Both Cary Grant and the Shah of Iran wore my grandmother’s underwear. “Nana”, as I called her, worked as a seamstress in New York City making custom shirts and shorts for gentlemen. She often brought home “goods,” the finest linens and cottons. Naturally, she taught my mother to sew, as well. Both women were fastidious, pinning, cutting pattern pieces, basting, fitting, re-adjusting, re-basting, then finally, machine stitching. They were builders of garments; carpenters of cloth.
I was an impatient sewer. As a child, I wept with frustration when my thread tangled for the umpteenth time. My mother gave up on teaching me to use the sewing machine. (I learned from a college roommate). The rate at which I completed projects, however, impressed Nana, “She can make a dress in a day,” she would say in reluctant admiration. In reality, had I been able to afford the clothes I wanted, I wouldn’t have sewn at all; it was not my idea of fun. Writing a story or a song, drawing or sculpting was fun. I liked inventing a thing from scratch. Using a pre-made pattern felt like non-creative drudgery. I sewed as fast as possible, gunning the machine’s foot-pedal like a NASCAR racer.
A tear traced the outline of my cheek and dripped onto the wooden egg-shaped handle of Nana’s awl as I resentfully poked its pointed end into the white material. I was marking new darts in the dress I had taken apart for the third time. Normally, I would have given up months ago on this…THING I was designing myself, but the dress was going to be my wedding gown. Mom and Nana had been gone fifteen years. Their sewing tools, in Nana’s case, often handmade and a century old, lay strewn about the floor, partially obscured in the depths of the ugly brown shag rug. Mute and reproachful, my dress dummy, Brunhilde stood backlit and headless against the sliding glass door. The voile eyelet skirt, inspired by one of Arthur Rackham’s fairy illustrations was meant to float in gossamer folds from the waist to the ground. Instead, it hung crooked and slatternly-looking pinned to Brunhilde’s canvas hips.
The dress was a mashup of historic styles and pure fantasy. It would have been difficult for me to create at any time; having been extremely ill for the last year and a half, I had trouble doing just about everything. I looked past Brunhilde to the white plastic picnic table and chairs on the patio and swallowed painfully. Along with having blurred vision, every gland in my body was swollen. I could just see my little white cells racing around inside me like Keystone Cops; an immune system gone amuck. (“The body is not here to help us,” a cynical friend once told me.)
“Funny how a person’s tools evoke their memory so strongly,” I thought. Either Mom or Nana would have set this dress to rights in a few days. My mother’s scissors were cold and heavy in my hand. I didn’t need tools or memories right now. I needed my mother and grandmother. Burying my face in my hands I sobbed the way I had been doing nearly every afternoon for the last few weeks. I was interrupted by a sound coming from outside. “A cat? No…some other kind of animal.” Wiping my eyes with my palms, I slid open the door, stepping out into the warm Fall sun. A decidedly boring yard. A typical suburban expanse of unremitting grass, broken only by privacy fences and the few Cosmos and Sunflowers my landlady (who lived upstairs) had allowed me to plant. The noise was coming from the right.
“It stopped…no, wait…there it is again!” I shaded my eyes with my hand to see better, but I neither heard nor saw anything. Disappointed, I returned to my sewing. I had barely begun pinning the bodice pieces back together when I heard the cry, louder this time. I dropped the fabric. The noise had definitely come from the Cosmos. Amidst the lacy green stems and the lavender petals a dusky bird was perched. The moment I saw her she cried out again. I mimicked her call, which seemed to excite her.
“What’s the matter sweetheart?” I asked, surprised that my presence didn’t frighten her away. She was charcoal gray, robin-size with long tail feathers and shiny intelligent black eyes. I looked around to find the cause of her distress but saw nothing. There we were, on either side of the glass, staring at each other for several minutes. With a last cry the bird flew away. When Dan, my fiancé came home at dinnertime, we looked for the bird in Peterson’s Field Guide. Her call, size and color along with our location indicated that she was a Catbird, a relative of the Mockingbird. The book never said anything about catbirds seeking out people.
“Dan, I swear the bird kept calling to me as if she wanted me to come outside and see her;” Dan was unimpressed. New York City born and raised, he had known pigeons, sparrows, starlings and seagulls, all of whom he regarded as raucous germ-laden scavengers. From his point of view birds were only a few steps above roaches, rats and bedbugs. I, on the other hand, had been raised in the vast Long Island suburbs in a family which counted a canary and a parakeet as members. My mother, in particular, loved birds. It was she who kept the bird feeder and bath filled. Our whole family appreciated the diversity of species that visited our backyard on their seasonal migrations. Still, I had never seen a wild bird behave like this one.
When Dan left for work the next morning, I returned to my sewing. The holes from the seam I had sewn, then ripped out, showed slightly, “My arms will obscure the holes.” I reasoned with a sigh. In order to join the top to the skirt, I turned both inside-out, re-positioning them on Brunhilde. For the second time, I pinned the raw edges together starting at the center front and working my way around each side towards the center back where the zipper would go.
