MY OLD NEIGHBORHOOD – Marilyn Armstrong

I grew up in a semi-rural nook in the middle of Queens, New York. The city had surrounded us leaving a tiny enclave walking distance from the subway.

The house was more than a hundred years old. It had been changed by each family who had lived there, so much that I doubt the original builder would have recognized it. From its birth as a 4-room bungalow in the 1800s, by 1951 it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd rooms that could be hard to find.

96-Holliswood1954

It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining mature white oaks in New York, the rest having fallen to make masts for tall ships. The shadows of the oaks were always over the house. Beautiful, huge and a bit ominous. Some of the branches were bigger than ordinary trees. I remember watching the oaks during storms, how the enormous trees swayed. I wondered if one would crash through the roof and crush me.

I was four when we moved into the house, five by summer. When the weather grew warm, I was told to go out and play. Like an unsocialized puppy, I had no experience with other children, except my baby sister and older brother and that didn’t count. Now, I discovered other little girls. What a shock! I had no idea what to do. It was like greeting aliens … except that I was the alien.

First contact took place on the sidewalk. We stood, three little girls, staring at each other. First on one foot, then the other, until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism. “I live up there,” I said. I pointed to my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I was sure they had a private club into which I would not be invited. They were pretty — I was lumpy and awkward.

Oak woods

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with long straight hair. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild, curly and full of knots. She gestured. “I live there,” she pointed. The house was a red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial with bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long brick staircase. I’d never seen geraniums or masonry flower pots.

“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other. I, a stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

Finally, I fired off my best shot. “I’ve got a big brother,” I announced. They were unimpressed. I was at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. They turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again. I hadn’t the experience to know our future as friends were inevitable.

Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block. I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house. I imagined the lights were bright and cheerful in other houses. No dark shadows. No sadness or pain except in my scary world where the scream of a child in pain was background noise, the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Please, the neighbors will hear!” As if that was the issue.

Across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a stupor every night. The only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Three friends

October 1952

In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, battles raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was crumbling. It legally belonged to Liz’s grandmother. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. In lucid moments, she always reminded Liz’s dad the family lived there on her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and goodwill, there was neither.

A lovely neighborhood. Fine old homes shaded by tall oaks. Green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where we could play day or night. I’m sure the few travelers who strayed onto our street, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s black and white, a bit faded. It shows us sitting in Liz’s back yard. I’m the tiny one in the middle. A little sad. Not quite smiling.

We envied each other, thought each better off than ourselves. It would be long years before we learned each other’s secrets. By then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed as we grew up. Lonely in our big old houses, all those years ago.

DON’T PUT ME IN CHARGE! – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Ruler

Let me start by saying I do not want to rule the world. I don’t even want to rule this house. Not even a tiny corner of it. I get exhausted trying to manage dogs, convince them to go out to do their business and not steal my socks.

So if you give me a superpower, I might use it to eliminate us. What an annoying bunch we are.

As custodians of the earth, we’ve failed. We have poisoned the water and air, brutalized the earth, slaughtered the wildlife, cut down forests, dammed rivers, and polluted everything with our garbage.

We haven’t been any better to each other than we’ve been to the animals we’ve driven to extinction or near-extinction. We’ve murdered each other and stolen the darkness. We’ve made privacy a joke, eliminated alone time, and somehow, lost respect for each other and life. If we could start over, maybe we’d do a better job, but I don’t see a “redo” in the works.

Autumn at home

If indeed we were chosen to care for this world, we have done a poor job. Personally, I’d make a terrible ruler. Humans cannot be trusted. Even when we try hard, we just don’t seem to get it. I think we weren’t meant to be in charge. We need a better leader, one with the power to make things right and keep them that way.

See? I told you.

Don’t put me in charge. You won’t like it and I know I wouldn’t.

CLYTEMNESTRA’S LAMENT – GUEST POST By KARIN LAINE MCMILLEN

Introduction

Many of us have the mental image of nature as somehow kinder, sweeter, more gentle than the lives we lead. On a fundamental reality level, I knew that wasn’t true, but as long as all I saw were flying birds and leaping squirrels, I could ignore the rest. Even knowing that the large eat the small, and the strong kill the weak, that nature is fierce.

Nonetheless, the rattlesnake and snapping turtle have as much a right to their dinners as the bright yellow finch or the ladder-backed woodpecker. I didn’t realize how many of the creatures in my own backyard bore significant scars from hawks and foxes and bobcats until I got a distance lens and saw it myself.

