On a ridge near the Fox River John and I soft-footed along the sidewalk stopping here and there for Henry, my terrier, to sniff unfamiliar markers deposited at the base of old-growth trees by squirrels, chipmunks, and, of course, dogs. I asked John the usual grandmotherly questions about school, his grades, homework. Science is his favorite subject and he likes moving from class to class now that he’s in Middle School. He pointed out homes of his school ’s vice-principal, classmates, older kids he knew. He said there are often turkey vultures shuffling around this lawn or that, looking for dead worms and garter snakes.
“Did you know vultures ride the thermals?” He asked. And I knew what he was thinking—he wishes he could spread his arms like wings and let the thermals airlift him into the sky. I do too. We probably have the same dream.
Further along we saw a robin jumping across the grass.
“I never see robins in the city except in the park,” I said, “do you think that’s the robin singing?”
“No, that’s a cardinal. In the trees. A robin goes yeep.yeep.yeep. A cardinal goes schwee-eet. schwee-eet,” he said.
When we returned to his house, we headed for the deck off the kitchen. He asked if Henry and I wanted a drink, then disappeared inside for a few minutes. He came back through the door caressing a lizard that stretched from his neck to his waist.
Catching me staring at the hummingbird feeder dangling from the railing, he said, “We haven’t seen a hummingbird since we put up the feeder. But there are lots of yellow finches flying in and out of the lilac tree.”
I have no clue what 12-year old boys are supposed to know. There was a time when he carried a pocket computer around with him so he could play Mario at every possible moment. After a few years, Mario took a backseat to Minecraft and I thought cyber games would possess him for the rest of his life. So I was thrilled to hear these lessons in bird behavior so confidently plucked from deep within his genetic code.
I shouldn’t be surprised. As a fledgling, before he could talk but after he’d learned to walk, his mother and I took him to Target. While we loaded bags in the car, John sat motionless in the shopping cart transfixed by a seagull preening in the sun at the top of a lamppost. A few years later, John and I were sitting on the sunny side of Navy Pier, taking a lunch break after whiffling around first-grader attractions in the Children’s Museum. Sparrows started hopping around our table and John surrendered his bagful of beloved McDonald’s fries to the birds. Crouching down on the pavement stretching his arm as far as it would go with a soggy cold fry dangling between his thumb and finger he tried to get the birds to eat from his hand. The outstretched arm tired and weakened so he propped it up with his other arm and went for at least a half hour.
I rue that I see him so infrequently. But I’m comforted by my brood of friends with the same grandmother’s lamentation. Like birds on a wire we gather and chirp about our grandchildren, clucking out their accomplishments, funny remarks and milestones, ending with a feathered sigh.