“So far, so good,” I muttered to myself, as I removed the garment from the dress form. But when I began actually stitching the seam my sewing machine gave out a mechanical screech, jerking to a halt. A great tangle of thread prevented me from raising the presser foot to free the dress. For months I had known the machine’s timing needed adjusting but I’d felt too ill to take the machine to the repair man. “Nana knew how to fix this,” I brooded. A feeling of helplessness enveloped me like a sweater in August. Furious at my situation and at my tears staining the fabric I wiped my nose with the hem of my t-shirt. Then I heard the bird. I stood up so fast I nearly upset the table holding my sewing machine.
This time, the bird had landed on the back of one of the patio chairs. For several moments we stood immobile, locking eyes. I walked slowly to the door and slid it open. The bird regarded me intently, puffed itself up and gave an exasperated little shake, as if indignant at the late arrival of a luncheon guest.
“Don’t…” I whispered, “go…!” The bird took a long look at me with one eye then regarded me with the other (a second opinion, I thought). She repeated her cry pointedly; a teacher trying to instruct a rather dull student. With a dip and an upward flick of her tail she flew off, punctuating her speech with a dark round poop, like a proper period, on the white chair back. Feeling strangely comforted, I returned to my work and with a seam ripper freed the dress, cutting apart the snarl of thread. Then I re-threaded the machine. When Dan came home I fairly dragged him into the living room, “The bird came back,” I announced; “And landed right there,” I said, pointing outside.
“It pooped on the chair,” Dan noticed, as if that were the point! “You’re not feeding this bird,” he said with obvious distaste; “Birds carry all sorts of diseases, you know.”
“But she comes to me,” I persisted; “She is seeking me out, as if she wants to tell me something.”
“It pooped on our chair,” Dan repeated firmly, turning towards the kitchen; “What are we having for dinner?”
We woke a bit earlier than usual on Saturday. Our friends, Grace and Larry were driving here from New Jersey with their three-year-old, Geoffrey. Grace’s house was littered with arts and crafts projects and the detritus of sewing. I was counting on her helping me pin up the hem of the dress. But Geoffrey, who was going through a, “stage,” as my mother would have said, fastened himself around Grace’s leg and howled whenever she turned her attention away from hi, “Geoffrey, let me talk with Bobbie while you play with your father,” Grace said patiently.
“No, no, NO!” Geoffrey wailed gripping her all the tighter and turning red with the passionate rage particular to three-year-olds. Watching Grace, whose face had colored as well, speaking calmly to her child (albeit through gritted teeth) I was reminded of my mother dealing with me at that age:
“You can’t have a cookie now; you’ll spoil your dinner.”
“But I’m hungry…PLEASE…?”
“What did I just say?”
(whimpering) “Nana would let me have one.”
“Don’t you dare get fresh with me young lady!”
(beginning to cry) “Boo-hoo!”
“Stop that or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
My father, like most post-WWII men was at work all day and was therefore able to avoid the role of disciplinarian much of the time. When he felt the situation merited it, he dispensed justice swiftly; usually a swat on my retreating bottom. Nana lived in the city, riding the Long Island railroad to babysit when my parents wanted to go out with friends. As an only child of an only child with no cousins nearer than Ohio, I was at a disadvantage: too many authority figures and too few peers. Nana was somewhere in-between. On the only occasion I can recall challenging her (“You’re not my mother. You can’t make me.”), she responded with righteous, if puzzling outrage.
Nana: “Wait until your mother hears what you said!”
Nana: “Just who do you think you are, MISS FIFI D’ORSAY?”
Me: “Hunh?” (I didn’t ask her to explain the historical reference fearing my ignorance would only further inflame her wrath.)
Geoffrey finally wore himself out and lay spent on the couch, moist and asleep, spit bubbles lazily issuing from his soft red lips. Grace and I packed a picnic lunch while Dan and Larry talked in the other room. Filling Grace in on my avian adventures I asked, “So do you think the bird is trying to tell me something? I mean, why does she keep coming here? What does she want?”
“You’ve always attracted animals as long as I’ve known you. Did you feed this bird?”
“No, no. She only showed up when I started sewing my wedding dress. I never saw or heard her before then.” By now, Geoffrey was rubbing his eyes. All of us piled into the car and drove to Nyack to walk along the Hudson River at the foot of Hook Mountain. We found a nice spot and spread out our feast on a sheet. Rockland County, on the east side of the river, is bordered by the Palisades, high, perfectly vertical walls of solid rock. If you sit at the very top edge, you can hang your legs straight down. Currents of warm air flowing upward from the river serve as elevators for birds. Once while eating sandwiches atop Hook Mountain, Dan and were startled by the sudden appearance of seven vultures which floated upward into view, one after another only yards from our feet. The meeting, I decided, was totally serendipitous; Dan and I, being alive, were not on their menu. My catbird’s visits, by contrast, were purposeful. She had an agenda…definitely an agenda!
