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For (or Against) the Birds

Last week Gordon and I were on the couch playing with Madeline when she started wiping my nose with a balled up Kleenex. She was precisely dabbing each nostril like she was British, or like I was British, or like we both were British.

“She’s so motherly,” remarked Gordon. “She must have gotten that from your mother.”

I have never claimed to be the uber-nurturer, bearer of all things warm and milky and white. If anything, I have claimed first and foremost to be only a very competent babysitter. I am the oldest of five children; I was 12 when my youngest brother Jeff was born and I have distinct memories of rocking him back and forth, back and forth, to get him to sleep on a given Friday or Saturday when my parents had left for the evening. I knew every verse of “Blessed Assurance” and “How Great Thou Art,” which really means something if you consider I knew no verses whatsoever of any New Kids on the Block.

My sister Liz, who was the next oldest, also remembers the days of babysitting Jeff. I don’t know that she would think of herself as that motherly either, considering that when Bonnie was born, she stroked the infant’s tender fontanel with her tight toddler fist, saying, “We don’t hate the baby, do we Mommy?”

That’s not to say Liz and I didn’t feel kindly towards the world. You can ask any of our old neighbors on Summit Drive what they remembered about the McQuitty girls, and the neighbors would surely squint, look dimly into the mists of the past, and begin nodding as the recollection surfaced: two girls with crooked bangs hauling a big shovel up and down the sidewalk as they scoured the ground for dead animals. We were the road kill undertakers. We would scoop up squirrels, birds, snakes, and whatever else, walk back to our house at a dirge pace, and bury the deceased in my mother’s iris bed. We never got our hands on any cats, dogs, or raccoons, though that really would have been the mother lode.

(This is the kind of thing that happens when you’re home-schooled, see. Some children invent robotic arms capable of swatting flies; some compose symphonies in their basements; some graduate high school at the age of 14; and some look to give all of God’s creatures a proper burial.)

Once we found a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest and perished on the driveway. I scavenged around the kitchen for a piece of Tupperware that could serve as a coffin, but what I found was an almost-empty tub of butter. I rinsed out the remaining grease and deposited the fragile, wet, intricate little corpse into the bottom and sealed the lid. Liz and I dug a hole about a foot deep in the soil and laid the bird to rest. (We probably sang “Blessed Assurance.”) The next month, a few days of intense rain shifted the sediment in the flowerbed so much that the butter tub could be seen poking out of the mire like a shipwreck. We could not contain our curiosity. Had our bird decomposed? This was a new word that thrilled us: decompose. Mummies and Egyptology were always top of mind at that age, and so anything that might or might not decompose was endlessly fascinating.

To our profound disappointment, all we saw when we pried back the butter top was that the tub had filled with silty, slimy mud, devouring our bird corpse and destroying our ability to analyze it scientifically. It still mystifies me how three inches of mud could seep into the sealed chamber of a perfectly intact container of Land-O-Lakes. I ponder it sometimes in the morning when the grackles stalk our lawn.

But I’m glad Madeline has more feminine, motherly tendencies. Something tells me if she found a dead bird she would cradle it in her arms, stroke its gaping beak, and place it carefully in her stroller with its very own blanket.

And I would be watching silently, patiently, until her nap time, Tupperware in hand.

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