Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Aunt Monnie Memorial Bird Count

This weekend the Cornell Ornithology Lab and the Audubon Society sponsor their annual Great Backyard Bird Count. I participate every year, making notes on a yellow legal pad at my desk, from which I have a view of my bird feeders, a bristly clump of coneflower seedheads, and a little dogwood planted two years ago.

This year, my family held a bird count in honor of our Aunt Monnie, our favorite bird watcher, who died on her 110th birthday, Jan. 17th. Officially, the bird count was the weekend of her funeral, Jan 22nd through Jan. 25th. Unofficially, we all started the moment she died, and kept going for some time after she was laid to rest.

It was a great count. My father wrote on Jan. 19th: "our yard had a pair of blue birds about thirty minutes ago ............SPRING,,,, wonderful spring" (his own exuberantly idiosyncratic punctuation, entirely typical).

On Jan. 22nd, the morning we left Kansas City to drive down to Arkansas for the funeral, I had a pair of wrens, a pair of cardinals, and a pair of downy woodpeckers in the garden. There was a baffled starling, frustrated by the upside-down suet feeder. Two young male flickers showed up, and the front yard was full of robins.

The drive south through Missouri to Fort Smith rolls through mostly agricultural landscape, but there are some dramatic hedgerows of writhing osage orange trees and many marvelous oaks, with the fullness of free-standing trees in the open country. Dusky cedars colonize the roadside in some places; the gleaming, polished trunks of sycamores leap up out of the creekbeds. Last year's birds' nests are easy to see at this season, and the bare trees provided fine outlooks for hawks -- sharp-shinned, red-shouldered, and red-tailed -- surveying the stubbled cornfields. We thought we saw a couple of kestrels, my favorite falcon.

 On Friday morning, we drove in two cars from Fort Smith to Morrilton, where the funeral was held. It is about a two-hour drive, and we expanded the scope of our list, writing down native plants and not-so-wildlife: we made dutiful note of the brown cows, huddled in the lee of round bales of hay. Brilliant possomhaw hollies, loaded with berries, sparkled in the hedgerows. We counted crows, a dead opossum, and some paint horses, and stopped for coffee.

The pecan trees were marvelous in Morrilton. The husks of last year's crop, splayed open at the tips of branches, looked like brown stars. There were pecan trees outside the church and in yards all along the way to Elmwood cemetery, which is on the other side of the railroad tracks. There my father counted red-wing blackbirds, sparrows of every ilk, chickadees, and mourning doves. I heard a woodpecker but could never find it, somewhere up in the oaks.

I had brought along a big Mason jar full of birdseed, and after the service we invited everyone to sprinkle some seed around my aunt's grave. We had two Catholic priests working this funeral, and they both did their bit, and everyone got at least a little handful. It was cheering to toss the seed about, just as Aunt Monnie used to do around the patio at her home. She would have had a little cornbread for the mockingbirds.

After a quick lunch we went back to the cemetery to plant a couple of daffodils around Aunt Monnie's tombstone. It had been a long time since we were all at the cemetery together, so we visited my great grandparents, and contemplated the big iron cross by Colonel Anderson Gordon's marker, and at the last we left a large bunch of Alstromeria that we had needed for the lunch table on the fresh mound of red clay over Aunt Monnie's grave, saving a few flowers for my grandparents and my mother's sister. On the way out of the cemetery, we saw a flock of birds I didn't recognize, but that my father knew; Meadowlarks, he said, maybe 10 of them, the first I've seen, with a characteristic flash of white in the tail.

Our bird count accumulated on scraps of paper and, after we all flew back to our own nests, continued in e-mails: titmice, goldfinches, blue jays, brown thrashers, nuthatches, juncos, and red-bellied woodpeckers were added to the list. My father wrote that the two cats had seen a few birds, too, but they did not make a list. Just yesterday, my sister Cynthia sent an entry from South Carolina:

"I am not great at identifying all but the most distinctive birds. We had some little chubby brown sparrows pecking at pecans which had cracked open when they fell onto the brick terrace. They were really cute and determined. Bluebirds recently checking out the boxes and one perched on the front porch newel, momentary lord of the front garden. A little flock of Black capped, or Carolina chickadees were all over the wren box which is 9 feet off the ground, nestled in a post bracket of the carport. Flocks of robins and starlings, the latter descending with a clatter. A tufted titmouse looked at me only for a moment from three feet away before deciding that I was not to be trusted. There are oodles of finches doing acrobatics on the 'upside down' feeder. They are gray/brown not much color this time of year. Mourning Doves are scouting underneath the feeders and plenty of brown squirrels helping with the clean up. Oh and our neighborhood hawk, most likely a red tailed was sighted yesterday. There are lots of other birds, too, but don't ask me what they are. I have been refilling the feeders every other day."

Before we left Fort Smith, my sisters and I divided up Aunt Monnie's old Navajo jewelry, pieces she had collected since the 1930s. There were all kinds of necklaces and bracelets, and, in the end, a few things we weren't sure what to do with; I took one of them, a silver medal embossed with a Thunderbird. I threaded the little piece onto my keychain, like a charm on a bracelet -- a small fetish, but a mighty bird -- its heart decorated with a smooth piece of turquoise, robin's-egg blue.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Happy Birthday to You

My great-aunt Monnie's 110th birthday was January 17th. There was a small party for her in the morning, and that afternoon, she died.