“Sorry we didn’t get more of your dress completed,” said Grace back at our house after they had packed up and gotten into their car; “I can’t wait until Geoffrey is over this possessive thing. I feel like I’m trapped! Come see us before the wedding if you have time.” Then, as they drove down the street, “Let me know if your bird comes back again.”
On Sunday morning I began work on the veil. I had planned to sew seed pearls down the sides which trailed on the ground several feet. It was tedious work involving a beading needle and, “invisible” thread. Because of the trembling in my hands, the beads kept falling into the shag rug where they disappeared like fleas on a sheepdog. Shiny and round, the beads were only a little smaller than the eyes of the catbird. Absently, I turned to look outside, “Dan,” I hissed; “Come quietly. She’s back!” And there she sat, dark against the white chair upon which she was perched, discreetly preening herself. As Dan approached the door, the bird, seeing him, moved closer. With a delicate little hop, she launched herself from the chair in an arc, landing flat-footed on the patio table. Five feet apart, Dan and the bird regarded each other with the same expression, (that is to say benign disinterest). Simultaneously the bird squatted and Dan’s hands rose up, open-palmed.
“No, NO!” he shouted, but the catbird deposited a swirl of poop, and swiftly disappeared. Several days passed without a trace of my mysterious visitor. I decided to consult Brother Andrew, an Anglican Benedictine monk who would soon officiate at our wedding. Andrew hailed from Scotland where there was a long tradition of interpreting signs, omens and the behavior of animals. We had met in his monastery by the Hudson River where I was an artist-in-residence (and where I had acquired my mysterious illness). When still a parish priest Andrew had lived in a house inhabited by a female spirit who appeared to both family and visitors alike. If anyone would take my bird story seriously, it was Andrew.
“So,” I said into the receiver, “I don’t understand why this bird keeps coming here up and…well, seeking me out.”
“And this bird has only shown itself since you began sewing your wedding gown?”
“Yes. She lands outside, looks in and calls until she gets my attention.”
“And you say this bird is of a dark shade?” Andrew paused; “Traditionally, many cultures have seen dark or black birds as messengers from the dead;” I pondered that.
“You mean this bird could be my grandmother’s spirit trying to tell me something?” I wasn’t at all sure how I felt about Nana becoming a catbird. “To tell you the truth Andrew, I had been thinking more along the lines of the Disney version of Cinderella where the mice and birds visit to help sew the ball gown.” Andrew snorted and laughed. After I had hung up the phone I threaded my beading needle and began absently stringing the tiny pearlized beads for the veil. My thoughts drifted to something I had once seen in Florida: a Snowy Egret stood, statuesque, poised on one leg. With a sudden stab, it’s sharp beak pierced the water like an Olympic diver. A silvery flash appeared only to vanish down the bird’s serpentine throat where it created a bead-like bump halfway down. I swallowed reflexively, with difficulty, my own throat making a clicking noise.
For the next several days I strung beads, wandered to the glass door and back to my chair, daydreaming until I either dropped my needle or pricked my finger. By the week’s end I was actually stitching the string of beads to the veil, which was pinned to a now demure-looking Brunhilde’s headless neck. My wedding was only a few weeks away. Dad, my stepmother, Pat and my Aunt, Mid would soon be here. There had been no further visits from the catbird. I supposed I would never know why she had come to me but I was grateful for her presence. She had distracted me at a time when I was full of fear and frustration. Life, I had learned, is full of surprises. In the midst of loneliness and pain something feathered and wonderful might suddenly appear. I imagined these were things Nana and Mom would have wanted to tell me, had they been here. As I walked around the living room picking up Nana’s measuring tape and Mom’s pin cushion, I placed each object gently in my own sewing basket, murmuring, “Thanks.” The responding cry startled me so that I gave a little scream. Flying to the door, I slid it open with such force that the resulting bang would have frightened away a large bear. Yet there she sat, my catbird, at the garden’s edge, calling me. As I hurried outside I heard a separate cry to my other side. I found myself in-between two birds perched in the flowers to the right and left of the patio. Both called out repeatedly. I did not question them this time; I just listened. When they flew away I closed my eyes and stood still, knowing I wouldn’t hear them again.
A cool October breeze blew a lock of my hair across my face. Tucking it behind an ear I watched several bluejays feasting on the seeds of the sunflowers along the gate. As tall as cornstalks, the papery brown plants made a sound like the crunch of fall leaves underfoot. The jays cried out feeding frantically, dropping seeds into the soil which would spring up next year as young sunflowers. High above, the cerulean blue sky was strewn with long v-shaped strings of birds stitching through the air like arrows pointing the way home.