Our older daughter (or more accurately, my wife’s. I am the putative step) is pregnant with her first child. This, for me, invites a flood of complicated issues. I was a bastard; am. Spawn of Phyllis Esther Giammatteo and Edgar Nehemiah Osborn – Bristol, Connecticut, coupling somewhere, sometime in August, 1947; child as scourge, bearing the taint of parental sin. I emerged, baffled, the product of ambivalence, at best. All I know of my mother’s feelings attaching to my father’s memory is this eruption, shared thirty years ago in her small car: What do you want to know about him for?
About the baby, I want to be glad, unequivocally. Among other reasons, this: it’s become an adage how healthy it is to gather children ‘round one in the twilight years, and believe this. I can imagine the good and natural fit of an infant in my arms, and delighting in the interplay of teensy toes and giant fingers. A kind of primate interdigitating might be the fortuitous term.
I used to feign revulsion, revile the insane silliness of the word – baby. Bay-Beee! Having begun unwelcome in the world, how could I say, “Welcome?” I can still feel myself tottery in the world, my attachment, haphazard and flimsy.
I feel bad about this, and captious. The idiosyncratic torments stop me in my tracks. I rush to the internet for answers. Is there a baby venue in which to volunteer? The first thing that pops up is: No, you can't actually volunteer to be a baby cuddler; sorry.
I did not have it in me to make another person. A circumstance might present itself in the form of a steady boyfriend, a stint of casual sex, a near rape, but the ultimate threat to my good girl standing would always be averted. I have been disinclined to relate at all to the whole regenerative, messy miracle forever.
A Little Naturalist’s Interlude
Yesterday morning, I looked out through the French Doors into the back garden as a blur of jays swooped back and forth from low hanging branches, randomly, it seemed. Of the birds visiting our garden – the finches and swallows; flickers and crows; sparrows; chickadees and robins – Steller’s jays stand out as the guests most badly behaved and raucous. They overtake our yard with the entitlement of an occupying army. Their “songs” are especially combative. It can hardly be said that they sing. Even crows are more possessed of “song.” The Steller’s jay exhibits pure, histrionic reactivity, a barrage of “Hah! I see you, you are there, The Terrifying Other, and I'll get you for that!”
One broke from the blur and landed on the splintered, weathered deck, and wobbled. Was it injured? It blinked and hunched. Its feathers, not mature enough to imbricate distinctly, had the texture of down. The tail, foreshortened, was speckled with white, like snow. The crest remained a soft gray, not yet the hard and clownish cone sported in adulthood. It was a soft, diminutive pompadour, a “practice” crest, a check mark of a thing. It was a juvenile, a fledgling. It hopped closer to the French Doors behind which, I, too, hunched. It hopped crookedly, a hiccough sort of gait. Each hop tilted it off balance; it had to correct – hop-tilt-correct – and then, because it had no notion of the thing, it hopped against the window, and fell back, stunned. I peered over the doorframe; again it self-corrected, and I placed my hand on the glass to indicate that this invisible substance against which it had knocked itself silly, was, indeed, a barrier, a wall, to not attempt to fling itself through. It blinked, holding steady in the reflection of my hand; did not cower at my bigger being looming through this invisible substance, although the parents (for now, I recognized the squawking, swooping jays as such) set up an even fiercer racket, which the young bird seemed happy to ignore. We looked at each other. I realized that as yet without the association of human with harm, it expressed mere curiosity. I was as neutral as the star magnolia, the snag, the lovely medium of morning air, and this made me happy.
Clearly what was unfolding in the yard was a flying lesson, and according to my human sense of time, it was not going well. At least, it was not proceeding in a linear fashion. The young bird could not get the hang of flight; it would flap and flutter, managing to scrape itself across the scabrous plane, and then stop, wings asymmetrically outstretched as if trying to make itself a tent under which to huddle. There it stalled, panting. The parents taunted and scolded in a didactic way, while their adolescent, thus harangued, glowered`. I could tell it was wishing for different parents. If only they would go away, its posture seemed to say, let it commiserate with its infinitely cooler friends, peck at what wanted pecking at, experiment. I wanted to warn the parents: “You will regret this, looking back – your shrill carping, your cloying imperatives. You will find out, too late, how terrible it is to be a mother. Look at all the brokenness and blame.”
These projections come too quickly into mind, and suggest myquandary – is this how I would parent? Grandparent, I mean, although, as a verb, that’s not yet in the lexicon of nurture.