A hurt squirrel

With the camera, I see many of the animals I photograph bear significant scars and damage from attacks by other creatures. Some have healed, others have disappeared and probably didn’t survive.

This is a story about love and nature.


Clytemnestra’s Lament: The Story of the Swans – By Karin Laine McMillen

We bought our swans, as all the bourgeois do.

They came in the US mail, in boxes with pointed tops. We had a swan release party. Restricted beauty reigned as pinioned swans flew across our one acre, man-made, engineered and certified pond.

A swan on the lake at the farm

Relocating swans is a precarious commitment. An unexpectedly large rectangular enclosure needs to be built in advance, part of it in the water and the remainder on land. This is so the pair can acclimate to their habitat, lest they try to walk back to Illinois from whence they came.

Named Illich and Odette after the heroine of Swan Lake by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they acted as guardians of my gentleman’s farm and performed their duties of chasing geese and eating the algae with instinctual vigor.

Every spring our female, distinguished by her slightly diminutive size, built a large, perfectly round nest which always reminded me of Big Bird’s nest from Sesame Street. The first year, she just built it. I don’t know if she had eggs or not, but if she did they didn’t hatch.

Illich, Odette, with cygnets

The second year, my family arrived for the weekend from New York to discover four baby swans on the pond with their parents. We quickly discovered, or more accurately researched, that baby swans are named cygnets. We disseminated that information to anyone who would listen.

The following weekend I was saddened to see only two cygnets. My toddler was fascinated by who might have “eatted” them. I grabbed my camera to be sure to capture the fluffy whiteness and inspiring family unit in action. I unrealistically fantasized about having two sets of swans forever gracefully adorning our pond.

I don’t remember how long the last two babies lived, but at some point in the spring, I heard that one of the cygnets had been dragged out of the pond and eaten by a snapping turtle. I was furious, and have been trying to kill those prehistoric looking creatures ever since.

Swans with cygnets

The following year I became excited in the early spring as Odette started constructing her nest and proceeded to sit on it for weeks on end, for a gestation time I never fully researched.

On May 4th, 2007 the French National Orchestra was touring with Kurt Masur on the podium. The date stuck with me due to my bird-loving grandmothers anniversary of birth. New Yorkers turned out in droves to see their former popular conductor. I was seated in one of the side boxes at Carnegie Hall with a fellow musician. We were beyond excited to hear Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony as the highlight of the program.

Our familiarity with the work was such that we glanced nervously at each other when the horns flubbed their perfect fifths in the first movement. We knew that the difficult horn solo at the beginning of the second movement was extremely exposed, and would dictate the success of the evening.

I went to bed on a high that I am convinced one can only get from music and had an unnerving and unexpectedly feverish dream filled with violence and unrest. Black and white converged; blood, death, and fear prevailed. I woke in a sweat and shortly got the call.

It happened that the previous evening. My darling Odette was ripped to shreds by a bear. She was guarding her eggs.

When haunted by the violent passages of Tchaik 5, I still reflect on my culpability. Did I doom this mother by naming her after a heroine who dances herself to death?

 

Illich survived. He graced our pond for season upon season. I often wonder if he sang in mourning for his bride and offspring, while I sat ninety miles away in a red velvet adorned box at Carnegie Hall.

Years later, on a spring morning, I got a call informing me that the body of Illich was immobile on the land beside the pond. I envisioned him with his beautiful neck resting on the ground. I begged our sensitive caretaker to bury him appropriately on the property.

Last spring a single grey swan grace our pond for a little while. He did not stay. This spring another has been spotted and I am nearly desperate for him to stay. Precariously, I follow the new swan with my camera as I stroll around the pond on Memorial Day.

My nearly white golden retriever and the white swan seem to have come to an equilibrium. My retriever seems to inherently understand the complex relationships before him. My mind weaves restlessly between questions and wishes.

Do I dare name him? Will he find a bride? Will they stay?

Suddenly peace washes over me with the warm breeze and I hear a whisper: “Nature, as is her habit, will forgive.”

FEATHERS – Marilyn Armstrong

Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Feathers

Since last November, the bird feeders on the deck have been supplying me with more than ample amounts of feathers. Usually, birds go with the features, though I do have some feathery things that are not birds.


I think the small Goldfinch in the gallery is a recent fledgling. I guess he’s learning “the ropes.” Don’t you love the patterns on their wings? So elegant!


