoculars and walking stick. The binoculars were best when we got up to a spot high enough to see the mountains and trees all around us, and while dad brought them for that, he brought them more to spot birds and other creatures we might otherwise miss. I saw my first eagles, hawks, falcons and other raptors through them, fascinated by the size and majesty of each of the birds. 

But Red Finches were harder to spot. They moved quickly, flitting from place to place, and were harder to keep up with. You had to be patient to spot them and monitor their progress. Sometimes dad would set up a chair in our campsite and if he wasn’t reading or whittling a stick, he just sat with his binoculars so he could catch whatever birds were nearby. 

While my Red Finch memories aren’t as strong as others, the red finch is probably a deeper thread in the representation of my love for bird watching, and I still get just as excited as dad did when I spot one flitting from branch to branch in a tree somewhere.

The Pelican

THE PELICAN

One of my earliest camping trips with my parents, before my sisters were born, was to Dinosaur National Monument. It was my first time seeing a “beach,” which was really just a long sandbar along the Yampa river. We were there a few nights at least, and I remember playing in the water and sand, visiting the museum and visitor’s center, and seeing petroglyphs for the first time. It was one of my first exposures to history, dinosaurs as a reality (and not just a cartoon), and how our environment once looked. I liked the Triceratops and the Pterodactyls. They were awkward and weird looking, and had interesting shapes to their bodies. I was fascinated that these creatures lived and breathed where I was now existing. 

I swear the Pelican is a pterodactyl in modern day form. They would swoop into the local lakes and ponds, circling until they came to a controlled glide, landing easily on the water. The mallards and geese in the area would nervously edge away to a new part of the pond. The enormous creatures would then make their rounds of their new territory, perusing the food options, and determining what they could claim. 

I was fascinated by the sheer size of their bills, and what they could hold in them. Cartoons taught me that it was a lot, and that things could move around in there once caught, which was slightly horrifying. Mom liked watching them. She enjoyed their giant white bodies and their attitudes, and would often point them out when we saw them. We would see them floating intentionally and serenely in their own way on the pond near our house. Sometimes they would  glide prehistorically down the South Platte, reminding me of my first experience with dinosaurs at the National Park.

The Blue Heron

THE BLUE HERON

This is an elusive bird. They like the cool, transparent mornings or twilight evenings near waterways, hiding and standing stock still in the shadows so they can catch their meal. If you’re lucky enough to see them in flight, they have the smoothest glide through the air to land and wait. This bird offers a particular reverence for me that many others do not. It was developed not only through observation of their habits and the particular way they carry themselves, but also through the reverence my dad also seemed to hold for them. 

Like the red finch, herons are a bird species I will always associate with dad (along with the woodpecker and kingfisher). They are birds that he searched for when I was growing up, would draw and paint, and would photograph. When I was in middle school, dad started taking photography classes, focusing on black and white photography, and learning to capture light, shadow, contrast, silky water, and other techniques. He agonized us all with the length of time it would take for practice portrait photos, and in how often he insisted on photographing random life activities. At an awkward, adolescent age, the last thing I wanted was to be captured unawares in all the glory of my romantic, imagination blurred, angst-filled teen years. 

But what I did love was going with him down to the pond near the South Platte river, which ran just behind my parent’s house by a couple of miles, and lying in wait to catch a good photo of that elusive heron. The challenge is that we were not the only ones out for a stroll, and the other park-goers were not so keen on being quiet and still since they didn’t care about pictures of herons. Most noises and abrupt movements would cause the herons to move on; this wasn’t a big pond, and they had a lot of work there to catch a fish. 

This challenge caused dad to move on to a few other parks in the community that had lakes and ponds attached. Bittersweet park was where he finally got the best photos. I remember creeping slowly up behind the heron as it waited and watched, twilight descending, leaving dad just a short period of time to get the right shot.

