Aunt Beulah's Birds

Aunt Beulah and Uncle Charlie, 1972

Aunt Beulah kept birds. Chickens. Rooted in Appalachia, she could snare a hen and serve it fried within the hour to her husband and five children.
            Back in the 1950’s, Uncle Charlie fenced in a spacious poultry yard when they lived in Oceana, West Virginia. He painted the henhouse the color of their timbered hillside.
My father, Uncle Charlie’s youngest brother by nineteen years, once perceived the farmyard the ideal set to direct his niece to model her new dress and heels before his camera.   
            The baby of nine children, Dad’s siblings obliged his self-appointed role as the family’s Cecil B. DeMille. The only child of Alonzo and Laura O’Brien to turn his back on Kentucky and settle in Michigan, Dad usually got his way. And when it came to his home movies, I’m glad of it.
            Otherwise, I’d have little record of my father’s family. For the O’Brien clan could be nomadic and forget to preserve genealogy and story.
However, Dad captured countless moving moments and images on hundreds of three-minute reels. Now over sixty years old, that film is rich with kinfolk and their settlements.
I remember with old fear the swinging footbridge that spanned a creek and led to the front porch of Uncle Charlie and Aunt Beulah’s house. Yet, there’s joy in my aunt’s voice as she sits upon the steps. She honked a birdlike laugh.
Seven years later in the summer of 1963, Dad announced Uncle Charlie and Aunt Beulah had moved to Kansas City. Mom packed his 1959 two-tone green Dodge for our vacation. Like a dope, I put my 45 of Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips in the back window and pouted all the way to Kansas. Why did we have to go to a boring ole city instead of Peter Creek? I couldn’t imagine summer vacation without my McCoy cousins.

My father and Uncle Charlie, Christmas 1967

Dad didn’t say his brother and sister-in-law lived in a house perched on a hill in the middle of a graveyard. My uncle had enough of the coalmines and found a job as caretaker of Mt. Hope Cemetery in Kansas City. The work above ground suited Uncle Charlie, a kind and physically strong man. He traded his pickaxe for a shovel.
            Aunt Beulah kept a myna bird instead of chickens. In effort to awake her teenage son for work in the morning, she taught the bird to say, “Kyle! Wake up!” and, “Kyle! You’ll be late for work!” The bird called Kyle’s name all morning until he appeared for breakfast, or Aunt Beulah capitulated and covered the cage with a towel.
Oddly enough, Dad didn’t take one reel of film during our vacation in Mt. Hope Cemetery.  There are no movies of the hours my sisters and I played tag with our cute cousin Kyle around gravestones under mature shade trees.
No matter. I can still see Dad standing before Aunt Beulah’s myna bird, the loyal creature that refused to repeat one word my father said, no matter his effort. 

           Dear Reader, it took a talking bird to show the O’Brien baby who’s boss. 

What Isaiah Says

French toast, one of my favorite comfort foods 

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. Isaiah 40:11

I wake with no commitments. No emergencies. Our rather new furnace holds up in the midst of another cold snap. I hope the homeless have found refuge—a habit from years of our firstborn’s disappearances.
                  For a long while now, the voices inside this house call me by name. Except the kittens. I’m “Meow.” Everything is.
                  I’ve not stepped a toe outside the door in two days, other than to plug in and out the Christmas lights on the redbud tree. They’ll come down after my birthday this month. Need some bling for the Big One, you know.
                  Downstairs by 6:30 to brew his coffee, I hear the kittens scamper up the basement stairs into the kitchen. They whine until Mel feeds them. Then they'll commence another game of hide-and-seek under the throw rugs. Never do they say, “Mom, we’re bored.”
                  Last night after pot roast, carrots, and potatoes, Mel and I confessed we couldn’t imagine our home without the Rascals. I promised him French toast for breakfast—his reward for fetching frozen eggs from the henhouse and plowing snow all day long while I scribbled inside.
                  With joy I submit to winter’s exile. For thirty years a blizzard has never foiled my morning walks on our country roads, no matter how deep the drifts.
                  Until this winter.
                  Upstairs in soft lamplight, I listen to the wind and read the book of Isaiah. Since Christmas, his words in Handel’s Messiah sing in my head as I progress through the chapters.
                  Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
                  After our greatest loss, I couldn’t find comfort, no matter where I ran and walked. My Bible gathered dust. Yes, God’s grace carried moments of peace and purpose in blessed relief; yet, there is no shortcut through the valley of the shadow of death.
                  Now on the other side, I’m learning to rest and renew my strength. I’ll never mount up on eagle’s wings as I did as a youth, and I hope to never run a mile again in my life.
                  Yet, after a set of stretches to rid myself of sciatica pain, I walk downstairs into the kitchen. “Are you hungry for French toast?” I ask Mel.
                  He's incredulous.
                  “You thought I forgot, didn’t you?”
                  “I’d better not say.”
                  He watches while I crack several eggs into a shallow baking pan and stir in buttermilk, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lavender buds, and a double portion of vanilla extract. The buttered griddle browns eight slices of sourdough bread sopped with batter. The scent is reminiscent of my childhood. My children's childhood.
                  We finish them off with warm maple syrup and wipe off the counter by 10 a.m.
                  “Nothing like comfort food for breakfast, is there?” I ask.
                  “Sure isn’t.”
                  He goes his way. I go mine.
                  Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, Isaiah says.

Nothing to do but stay

My maternal grandmother, posed on her piano bench in front of her Kentucky home

Friday I picked up Joyce for a drive south to Three Cats Café in Clawson. She pointed to a book on her kitchen table. “Before we go, that’s for you. I think you’ll like it. Carrie Young was an excellent writer.”
            The book’s title, Nothing to Do but Stay, hit me between the eyes. Can’t tell you how often I’ve resented that difficult place to later praise its value.
I parked along Fourteen Mile Road. “Let’s stroll Leon & Lulu first,” I said.
Our eyes lit up when we walked into Clawson’s transformed roller rink—a “lifestyle retail store” aimed to pamper and inspire domestic creativity. Decorated for the Easter season, shelves of fluffy bunnies and sheep of all sizes greeted us at the door.
In the vast showroom, a workbench turned dining table caught Joyce’s eye.
The price was out of reach. Besides, she’s gained what she needs and wants. We admired a display of Motawi clocks before we walked next door to dine in the charming café, once the Clawson Theater.
In the heart of quietude, we confided our hardships, hopes, and writing projects—encouraged one another as fellow pilgrims on our earthly journey.
When I returned home, I took over the sofa with Nothing to Do but Stay.
“Don’t read too late,” my husband said.
I wrapped my mother-in-law’s lavender and white afghan around me. “My pioneer mother was wild for education,” the book began.
While the wind blew below zero outside my door, I lay cocooned in warmth. Yet, there I was in 1904 with Carrine Gafkjen, the author’s mother and young Norwegian immigrant, boarding a train for North Dakota to claim her homestead.
I heard echoes of my mother’s stories of Great-granny Hunt, once a young Irish woman who sought the Appalachian frontier and “knew exactly what she was getting into.” As the author’s mother did her, Great-granny wrapped quilts around my mother for wagon rides to school in deep snow. She, too, was wild for education.
But women who married husbands without the pioneer spirit often dealt with shock. “Where was water? Drawn from the creek, miles away. Where was the outhouse? There was none. Fortunately, for their husbands, there was nothing for them to do but stay.”
With that on my mind, I turned in for the night.
Today, I decided not to brave the cold for exercise. Rather, I sat in our sunny kitchen window with two kittens on my lap and finished Nothing to Do but Stay.
Past midnight, the following passage will not let me go. “My mother recounted how a disgruntled high school student in a nearby town had burned down the school. At first she bristled with outrage at the mindlessness of a youth who could put a match to a temple of learning, but as her anger spent itself the real tragedy of the situation began to engulf her.
‘I don’t suppose,’ she concluded sadly, ‘he will be going to school anymore now.’”
Dear Reader, it’s a test of character and will to stay and learn to become a good neighbor. If we resent, destroy, or abandon our place, we forfeit the adventure of building a loving community.
I'm thankful my Great-granny Hunt and Granny McCoy stayed and built their homesteads. They imparted onto me their pioneer spirit, taught me to be wild about education.