I had a flashback today about my mom. My mom and birds never got along. It was a love/hate relationship from the start. I’m not certain why birds had it in for my mom, but let’s just say that my mother could have starred in the movie The Birds and the birds would have required very little acting.
I recall two distinct, vivid situations about how the relationship between our fine-feathered friends and my mother unraveled.
The first incident was a little diabolical on the birds’ behalf. Back in the 1970s, teasing your hair into a beehive was the thing to do. My mother had a nightly ritual of rolling her hair in bristle hair rollers with Dippity-do and sticking plastic pink pins in her head to keep the rollers in place. In the morning, she would take out the rollers, revealing black, hard curls of hair. If I remember correctly, there were exactly sixteen. She would tease her hair into the shape of a beehive using a thin blue comb that had black hair dye between its teeth. The comb felt sticky, like tar. She topped the beehive off with a puffy white cloud of Aqua Net. All of this was done without looking in a mirror. It was brilliant. It was a talent I really didn’t appreciate until I had to blow-dry my hair. If anyone knows me and my hair, it can take up to two hours to blow-dry it. Who needs to lift weights when you have hair like this?
One bright summer morning my mom went out into the backyard to skim the bugs off the pool. She walked down the wooden stairs along the back of the house, removed the skimmer from underneath the porch, and started her pool-boy chores. She performed all chores with the beehive hairdo firmly set in place. I was in the family room right above the pool and was watching her to make sure she didn’t fall in. I was doing my job as a nine-year-old lifeguard should.
I became distracted by the Brady Bunch on TV. Marcia’s nose got hit with the football and it wasn’t pleasant. Doug Simpson, who had asked her out on a date, dumped her because of her big, bruised nose. Then, I heard it, an ear-splitting yell. I turned to the backyard to see my mother waving her hands in the air like she was maneuvering a 747 into the gate at O’Hare Airport.
Then I witnessed something I had never witnessed before in my nine years of life. I no longer saw my mother on the pool deck, but I heard her running up the wooden steps. I didn’t know my mom could run—and she was so fast! She opened the patio door, dashed inside, and slammed it shut. Out of breath, she looked at me and said, “Did you see that?”
I said, “All I saw was you waving your hands over your head. What’s wrong?”
“The damn birds thought my hair was a fucking nest! They kept pecking at my head. Look!” She parted her beehive hairdo, which was now more like a flattened Brillo pad, to show me the little dots of blood and, of course, bird shit.
Needless to say, skimming the swimming pool became my job.
As you know, my mom was Italian. She let those four-letter words flow off her tongue like, well, gravy (not sauce). She was elegant and vulgar at the same time. Some people didn’t believe my mom did so much cussing, but it’s true. I inherited this trait. I often find myself tossing out F-bombs every other word when I’m yelling at my kid. He’s twenty-one, by the way, so don’t gang up on me for yelling at a two-year-old that way.
The second occasion was when Mom decided to get two parakeets as pets. We already had a dog, but she must have read something in a magazine or seen something on a wildlife show on TV that made her think it would be a great idea to increase our household census by two. Appropriately, we drove in our car, which was a wispy mauve-brown Buick LeSabre, to Kmart, a local department store in our town. She was determined to get everything required, including the birds.
I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of having birds as pets, because you can’t play with them, pet them, or make them do amazing tricks. I did discover many years later, by watching several variety shows, including America’s Got Talent, that gosh darn it, you can play with birds and make them do tricks. Who knew?
We came home with a cage big enough for ten birds, bird food, and toys for the birds, which included a mirror with bells on it. It was like receiving a hand-knitted rainbow-colored poncho from your grandma that you just knew you weren’t going to wear. But my mom was happy about the birds and that was all that really mattered. We named the birds Cleopatra and Anthony. Let me rephrase that. My mother named the birds Cleopatra and Anthony. Back in the early sixties the movie Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, came out. My mother bore a striking resemblance to Liz. Thus the christening of the birds was the direct result of my mother’s idolization of Ms. Taylor. Cleopatra was a paradise-green parakeet with a sunny yellow head, while Anthony brandished a cool blue body with a white head. They seemed to adore each other, which led me to believe these parakeets were going to get along famously.
The lady at the store had told us that in order to get birds to sleep at night, we had to put a sheet over their cage. This would quiet them down so they could get a little shut-eye.
Do you remember the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf that kept taunting Red and threatening to eat her? Well, we had a wolf in the house—our mutt, Candy. Candy liked the birds as much as Little Red Riding Hood liked the big bad wolf. In revenge for my mom buying the birds, Candy would make a long sprint, starting from the stairs at one end of the house, through the living room, kitchen, and eventually into the den where the cage stood. She’d stop just short of jumping on top of the cage. Barking to the point of neighbors calling the police for disturbing the peace, she scared the birds to the brink of dementia. They fluttered about the cage and banged their poor little heads on the top of the cage’s ceiling.
My mother didn’t anticipate this. She also didn’t anticipate how chatty the birds would become during the day. That was when the cursing started. “Fucking damn birds!” “Shut the hell up!” I started to sense a loss of passion in this relationship. The love was gone, replaced with disdain and disgust. Weapons could have been involved, but I don’t remember. The inner child in me began to feel that the birds’ safety were in question.
One day I heard that ear-splitting yell again.
“They’re out! They’re out! I can’t catch them! Doooonnnnaaaaaa! Naaaannnnncy!”
My sister and I looked at each other as if to say, you go first. It turned out that the cage’s wires were pretty spacious, rather than being close together as a typical bird cage should be. With Candy’s unforgiving assaults on the cage, the birds had had enough. They slid their way out through the openings of the cage and felt free—as a bird.
They flew around the family room and into the kitchen, landing on a high shelf where dark-purple plastic grapes and a fake rope of garlic dangled. They then flew to the tips of the curtain rods in the family room, managing to stay just a hair’s breadth away from being scooped up by a pillowcase. My sister and I were obviously too short for this task, and my mother could only manage to scream and swear at the same time. She threw the pillowcase at the two birds, who had now separated and were flying in different directions. A neighbor came by to fortify our army so we could get the birds to surrender. Finally, we were able to corral them. My mom sold them to another neighbor, who most likely saved the birds’ lives. If Candy hadn’t killed them, my mother eventually would have done the dirty deed.
I won’t even go into the incident about a bird being trapped in our crawl space. Talk about a pain in the ass! Have you ever tried to catch a bird that was alternately bumping off rafters and hitting gravel, with only three feet to separate the two? I thought the bird was going to peck my eyes out. What was more troubling was we never understood how the bird got into the crawl space to begin with. There was only one window in our basement and it had a well cover on it.
I tell ya, it was a sign. Definitely a sign.