I grew up in a family of backyard bird-watchers. My grandfather hung feeders on poles high off the ground that aligned with the windows of what he called his den—the room with the old-fashioned typewriter and a worn green leather recliner smelling faintly of Old Spice after-shave. He’d crank the casement windows open, and I would help him fill different kinds of seed feeders and dab peanut butter into logs with holes drilled into them. He taught me to identify chickadees and male and female cardinals and different kinds of finches, and in the spring, we’d listen to their calls. My mother kept feeders although she was a little less diligent, so hers were more prone to squirrel reconnaissance and destruction.
This year I moved one of the suet feeders outside a window near our kitchen table. The nuthatches and downy woodpeckers convene there for morning coffee hour–nibbling at the seed-encrusted block of fat and chatting amongst themselves. A crowd of obnoxious starlings shows up in the late afternoons, and I’m occasionally greeted with a view of a spread-eagled squirrel balanced on the pole. The terriers are happy to dispatch all unwanted encroachers.
The feeder is positioned in the window right above the small TV where we watch the news, and I can’t help but notice the contrast between what I see on the screen and what I see outside my window. In fact, I’m not sure I could watch the news without knowing those birds are right outside, doing what they always do – eating and chattering and sipping from the birdbath, now warmed with a heater. They are a source of comfort and reminder that nature is still there in the midst of the terrible chaos of the world.
Some days I think my jaw can’t drop any lower in shock and horror with what I’m seeing. It’s all I can do to watch the innocent people of Ukraine having their lives and country destroyed by a tyrant consumed with greed and lust for power. Almost worse than what I watch is what I hear—the barrage of lies, cruelty, and manipulation of the truth that has become our new normal. The mass consumption of disinformation, fueled by the rants and blathering of social media, is not only tearing us apart but creating an epidemic of rude and selfish behavior everywhere from stores and airline flights to school board meetings. Last night, when I heard shouting during the President’s speech, I thought perhaps hecklers had gotten into the House Chamber, but it came from two of our own elected representatives.
Each morning, this curmudgeonly retiree stares out her window to hold onto some balance and perspective. An entire flock of red-winged blackbirds gathered under the seed feeders this week, so they’re officially back in the neighborhood. I saw a bluebird inspecting the house in the front yard for possible occupancy and the finches are hitting the thistle seed especially hard—maybe it takes extra calories to start turning yellow? In another month, I’ll replace the wire suet feeders with red plastic bowls of sugar water and start checking the migration maps for the hummingbirds’ progress. As I provide food, water, and shelter for these beautiful creatures, I long for the innocence of the days when I learned about wild birds at my grandfather’s side. But the fact that the birds I watched as a child still return with each passing season gives me hope, and I am grateful for their song.
I’ve always been sort of ambivalent about Valentine’s Day. I can remember the childhood excitement of classroom Valentine parties when we sat at our desks opening silly paper cards in tiny envelopes and eating sugary treats. (Do schools even do that anymore?) I also remember when I was about twelve, getting a “real” Valentine from a boy in my neighborhood who had asked me to moonlight skate with him at the last skating party. When he called the local radio station to dedicate the song “Windy” to me, I thought we’d end up getting married. Hearing “Who’s walking down the streets of the city, smiling at everybody she meets” made me feel slim and beautiful with swinging hair even though I was kind of dorky and chunky, and my hair definitely did not swing.
Years later, the middle of February brought the death of my mother which forever cast a shadow on Valentine’s Day. Even now, when I take a Christmas wreath to the cemetery where both my parents are buried, I can still feel the bitter cold of that winter day in 1980. I can see all of us in our funeral-dress-up shoes carefully picking our way across the ice patches and hard-packed snow to reach my mother’s gravesite where we huddled together under the canopy, watching her casket being lowered into the frozen ground.
When I was teaching, Valentine’s Day marked a milepost in the seemingly endless slog toward spring concerts and the oh-so-distant end of the school year. I remember chaperoning nervous adolescents at their first dance and smiling at those few brave souls who broke loose from the security of their friends and wandered out onto the dance floor, gingerly touching each other’s shoulders or waists, as they swayed back and forth to a slow dance.
