During the last few years I have spent hours listening to the haunting cries of Sandhill cranes, awaiting them at the river, stunned each time as I glimpsed a flock float to the ground, great gray wings extended to break their fall as talons touched earth, attended to enthusiastic family greetings and muted conversations, felt a sense of devastating loss when these birds circled overhead to say goodbye each year before heading north to breed (while I lived in New Mexico), and then discovering to my joy that they live and breed here in Maine. I still experience the same hunger to glimpse families in Fryeburg each October and lose time watching their loving family dynamics. I continue to feel intense grief and loss at crane leave-taking remaining baffled by the intensity of my own responses. In the last week I think I have finally uncovered the roots of the story behind the cranes and me…
These birds are prehistoric in origin and have the strongest family ties. The families never break up and when separated greet each other joyously even after a few hours as small groups fly to different feeding areas. Incredibly poignant. There is always one that stands watch at night, a protector, so the others can sleep in peace, one leg extended, usually in water. I am in love with these birds but until a few days ago did not understans the powerful pull their presence exerts over me.
At the first brrrrrr I feel the chill crawling up my spine before I am flooded with tears….
A couple of days ago I wrote an essay on aging and the ancestral darkness that permeates the dead in my family. Although I came from families with relatives, I was cut off from one side of the family due to family conflict – my mother didn’t like Italians though she married one. On her side I had grandparents I loved and great aunts as well…. And yet when they died there was no sense of staying connected – just absence – confusion, not knowing, a kind of hole that swallowed the shadows of who they were or might have been. I didn’t understand why.
Of course I grew up in a family in which silence dominated personal relationships – silence, secrets, deceit and lies. My brother and I ferreted out a couple of the secrets but confusion and a powerful sense of darkness permeated the air around this family. Davey and I learned early on how important it was to lie – especially regarding having negative feelings. My parents had negative emotions in spades – screaming and yelling was the norm – all the rest of my relatives denied what was happening. We were supposed to “BE HAPPY”.
Learning to tell the truth about what happened eventually set me free, even though by the time I became a writer I understood that “the truth” could only belong to me. There are many truths and I am privy only to one. I will never know the whole story about any of the members of my family because silence and secrets dominated and information was withheld.….
Except for my beloved brother who I remain connected to despite his death at 21 there is only my dad. Oddly our father -daughter relationship was fraught with conflict some of which I realize now my mother generated deliberately. I was, after all, a female and therefore a threat to a woman whose life was predicated on being the ONE. She scorned her only daughter who learned at her knee never to compete with a woman who threatened abandonment at every turn. I lived a terror filled childhood and never recovered from that initial wound which later shaped my life and that of my children in self destructive ways…My dad was explosive, absent during the week and yet out of the two he was the nurturing parent. Unfortunately, because he was usually busy working he had little free time for either of his children. With that much said if one of us was ill he was the parent who took care of us. His explosive nature made him unpredictable, and my mother used this flaw to deliberately alienate her children from him by forcing them to take sides in endless parental arguments creating a gap that widened as we grew up. I cringe now knowing that Davey had no access to his own father. By the time my brother died he was as alienated from others as I was. We just had each other. And the woods because we both found joy and solace in nature. After Davey’s death I still had a grandmother, but she died in less than two years. Numb, I am not sure how I survived.
At mid – life my dad and I reconnected but my mother was in the way. “ Don’t tell her I called “ he would say before hanging up…..When my dad died suddenly, I finally stood up to my mother insisting upon having a memorial service despite one of her predictable attacks — ‘you selfish girl’. More sinister, my mother coerced my children into making a choice. Needless to say neither grandson attended their grandfather‘s service. But that choice and its consequences was also made by my sons who were both adults and therefore accountable. I guess I should add that by now this woman was a millionaire.
What transpired next belongs in another story (my father becomes a beaver). After a white dove appeared at the time of my fathers death I decided I wanted a wild dove of my own… Within months Lily b came to live with us, and lives here still as a free flying house dove. It took me six months to accept that this bird could read my mind and reads it still although he is now a very old bird. Oddly, at first I didn’t associate this Lily b with my dad. Now, of course I do.
I have been a bird – woman all my life. As a child it was chickadees I loved the most…but all birds enchanted me; my brother and I became accomplished birders as children. Adolescence was a confusing broken time but as soon as I married birds took precedence again. I fed pheasants out of the kitchen window and both babies were placed on the table that overlooked the bird feeding area. During my mothering years mourning doves became my favorite bird… After I moved to the mountains I fed hundreds of doves and in the spring the songs of many other species including grosbeaks and red wings took my breath away. After I moved to my present house cardinals came into my life and have been here ever since. About ten years ago when I started to have trouble with squirrels and couldn’t leave food on the ground the cardinals learned how to ‘call’ to me when I was in the house most often by appearing at whatever window I happened to be near. Just this morning a female greeted me as I responded to the winter cheep. I have come through a difficult year and I have missed my little lady, though the male is always here. Cardinals I have learned, have a penchant for those who grieve, just as chickadees chirp for joy, doves open a spirit door, hawks act as messengers… all birds carry an energy of some kind along with information.
And this brings me around the circle to my relationship with the Sandhill cranes. I have read every crane book I could get my hands on, learning natural history and a lot about their mythology – in many cultures it is believed that Sandhill cranes embody the souls of the dead; some northern Indigenous peoples believe that the cranes were once human and will become so again. In some cultures it is the Sandhill crane that perches on top of the ‘Tree of Life’.
Visiting the Bosque del Apache was the highlight of my time in New Mexico because I entered another world where only the cranes and I existed. Just a few weeks ago I spent lost time in a field of cranes identifying relatives and young ones. I can never get enough of these birds on the ground or in the air. I am captivated by these family relationships that are so strong and true.
And yet, until I wrote my essay about aging and the ancestral dark holes I didn’t make the obvious connection. Sandhill cranes are probably the closest living beings that connect me to my family ancestors, and they are birds, not people.
I believe that my family’s energy and information have been transformed. Ovid’s words “let me sing to you now of how people turn into other things” resonates for me in a most powerful way. Whatever secrets lies and silence will continue to haunt my family intergenerationally I am no longer without ancestors; they have become beloved birds.