And what is it to be a grandparent, when:
one has never been a parent?
one is adopted, without kin?
one is un-sibling’d, and thus has not learned to play nicely with others?
one is frightened, unsure that the gift of one’s love will fit. Is it a pretty color, or even really wanted?
The next time I looked out, the young bird had gotten itself up onto the rim of a tall, ceramic planter. Its hop would have had to be mighty. Had it managed to fly up there, instead? It grasped the rim firmly. It was not counting the minutes, judging its progress or performance against any set notion of time – “I will perch here for the next three minutes, then try to fly again, and if I don’t make it to the lower branch of the maple in the next ten minutes, I’ll go get a burger.“ The young bird would hang out on the rim until, seized by whatever impulse, or inner knowledge or parental prompt, it simply would move on. Then I caught sight of another, and another.
The next morning, I observed that progress had been made. A clatter in the branches revealed blue wings slicing the air, and there followed the assault of parental scolding. A little further up into the tangle of the Western red cedars, three young jays practiced flight with equanimity. Startled by my presence, they fluttered toward the ground like leaves.
I haven’t seen them for a week now. Engaged observing led me to attach, and then, they disappeared. I had hoped to woo them with peanuts; had imagined courting one of the babies, getting it to land on my finger. But gone they are, and with them, my engaged observing. So I will offer you some jay bird facts instead.
Among the crew of Commander Captain Vitus Jonassen Bering in 1740, was the birds’ namesake, Georg Steller, avid naturalist and surgeon. He first encountered his jay on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Steller was said to inflict his naturalist’s enthusiasm on a crew hostile to it. Crew was loathe to slow for science, and science’s love of obsessive collecting and elitist observation. Scientific folly, crew thought it. Progress would soon be halted, however, by forces greater than disdain. The ship, the St. Peter, partially wrecked by winter storms, foundered and all were marooned on a barren, rocky island later named for the captain, who, alas, expired on it.
Come spring, the crew lashed together a sort-of vessel from their broken ship, forbidding Steller to bring his samples. About jays, these observations have been made.
They do not play nicely. They will steal eggs and the cute, tiny babies from everyone else’s nests, and shoulder away their competition at the feeder. They will attack and kill smaller adults. The Pygmy Nuthatch. The Dark-eyed Junco. Their vocal repertoire is a-sonorously virtuosic; they mimic a wild assortment of unrelated things – other birds, squirrels, cats, dogs, chickens, and mechanical objects. The latter they reserve consistently for me. They will eat what a dog will eat - small animals, eggs, and nestlings; insects, seeds, berries. And like a dog, they will go for your garbage and your picnic. Despite their piggy bullying ways, they get along with each other, unlike humans, and happily join mixed-species flocks. Like a particular neighbor of mine, they keep up a running commentary on people, places and things in enthusiastically negative tones. I always feel keenly critiqued in my garden when the jays are about: “Look what she’s wearing now,” or “I hate the way she chews with her mouth open.” They will mob other bullies, and like humans, self righteously self-exonerate.
When I skied, I’d sometimes go off trail, in amongst the hemlocks and the pines and in deep silence. Sometimes I’d pause and absorb the softness all around – sky above, a little snow might be falling, and white below, snow sleeving the many boughs. The muffled sounds of skiers and lifts created the illusion of an acoustical gray. Out of this might grow a soft muffle, which took shape and sharpened – a mountain jay crafted out of the white and the gray surround. Its flight made gentle, swooping arcs. It dove gracefully, swooped up, and landed on the grip of my ski pole. In silence we studied. I was the more startled.
This graceful swooping, this riding on invisible waves of the air is how I will, or might approach the role, now, of parent – no, of grandparent, which I am told, is different. Swoop – up and a little away: I receive the news. Swoop – closer, but with caution: I make contact with the news, attempting to land on the grip of my planted pole, touching the cold resistance. Swoop – closer still: I join in the preparation for the baby. What finer attention can be paid than a joyful preparation?
Regarding the jays, I might have gotten it wrong. Maybe they’re saying, “Joi. Joi. Joi” – you know, with a French Canadian accent.
Baby anythings look baffled, a little tipsy, open to astonishment, that harbinger of terror and of joy. To live like this, unfiltered must once have been my provenance. Perhaps that’s why one gazes, with longing and a kind of healing wonder, at baby anythings.
Swoop. Have you seen them fly? They are graceful fliers, not ragged, like crows, or like the thrush, swift, strong and direct, or like finches, rowing themselves through turbulent air.