And then there was the Valentine’s night in 1996 when I found a bouquet of red roses at my front door. I had been on a date or two with a man I met through—no surprise here–choral singing. We had been to dinner, and on another occasion, I met him in the lobby of a theater for a concert. We both enjoyed the time we spent together, but we were tentative, careful. He was a lifelong bachelor, and I had been divorced after a thirteen-year marriage. That night I had come home after a rehearsal and was getting ready for bed. I remember the two Scottie dogs I had at the time fussing and barking until I finally went downstairs and looked out the front door. There was a beautiful bouquet of red roses with a card attached that said something clever and prophetic. (I just asked him if he remembered what he wrote on the card but that was 26 years ago.) I picked up the bouquet, closed the door, and sat right down on the floor and burst into tears. It was so unexpected and so kind and at that point in my life, I was not anticipating receiving flowers from someone who was falling in love with me.
I was twelve again and felt slim and beautiful with swinging hair.
It’s been another long, and at times, terrible year, so tonight may feel like a far cry from the Christmas Eves you grew up with. We’re not living in a Hallmark movie or Jacquie Lawson e-card. If you go to church tonight or for that matter, anywhere in public, I hope you wear a mask. Like me, you may feel so weary and disheartened from Covid and all that comes with it. You may be stuck in an airport and frustrated because you can’t get home to see family members. There may be an empty chair at your table and an empty place in your heart. You might be an essential worker—a healthcare professional or an Amazon driver or a clerk at the convenience store for whom Christmas Eve is just another shift.
But through all this mess we’ve created, we somehow manage to light our trees and light our candles. We cook the meals and call our friends and figure out a way to make it work, no matter what. We hold those we love close, even if it’s through a virtual hug or facetime visit. We reach out to those who need us, we sing through our masks, we keep loving and hoping and giving because that’s what Christmas means.
Because, like the powerful text from Leslie Leyland Fields that my husband and I were privileged to sing last weekend, the stable still astonishes.
“Come on downstairs. You’ve got to see the Polish Christmas tree,” said the father of one of my best friends. I was probably a teenager or maybe in college and was spending time at her house during the holidays. We trudged down to the basement to behold a Christmas tree with branches jutting out at odd angles and covered with a hodge-podge of decorations. But what really caught your eye were the globs of shiny icicles just thrown helter-skelter all over it. It was stunningly ugly. Her dad announced with pride, “Now, that’s the way we decorate a tree in the coal regions. Get a couple drinks in and then stand back and throw that tinsel, baby.”
My friend was one of four children growing up in a boisterous household where anything could happen and usually did. I was an only child of older parents accustomed to a more sedate lifestyle surrounded by adults, and I loved being swept up in the whirlwind of her family. Our parents met as newly-weds living in adjacent apartments and became lifelong friends. Our families attended the same church, the kids went to the same school, and my friend and I shared the best of childhood—the trips to Hershey Park and the beach and the picnics and parties—all led by her Dad’s enthusiasm, laughter, and flat-out joy in life. No one could dance at the local German club or enjoy a beer or race ahead of us kids to get in line for the roller coaster the way her dad could.
As adults, my friend and I didn’t see each other often but we always managed to stay in touch. When my own dad became bed-ridden, her dad would show up at the back door and say, “I just had to see John, today. See how he was doing, see if there was anything I could do. You call me if there’s anything, anytime, day or night.” And he meant every word. He channeled his boundless energy into taking care of everyone he knew in the small town where we grew up. As my friend said to me recently, “He just wanted to help to the point that sometimes it got on your nerves.”
This week, my friend’s dad went home to Jesus, and I kept remembering that Polish Christmas tree as I painstakingly decorated my own tree. Those of us left behind have been blessed by this kind man’s presence, his humor, and his heart that had room for all. I’m sure he’s already had a beer or two with God and is driving the angels crazy asking how he can help. And since it’s almost Christmas, I hope he’s standing back and throwing tinsel at a sparse little evergreen, introducing all his friends in heaven to a Polish Christmas tree.