One of our many cowbirds. I have seen as many as a dozen of them in the feeders, waiting on the rail, and in nearby trees. This is one of the boys. Although they are considered one of many blackbirds found all over the world, in the right light, they are almost deep blue or green and they have a matching beak.

Lady Brown-headed Cowbird showing off her dark tail.

Mrs. Brown-headed Cowbird

The weather has been awful since last February. Cold, constant rain. I’m sure the birds are getting depressed, too.

Chipping Sparrow

Another Chipping Sparrow. These are surprisingly friendly little garden birds.

I found a Chipping Sparrow sound asleep on one of the feeders this morning. I finally got worried that maybe he was not sleeping, but dead. However, when I opened the window, he woke up and flew away.

What a relief!

Our feeder has attracted much more attention than I imagined possible. I have learned a lot about the birds and so has Garry who previously showed little interest in birds. But having them so close — and finally being able to hear them sing — changed his mind.

Black-capped Chickadee – our Massachusetts official state bird

We seem to have become the home base for a crew of Brown-headed Cowbirds while the Goldfinches arrive in flocks. That’s normal for finches of all kinds.


Yo, bro, how’s it hanging?

Every Dove needs a bit of conversation and Frog looks so friendly.

The conversation — Dove and Frog — continues.

Thanks for the chat!

Birds are normally so well groomed, but this Dove had obviously just washed her hair. This was a very cute picture that I saw coming. I was just waiting for the dove to actually walk right up to the frog and have a little chat. I did not (for once!) wait in vain.


They have nearly taken over both feeders — except for the squirrels that, if allowed, will eat every seed we put out there. I don’t mind them eating, but there are a lot of them and they seem to be the smallest, cutest, fuzziest and most hungry critters in our woods. They eat nonstop and as soon as one departs, another one or more show up.

Two Tufted Titmouses – with one departing.

Squirrels and bird feeders are one of those things. I just would prefer they leave a little something for the birds!

Mrs. Cowbird and Mr. Chickadee, sharing a light snack

And so it goes. These are our most recent visitors, minus the Pileated Woodpecker who disappeared before I could press the shutter — and the Red-Bellied Woodpecker who like to eat on the opposite side of the feeder where I can’t see him, though I know he is there. What a flirt!

WEDNESDAY’S BIRDS – Marilyn Armstrong

We’ve got funeral in Boston today and Garry needs to speak. This was not only one of his colleagues but a friend to both of us. I will miss Tom Ellis. We will both miss him very much.

This also means that we have to be there early and probably won’t be back until late. And considering Boston traffic, it might be even later than I think. It’s one of the reasons we so rarely go into Boston … but this is one we cannot miss.

So enjoy the birds. They are beautiful and they remind us of peace.

A pair of doves

Two Tufted Titmouses

Two Tufted Titmouses

A pair of Chipping Sparrows

Looking down Dove

Two finches and a chickadee

One little Goldfinch

Titmouse in the air and Chickadee on the feeder

One more Goldfinch

Diving Chickadee

A couple of Cowbirds

ALL CREATURES – Marilyn Armstrong

Many creatures crossed our deck today. When I first peeked out my bathroom window at around 5 in the morning, there were three squirrels hanging onto the feeders. I went back to bed.

When I got up later, there were at least half a dozen Brown-Headed Cowbirds chowing down. I turned on the coffee and looked again. A big Red-Bellied Woodpecker and a small flock of House Finches and Goldfinches were chowing down. I went to take a picture and before I turned it on, they were gone. Vanished. Poof!

House Finches and I think the bird with the blue bill is a Bluebird

House Finches

I went back to the kitchen, cut open a couple of English muffins and popped them into the toaster. More Cowbirds, miscellaneous finches and a couple of Chickadees. I went and picked up my camera. Both feeders were empty.

Cowbirds

Back to the kitchen. Garry was setting up the coffee, so I cream cheesed the English muffins. When I turned around there were half a dozen House Finches and a big Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I went and picked up the camera. They did not all fly away.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

The woodpecker played peek-a-boo with me, then abandoned ship and a squirrel took over his spot. It was the middle of the day when squirrels are not usually out and about, but this squirrel seriously needs to have a chat with an older, more mature squirrel and get a grip on the dangers of squirreldom.

And although the House Finches hung around a bit, mostly, they were out of focus, but then the Cowbirds came back … and they were in focus. Not that they are particularly interesting, but they are big and easy to shoot (with a camera).