I had not seen her since Thanksgiving, when my husband and I made a trip down to Fort Smith, Ark., for Thanksgiving with my parents. We went by Aunt Monnie's place to take her some pie, but she was sleeping deeply when we arrived and we just left the sweets: a piece of mincemeat pie and a piece of pumpkin pie. The next day, we dropped by again and she asked about our Thanksgiving dinner and thanked us for the pie, which, she said, brought back memories. She seemed to have to think for quite a time between remarks, but it was really she who did most of the talking. She was looking forward to her birthday.

On Jan. 23rd, we buried her, driving across the wintry landscape of the Arkansas River bottoms to Morrilton, her home town. The parish priest at the church played a somewhat creaky "Danny Boy" on his fiddle, but we all agreed it couldn't have sounded sweeter if he had been blowing bagpipes from glen to glen.

Almost 20  years ago, when I worked for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, I wrote a gardening column twice a month. Here is a piece I wrote about Aunt Monnie, when she was 91:

Springtime and the Perpetuation of the Species

By Marty Ross

My great-aunt Monnie, whose given name is Rosemary, is 91. I called her from work on the evening of her 90th birthday and she had prepared a birthday dinner for herself, fried chicken and peas, mashed potatoes with gravy, a salad, and cake. She told me she had had an old-fashioned before dinner, and explained the choice by saying, "I thought it would be appropriate." She ate dinner alone, because she said that if she had invited one of her friends over she would have had to ask them all, and that would be too much.

She lives in a house she built with her sister Grace Marie when they retired after teaching school for 40 years in Cheyenne, Wyo., and moved home to Arkansas. They had always spent the summers in Arkansas, with their parents, and there are photographs and stories about them that go way back, about the sisters driving a thousand miles every summer across the country in one big Buick or another.

Aunt Monnie and Aunt Godey lived in an apartment house in Cheyenne; the return address on their envelopes from that era said "The Quinn Girls." They taught fourth grade and smoked Camel cigarettes and rode well-bred saddle horses, and, judging from their stories, did their part to maintain the reputation of the "wild" West. I know many of these stories well, including the one about how they arranged to have bootleg liquor flown in to Wyoming during Prohibition. Aunt Monnie is by no means 5 feet tall, and the photographs of her standing by a large steed, her in a snappy riding habit, created quite an impression on a certain little girl.

Aunt Monnie doesn't ride any more, and she gave up smoking a long time ago, but she still tells stories about those days. She knows Gaelic and can recognize and name cattle brands. She and her sister collected silver and turquoise Indian jewelry, and they always wore all of it, in great swaths that rattled as they walked around. She is a Razorbacks fan. Her memory is legendary, if selective.

She knows birds and flowers. Her letters, in a full, formal script, often in green ink, are full of musings about the garden and remarks about politics and sports and things going on around and about, but mostly about the birds and flowers. I received one last week:

"Speaking of birds, I've been busy for the last three mornings putting out string and thin strips of cloth for the mockingbirds," she wrote. "They started pecking and pulling at the string holding the suet holder so I put some out for them. They would take all they could carry in their mouth and come back for more. . . . Right now, I'm being pestered by a few black birds and a few cowbirds among them."

The late freeze this year did a lot of damage in her yard, but she says that right now there are "trilliums and bluebells scattered over the back yard and around the patio, and near it are Stars of Bethlehem. I lost most of my old-fashioned violets, some of the later variety, but my Confederate violets won the Battles of the Freezes - they are still blooming." She enclosed a lovely little bouquet of pretty violets with a yellow center arranged against a violet leaf, pressed tight between two pieces of cellophane. I pulled the plastic apart and propped the flowers up on an index card on my desk along with two bouquets from my garden, and wondered how she got to be so much like me.

Aunt Godey died in 1987, just as the crocuses were coming up. My parents and one of my sisters and I met at the airport in Little Rock, where we picked up a huge rental car that glided like a boat through the rocky landscape. We all wanted it to be spring. Aunt Monnie said that Grace Marie would have wanted it to be spring. All weekend, titmice and chickadees and towhees chattered in the pyracantha and around the bird feeders outside the kitchen window. At the funeral, a huge spray of spring flowers was arranged on Aunt Godey's casket; we sat still and quiet and freezing at the cemetery under the tall, bare trees. After the funeral, we went back to Aunt Monnie's and had a big meal. Stories were told; spring somehow put its foot in the door.

A year or so later, I went to visit Aunt Monnie. She took me to church with her and then we drove over to the cemetery. Our relatives are buried there in three or four plots scattered around, and we parked where my great-grandparents are buried, and Aunt Godey.

"Don't be alarmed, you'll see my headstone, too," Aunt Monnie told me, and there it was, pretty and polished, "Rosemary Quinn". She stood at the big plot, my tiny aunt, and wondered aloud whether there is enough room there for her with her sisters and her parents and the view down the hill to another sister, my grandmother, and my great-great grandparents, names and dates on monuments I had read a hundred times.

"I had some, not many, cedar waxwings," she says in the letter, "probably a dozen, and then only for a couple of days. They didn't begin to eat all the holly berries. Each year there are fewer. When we first came, there were hundreds in one flock and they were here until the last berry was gone. However all species have diminished in number."

--published in The Times-Picayune, 15 April 1990