It's not very often I think this, and even rarer to express it to others, but I feel sometimes very blessed to have known as much of my family as I have.
I regret that I am adopted, sometimes, because both sides of the family I was adopted into have longevity in their genes, and I get a little bummed thinking that I don't have any of those genes, as far as I know. The average lifespan of the members of my family is close to 90 years, with the women alone skewing closer to 95.
This is why I feel blessed: when I was born I not only had two parents and four grandparents, but also six out of eight great-grandparents, and 1 out of sixteen great-great-grandparents alive. Even better, I've got memories ... a lot of them ... for every single one of these relatives except for one great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather, Reuben, after whom I'm middle-named.
The best thing about all this is the fact that I have eighteen years worth of memories of my favorite great-grandparent, and the longest-lived, of all my great-grandparents, whom I called Nanny. Today ... well, today I remembered something about Nanny, something I either have never remembered before or haven't remembered for a very long time. And what a long, strange trip it was. Come with me?
I was standing in my back yard, relaxing and enjoying the warm evening breeze, seeing the sky settle down into a comfy, smoky pinkish-blue, and watching the little finches that have nested under the eaves of the overhang on my patio go about their evening chores. In the midst of all this evening activity, and rather abruptly, my mind transported me back to a memory nearly twenty years old of myself and Nanny. We were both feeding the birds, scattering seed near the birdbath in her back yard, watching and cooing over all the birds that came to feed: cardinals, strutting and scarlet, bluejays screeching and twitchy. Robins and doves and mockingbirds and orioles... oh my. Such a cool place, where the swampy, moist air of Southern Texas seemed a few degrees cooler, under the huge and gently swaying pecan trees. I remember feeling peaceful, so peaceful. It's one of the last moments the two of us shared before she died.
The memory was so strong, so vivid! It was real. I was there, back there, in space and in time. The memory was so strong that I actually came back to life with a start, completely unaware how long I had been standing in the middle of my yard, wool-gathering. This memory of a small, unimportant activity performed twenty years ago somehow had commanded so much of my attention that I had completely shut out the world around me.
"You old fart," I muttered to myself, belatedly realizing that I'd just displayed two consecutive symptoms of, well, of old age. Wool-gathering, and talking to myself. Predicting rain with my trick knee will be next, I suppose.
I tried to laugh the experience off, but the remnants of it wouldn't give up so easily, and so I sat down--I was afraid I'd fall and break a hip should I go so completely into my memory yet again, ha ha--and started reviewing my memories of Nanny, going back earlier and earlier into my childhood.
The memories march back, always the same back yard, always the same bird bath, but the trees start providing less shade, the colors on the birds get brighter and brighter ... and everything seems to become larger. I'm ... I'm shrinking as I get younger! Faster and faster, the backwards march of endless summers spent endlessly feeding the endless flocks of endlessly fascinating birds and now the BIRDS themselves are getting larger and larger and larger and ... then my memory stops, frozen on an unblinking black marble, encased in scarlet, ringed with ebony, tipped on the left side with a beak of yellow so deep it shines like gold. The eye of a cardinal.
And then my memory jumps forward, again, and begins the backwards sequence anew. This time, though, I focus on Nanny, and this time, as the years walk by me, I try to focus on what I remember of her. I go from pushing her in a wheelchair, a sack of birdseed slung conveniently over one of the handles, to aiding her in her walker, that sack now slung over my arm, to holding her elbow while she hobbles with her cane, to walking beside her holding her hand, the birdseed now in HER hand, and now her hair's no longer puffy like cotton, it's white and thick like snow, and now it's got black streaks in it like a skunk in reverse and now it's kinda like a bunch of salt and notsomuch pepper and now she's not wearing glasses and now she's driving a car and now ... then my memory stops, again, on that brilliant black marble, but the image isn't frozen this time, and only briefly do I see this image before things move again, in slow motion, and I pull away from it. The marble gets smaller and now I see a big puffy chest of feathers, and wings, and big FEET with CLAWS and now I see Nanny's swing, and Nanny's plants and NANNY! I see Nanny!
She's beautiful. And strong. And I like her hair, it's all gray and her dress is gray and I like gray and her eyes are blue, and my eyes are blue and Nanny is pretty and ...
SLAM! I come back to reality with a start, my reverie once again abruptly broken, and this time I'm somewhat thankful, so powerful was the experience. And I remembered: at some point, when I was a baby, Nanny must have lifted me up so I could check out a cardinal close-up. Or so it could check me out, or so the both of us could check each other out. And the memory of her holding me, in her arms, presented a very clear picture of a strong woman in her late 60s, an image of a woman whom I'd only seen before in old family photographs. To realize that that woman once held me, and that I can remember it like this, filled me with joy.
Of course, my mind went into overdrive, making deductions, analyzing data, trying to process all these newly-surfaced memories, to impose some kind of order on their quick step hike backwards through time. As most of my thinking went over to doing that, I began to wonder just why I loved birdwatching so, realizing that I always thought my love for it had come from my grandfather Pop, my mother's father and my great-grandmother's son. When I was a boy, he used to take me to meetings of the local Audubon Society, where I'd usually get very bored over some dry lecture and slide show, and eventually would fall asleep. When I became an adult and began watching birds as a semi-serious hobby, I gave silent thanks to Pop for taking me to those lectures, even though I was bored at the time.
Today, I wondered, where did Pop get his love of birdwatching? The answer became evident in my memories, where it became obvious just where that love came from for both myself and Pop. From her. Nanny. For the first time in my life, I gained an insight into the relationship Nanny and Pop must have shared as a mother and a son. I felt the love they must have had for each other, expressing itself in as simple an act as feeding the birds. I felt the love they must have had for me as well. It's a love that's so deep, so layered, so deeply entwined into my soul that I didn't even know it existed until this very day. Even though she died a long time ago ... her love--for birds, for her son, for me--still exists, has only become stronger through time.
Feeling, no, embracing that feeling of love, I listened to one of the males in the triad of finches nesting in my back yard break into song. Even though his song is a complex trilling sort of thing and quite lovely, I'd never really paid much attention to it before, instead focusing on the sounds I think he uses to "talk" to his mates. So I listened to him sing closely, and heard another finch's song, some middling distance away from my house, join his. And another! This one I almost had to strain to hear. Then a female, the mother of the little family in my yard, joined in, with her short, distinctive lilt of a call. I realized that all the sounds the finches made were, to them, important. Suddenly, I was able to hear and discern an entire symphony and conversation of finchspeak, about a dozen or so different birds, all singing, or talking, or doing something together. I say together, because while each bird's song or trill or chirp was distinct and somewhat unique, I felt that I could understand all their songs together and I felt like I could almost--not quite, but almost--add to it, contributing to it the clap of my hands, or the steps of a dance, or the nonsense words of a song made up by a child. I almost felt invited to contribute to a song I could just barely hear.
Almost, but not quite.
Let me whisper this in your ear, "Her name was Amelia."