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Aging with birds and grandchildren

Bill Meredith

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence." Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata."

(10/2016) Resting on my desk before me is a small volume entitled The Red Book of Birds of America. It was published in 1931; I found it at a yard sale years ago, and I bought it because I had a copy of it when I was a small child. It has pictures of birds in color, and it is about the size of a 3 x 5 card, so I could carry it with me when I was playing outside. The pictures are not very accurate to my eye now; but when I was four years old, they showed strange, magical creatures like pelicans and flamingos, which didn’t live in West Virginia. There also were many common species that I could find around our farm. I couldn’t read yet, but I was a good observer, and when I found a bird that matched one of the pictures, someone would read the description to me. And I would remember.

Time passed. My original little red book fell apart, but by then I had learned to read and gone on to bigger books. One of them was a Boy Scout manual, which had more bird pictures in it; they weren’t in color, but they showed more accurate details, and I began to learn names of birds I had never actually seen. Eventually I took a course in Ornithology, where I was introduced to Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Until then, I had never appreciated how important hearing is. Anyone who tries to learn to identify birds discovers immediately that when you are out in their natural habitat, you almost always hear them before you see them; so being able to recognize their songs is essential. And you learn that most species have a sort of language that includes different sounds for attracting mates, territorial defense, warning of approaching enemies, informing others when food is discovered, and keeping the flock together when migrating. You could almost think of bird songs as a form of conversation.

It was probably in the early ‘90s when I noticed the first signs of hearing loss; when teaching a large class, I sometimes had trouble hearing questions from the back of the room. That came about gradually, and I barely noticed it; but one day in the spring of 1993, on a walk to Toms Creek, I found that I could not hear Brown Creepers. They are very small brown birds that fly to the bottom of trees and creep up the trunk, picking insects from crevices in the bark and emitting high-pitched squeaks of a frequency just at the limit of normal human hearing. Birders always expect to find them in the spring, but they are so secretive that you almost always hear them first. I did not hear that bird; I saw it by chance when it crept into the view of my binoculars while I was looking at something else. I was only 60 then, but it was clearly a sign that I was aging.

There were other signs… most notably, the arrival of grandchildren. At the time, they made me feel younger; their energy and curiosity were contagious. We went on walks and saw birds, frogs, butterflies and flowers… but time accelerated, and they grew up. The youngest are now finishing college… and I am on my second set of hearing aids.

Grandchildren are a lot like birds… they grow up and move away, but periodically they come back. The hummingbird we had last year went to Central America for the winter, flying non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico; it came back on the 10th of May, and buzzed angrily around the kitchen window because I hadn’t put the feeder out yet. Last week it went south again, along with the swallows, chipping sparrows and wood thrushes, leaving me with the hope that we all will survive another year. It will be a quieter place without them; it could be depressing if I allowed it to, but I take comfort in Max Ehrmann’s "Desiderata." Silence can be peaceful.

On another level, our grand-daughter, Anne, flew off to China five years ago; she comes back every summer, although she doesn’t stay as long as the hummingbirds. This year she spent a week at the beach with her parents, and then came to visit us for a few days.

When she was a child she would come every summer, and one of the things we always did was walk around Rainbow Lake through the woods; and that is what she wanted to do this year. In those former times there was no path, so we made our way through thickets and over fallen trees and old stone fences. I would not able to do that now, but fortunately there is now a very nice bike trail that goes most of the way around the lake. So we did it, and it was exhilarating. It has probably been ten years since she was there last, but she remembered much of what we saw: the pawpaw trees, which have spread into several new places… the yellow poplars, now the largest trees there… the white and red oak trees that have survived gypsy moths and lumbering… the old beech tree that escaped the lumbermen’s saw because it is so crooked and knotty. She was delighted when we found things that she hadn’t seen before, like maidenhair ferns. When we encountered fragments of deer skeletons, she usually saw them before I did, and she quickly learned to distinguish cervical from lumbar vertebrae. And when we found that the little patch of peat moss was still there, it was like greeting an old friend.

We talked for hours every evening. Actually, it wasn’t just talking; it was conversation, a rare form of communication in this day and age. The topics ranged from books we both have read in the past year, where she has traveled, how the Chinese and American political and economic news compared, what was going on in the family, the state of air pollution in China, how older people react to globalization in both countries, and things each of us remembered from our childhoods. Each evening, when midnight approached I would realize that I had learned more than she had from our conversation. Years ago that might have been embarrassing; now it is a source of pride.

The few days went by too quickly; like the hummingbird, she had to fly back to China. Max Ehrmann said as we grow older we should learn to accept the things we cannot change, and I try to do so; but it isn’t always easy. In this case, it helped that I recalled a verse by Leigh Hunt, an aspiring poet who lived in England about 175 years ago. He tried hard, but his ability did not meet the standard of greatness. Today, he is remembered mainly for a short poem called "Jenny Kissed Me," which he wrote in 1838 after meeting a young friend. It came to mind when Anne left. If you insert the name, "Annie," in place of "Jenny," you will know how I felt:

Jenny kissed me when we met,

Jumping from the chair she sat in;

Time, you thief, who loves to get

Sweets into your list, put that in:

Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,

Say that health and wealth have missed me,

Say I’m growing old, but add,

Jenny kissed me.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith