One of the last memories I have of my maternal grandmother's life (or was it actually the last firsthand memory?) is from a time, blurry in date, when my mother and I visited her in an apartment on the outskirts of Detroit. The memory involves a pet bird. Yiayia was in her quite-late eighties, I believe, and definitely at the end of her independent-living days. She was moved not long after this to a retirement home, where I don't believe I ever saw her. (I am actually not too upset by this, since she was a fiercely independent woman by nature, and it seems more appropriate to remember her living in her own home.) At this time, she did have in-home visits from an aide, daily I think; I am not sure if I should properly call the woman a nurse. My grandmother was at the beginning of a mental decline that ended in . . . I suppose it was some form of dementia. But for the time being, she was still quite functional, just maybe a little less sharp in hearing, memory, and conversation. On the day my mom and I visited, my mother's sister Cay was with us. We came, talked for a while (I in English, they in some mix of English and Greek with my grandmother), and then I think we had a light meal together, perhaps one that my aunt had prepared and brought over with her. It's odd that I don't remember the meal; I usually focus on food, which is easy to do in a family of good cooks. I suppose I was distracted by the bird, whose cage was tucked in a corner of the dining area. I do not know for sure what kind of bird it was. It looked like a yellow budgie, or small parakeet. It seemed happy enough, hopped on and off its perch, twittered as you would expect. I remember its name as Peety, but for some reason there's a doubt. I don't know if that was my grandmother's name for her pet, or if this was just how we (me, my mom, and my aunt) came to refer to the bird. It makes no sense that we would have picked a different name, so I guess Peety must have been it—although it's also true that many things (especially about families) don't make sense and yet, nonetheless, there they are. At some point, a debate flared up about whether Peety was supposed to be let out of the cage from time to time. My aunt seemed to think that this was recommended, but my grandmother insisted the bird was fine where it was and that it should stay in the cage. She was pretty attached to the bird and protective of it, despite the fact that I would have taken her for someone who, in other circumstances (i.e., something other than old age), would have refused the idea that any animal should be domesticated. My grandmother went the few steps out of the dining area to the adjoining kitchenette, perhaps to put on water for tea. She was in there for long enough, though, that the following occurred, miraculously without her awareness: My aunt decided to let the bird out; I don't know how we failed to foresee the consequences. Peety flew out and around the dining area a couple times, then into the living space, where there was a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass (windows or sliding doors; was there a patio of some kind?). The bird was frantic, flying as though a huge raptor were on its tail, and it headed straight into the glass. Stunned, it still flew in disoriented patterns in the living room. It maybe bumped the panes again, or else the ceiling. I don't remember how we caught the bird, managed to cage it. I just remember our own panicked stage-whispering: here, pee-tee . . . here, pee-tee . . . lest my grandmother catch on to what was happening. The incident must not have taken long, as she never was the wiser. We wondered later if the bird would make it (he did), and whether its beak was in any way damaged (we were only half-kidding, nervously, about the possibility).
Years before, when I was a junior in high school—in northern Michigan (but not the U.P.)—I had enrolled in a two-term ecology class. In the fall, we had gone canoeing, explored the spongy ground of a bog, opened up cattails and set their fluff drifting in the breeze. We had gone snow-shoeing in the winter and, I think, cross-country skiing. In the spring, we were supposed to study birds and bird calls. Because this was the year I was abruptly pulled from school for a medical crisis (detailed elsewhere in this blog), I completed the class by correspondence. In Connecticut, on crutches and with a pair of binoculars hanging around my neck, I made my way through the wooded preserve of the local Audubon center, and I kept a bird-watching journal. I had books and tapes, along with handouts mailed to me by my ecology teacher, and this is how I learned the sounds (and the English shorthand) for many bird calls, among them the Black-Capped Chickadee, which is the only one that has stuck with me over the decades. If you search on the Internet, you can turn up daunting numbers of bird-related sites, many of them with bird calls. On the Web site of nature writer/wildlife photographer/ornithologist Lang Elliott (www.learnbirdsongs.com) the bird song of the male Black-Capped Chickadee is described as "a clear two-note whistle that drops in pitch: fee-beee." The last note is often "double-pulsed." (If you want to hear the Chickadee's song, visit this page for a good recording by Elliott, plus some other basic information.) Many sites contain this same "fee-bee" or "fee-bee-be" description. I, however, learned the sound of the song another way. I believe it was my ecology teacher's own shorthand, passed on to the kids he taught each year, and it went like this: here, pee-tee . . . here, pee-tee . . . I hear it every spring, and it makes me smile and miss my grandmother.