The Great Horned Owl

THE GREAT HORNED OWL

My greatest bird obsession of all was the owl, and I loved every species in the Strigidae family. At 11, I researched them heavily from books in the library, encyclopedias, and from our own rather large household collection. I focused on their behavior, the varying species, how they lived, their territories, how their wings were made up. It became a mythological obsession of mine to see an owl, in person, in the wild. I gazed at them in reverence at the zoo, and listened until late into the summer nights to hear one hooting in the wild. 

I collected owl statues and artwork from our thrift store trips, which clogged my bookshelves. All of my research and studying helped me to learn to draw them. I worked them in every medium from pencil, charcoal, and colored pencil, to acrylic and watercolor. I painted them on the walls of my room, and imagined all sorts of stories about them. The Barn owl was a particular favorite of mine; I loved their delicate emotive faces, and the myths behind what it meant to see or hear a barn owl during a full moon.

In college, I took residence in my Grandparent’s house, caring for my grandmother for a time before she entered a home, but mostly to keep an eye on the property, which was slowly falling into disrepair. It was perfect. Not only did I have a two story farmhouse, outbuildings, and an acre of property to myself, but I had my first art studio, and an opportunity to explore being an adult on my own, in a house that I loved intensely. 

My college days were spent waking up late from a night of making art projects for classes, attending classes, working at the greenhouse, showering and going to work at Kohls for the closing shift, then coming home to make more art projects while listening to BBC news. It was a time to take all of my childhood imaginings and channel them into artwork, exploring what kind of art I wanted to make and how I wanted to live my life. 

One morning while leaving for class in late spring, I walked out to my car and heard a weird noise. I put my bag in the car and walked over to one of the ancient hundred year old willow trees in the backyard. There, about 2’ up from my 5’ sat the neighbor’s slightly idiotic himalayan cat, perched in a low, cut off branch, with a look of absolute horror on its face. I made a funny face and started talking to it as I looked around for its source of horror, only to find that another 4’ above the cat sat a great horned owl, observing both of us with what it deemed to be the most reproachful and disdainful look it could muster. 

I marveled at the beauty and closeness of the owl. I knew that there was one that used my trees to monitor its territory, but I hadn’t yet seen it up close. It was giant, and gorgeous, and would have easily ripped that poor cat to shreds if it wanted to. I coaxed the himalayan down from its frozen position and placed it far away from the tree near its own home, and went on to class. I’ll never forget the expression on both their faces.

The Raven

THE RAVEN

Our book collection was extensive. We were all avid readers of everything. Dad loved nonfiction and would pore over textbooks, a fact that mortified me. If I wasn’t interested in a textbook of my own accord, I mostly fell asleep reading them. But he also read John Steinbeck and Carson McCullers. Mom read Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdirch, Margaret Atwood, and so many others, which was in part due to her focus on American Indian storytelling, but also in rectifying her own life story against those she read. My middle sister was a Harry Potter fan, and my youngest sister loved Junie B. Jones. 

I read what my parents read (minus the textbooks), but also chose horror, americana, fantasy and science fiction, and the occasional more romantic tale in the form of Anne of Green Gables. Books taught me so much about how to view and appreciate the world, how to socialize in it, and how to process it. It also allowed me to explore deeper components of my imaginary obsessions, one of which was the end of the world. 

What impacted this obsession the most was Stephen King’s The Stand. I read the book the first time through when I was 11 or 12. I had seen the miniseries several times (which my parents had recorded to the VHS from their TV). The concepts, characters, and ideas that played out in the story were so real to me, and fed so much into my own ideas of how life and the unexplained were intertwined, that I all but lived and breathed it in my own world. 

In particular was the Raven from the story. By watching the miniseries, I knew I should fear them as Randall Flagg’s lookouts, and when I was young, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine them so. But in observing their behavior in real life, watching their scruffy dignified way of existing, and calling upon my knowledge of Poe’s feelings (another favorite author in our household), I felt Ravens had to be more than lookouts. They were too damn smart to be conned by someone, or something, without a reason or knowledge of what was in it for them. It just didn’t line up in my mind. 

