I can’t recall exactly when Mary Ellen bestowed this nickname on our mother, but into her ninth decade she is still Big Momso. And rightly so. Not for her mass or the amount of space she displaces – she’s a sprite who has to hang on tight in a high wind – but because of her big presence in our lives. Do we love words? She’s addicted to the NY Times crossword. Do we like to see who can make the other laugh first? I remember the last time she took me trick-or-treating down the street (I was 45 at the time), wearing an old wig pulled all the way down over her face and eyes painted on her cheek, totally freaking out the neighbors. Are we the least bit creative? Since her art degree from Women’s College (now UNC-Greensboro), she has never laid down the charcoals and oils, still trying out new techniques.
So here’s a few things I might not have thanked you for lately, Momso. Like going back to Kent State for your teacher’s certificate so you could help put me through school. Always being willing to pull out the old cast iron skillet and make your world famous inimitable never-to-be duplicated fried chicken, even if you and Dad are more into tofu and spring greens these days (OK, thanks for the beef wellington, too). And this is a really big one, thanks for always teaching us. From the time we quit putting everything on the ground into our mouths, you’ve inspired us to appreciate the strange creatures on the beach; the flowers of forest and garden; the scenes of Homer and the Wyeths; the joy of open books.
All of which leads me to the biggest one: Thanks for the birds. I don’t remember when you first taught me to call that red bird in the backyard a Cardinal, but I do remember heading off for my sophomore year with a big bag of seed and a windowsill feeder. For years afterwards I was satisfied to know the difference between a titmouse and a chickadee, until that one afternoon in the Shenandoahs over twenty years ago. You and Dad had rented a cabin, our kids were still pre-teen and not averse to a walk in the woods. We’d come to a big blowdown where sun streamed into the forest, and you pointed to a flit of saffron. I lifted my binoculars. And then I wrote down its name. And I’ve been keeping a list ever since.
My poem Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society. In four sections, it covers fifty some years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family. This is the first section:
Leave and Come Home
Lewis Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Mom may have said Redbird once in her life
but what she taught us kids was Cardinal,
Chickadee, Titmouse, the feeder gang – learn a creature’s name
and the two of you share a home in creation.
Her wedding gift to us was field guides, binoculars;
we hung our own feeders, shooed away the squirrels,
and they arrived, the usual characters, the recognized.
When our son could reach the sill and look he didn’t say Redbird,
and when we visited Grandmommy she would point into the trees.
This summer a gathering of generations at a mountain cabin,
the cool of altitude, red spruce and chestnut oak speaking
a language I don’t yet comprehend, nor realize I don’t.
Where a giant has fallen new growth points to sky,
and Mom points – a new word for me, an unnamed color.
Chestnut-Sided Warbler opens its throat and explains all,
a preface, a turning page. Josh, age ten now, reaches
for the glasses – Dad, let me look! Yes look, my God yes,
keep looking. But even more keep wanting to.
Reynolda Gardens, May 8, 2011
Great Crested Flycatcher
Black-Throated Green Warbler