Ravens were added to the images of birds I would depict in illustrations, stories, and high school art projects, and among those birds that I still regard with a slight reverence. While I will always still think of summer colds, smiley face buttons, the names Lloyd and Nadine as nothing but icons of The Stand, I’ve chosen to reclaim Ravens for my own.

The Kingfisher

THE KINGFISHER

I associate kingfishers with my dad, but also from a more difficult time in my life. For whatever reason, I associate them with depression. 

I believe this is because dad had discovered they were inhabiting the pond near the South Platte at the same time I was going through a difficult period in high school, or perhaps the difficult period I went through in college. Either/or. Kingfishers are funny birds, with large heads, remarkable beaks for their size, and squat little bodies. They’re made for speed and diving down into water to catch their prey, coming back up to gulp it down. I’ve seen them a few times, and admire their color. Dad liked the way they sat and observed. 

My connection to them is less about the homes I love and miss, and more about times in my life that were hard while I existed in those spaces. Growing up so far apart in age from my siblings, in a neighborhood that wasn’t always safe to engage with my peers, in schools where I was an anomaly because I was too blonde, did too well in classes, was too quiet, or appeared to have too much (we did not), gave me a more solitary understanding of my world. 

Growing up this way also made it hard for me to understand how to engage socially with people. I made friends easily enough, but didn’t always understand the nuances of those friendships. Teenage years around hormonal adolescents was rough, and there were more than a few falling-outs with friends that had only recently been my closest confidants. 

College was not dissimilar, but at least I could engage in social activity of my own accord, and by that time I had more solid friendships established that were less fickle. I longed for a partner, a person that I could create a romantic relationship with, but struggled to find someone who was ready for that. 

The last time I saw a kingfisher was on a walk of my own around the pond, as it was perched in a tree, waiting. I would have been working through my own place in the world around this time, waiting for the shifts and changes to take place between college and the rest of my life.

The Magpie

THE MAGPIE

One for sorrow, 
Two for mirth, 
Three for a wedding, 
Four for a birth, 
Five’s a christening, 
Six a death, 
Seven is heaven, 
Eight is hell, and
Nine is the Devil, his ‘ane sel.

This is how the old rhyme was presented to me in ‘Eva Moves the Furniture’ by Margot Livesly. It’s a beautiful story about a young girl growing up at a tumultuous time in Europe, and one that I found when I was in high school. I actually never read the book through until I was an adult, but the rhyme stuck with me. I’ve always preferred this version of the rhyme, and if you look it up online, you’ll find a happy-go-lucky version is more common. 

Magpies love warm prairie grasslands, where they can perch and watch everything. They amass together in groups, and since they’re a part of the Corvidae family (related to ravens) they’re just as smart. There’s a lot of mythology and studies about whether or not they truly steal shiny objects. They’re kind of little bastard birds, rude, pushy, always getting their way. They’re gorgeous and they know it. 

Every morning and afternoon, driving to and from my first job at a greenhouse just a couple of miles from my parent’s house, I would see magpies flitting around the sides of the country road. They would fly up out of the grasses as cars went by, perching on branches to talk at one another and watch for things. Every road trip I ever took through the plains taught me to look for them in the same behavior patterns. Coupled with the mythology of the rhyme, I was enamored with their carefree, independent behavior. They always seemed to know what they wanted, or were thinking about how they were going to get it. Magpies have become a significant mascot for my own art business, flying muses that carelessly drift through my progress and growth, helping me to figure myself out.

The Cormorant

THE CORMORANT

As an adult, visits to my parents house often included whatever partner I was with. Over 12 years, I had three different long-term relationships, which meant each visit looked a little different. Between one of these relationships, I visited alone during summertime, and my parents and I made time for a walk down to the South Platte and the pond with their dogs. It was strange to see the changes to the course of the river and the water line.

The flood of 2013, which had wiped out part of my childhood neighborhood, and forced my parents to completely gut and rebuild the interior of their house, had altered an area that I knew as well as my own backyard. The walking paths were different, and you couldn’t get to some of my favorite hidden places. The ball fields and the park were under construction again. The pond was home to a few new bird species, one of which included the Cormorant. It wasn’t a bird I was familiar with, and mom told me they’d been seeing them on their walks. Much like Herons, Pelicans, and Kingfishers, Cormorants spend a lot of time watching for fish and other good things to eat. But instead of the serene whites of other water birds, they’re giant and black. Sometimes on our walks during the summer, we’d see large feathers lying around and other times, we’d see unfortunate ones who’d been mercilessly executed. 

I will always associate Cormorants with summer and transition. Times in my adult life that couldn’t be explained away through imaginings created while on a riding lawn mower, or turned into a storybook character. This was a tough reality I was in, and coming across the cruelty of humanity to such a glorious creature put that reality in sharp perspective. 

Those walks were precious, not just because they were some of the last I remember vividly, but because of the conversations, acceptance, and emotion I was allowed to express among people who I loved, and who cared for me.

The Tanager

THE YELLOW TANAGER

Up until this summer, I had confused the Yellow Tanager with the Yellow Finch–and they’re really close. The Tanager is just a bit brighter and with less color variation in their wings than the finch. Like Red Finches, either bird is an exciting thing to spot, catching their tiny little selves flitting around the upper parts of trees, confusing them with leaves that might be yellowed instead. 

In July of 2022, I took a couple of nights during the workweek to spend at my parent’s house for one final overnight stay. Dad was moving with the last load of their possessions to Illinois the next weekend, and while mom would be coming back until the house sold, it was never going to be the same. 

While they were at work that first day, I wandered the house, taking pictures of the rooms and the yard, letting 30 years of memories and time wash over me in a rush of emotion and tears. I sat sobbing in a chair, struggling to let go and allow the changes to occur. I pulled myself together enough to finish my own work day and to enjoy dinner and an evening by the firepit with them, keeping the experience to myself.  

The next day we organized a few things around the yard to make the final moving process easier, and were standing, chatting casually by the back door when dad spotted a yellow Tanager in the mulberry tree. It took me forever to find it, and dad had to stand behind me to point the bird out, guiding my eye along his arm, hand, and finger until I finally spotted it, sitting at the very top of the tree, tweeting happily.

This moment struck me for so many reasons. The mulberry tree was planted as a sapling from my grandparents house when I was little. It now stands 30’ tall, sending out sweet berries in the early summer that bring all manner of robins, finches, jays, and other birds to squabble over the best bites. The fruit they don’t eat stains the concrete, shoes, and hands of those below. 

This moment would be the last time that I would stand and admire that tree, watch a bird with my dad in that yard, experience the smells and heat of the grasses and plants, admire the progress of gardens with my mom, and really, truly get to call the house on 37th Street ‘home.’


2 thoughts on “Memory Birds

  1. Our childhoods parallel in many ways although I was raised on a farm and the meadowlark is my forever bird…viewed daily there 34 miles northeast of Greeley and and still viewed in many parts of Wyoming since it is the state bird of both states. My water birds were viewed in Glenmere Oark in Greeley and from my daughter’s balcony in Trinidad-Tobago. I have always enjoyed bird watching and love my house finches feeding on Niger seeds in both my Cheyenne and AZ backyards. The birds of Alaska were a fascination…especially the puffin.
    I loved your writing style and expression of memories. I too spent hours with my grandparents and have precious memories of those times. Well done, Desiree.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read these and for connecting to them! Glemere Park was a favorite of our’s as well. I’ve always wanted to see a Puffin, so I’ll have to check that one off the list. Thanks always for the support, Ginny!

      Like

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