The phone screen read “Hoose.”
When Hudson was still just a little tyke, he loved playing with Pokémon cards. He had hundreds. I never caught on to the game, so as a cursory observer, I simply noticed that all of the figures had Asian names. I told him that as many hours as he spent playing Pokémon, he would probably turn into one. When he did, I predicted that his Pokémon handle would be “Hoosan.” It stuck, and through the years, “Hoosan” was shortened to “Hoose;” now Hoose was calling me during my last hour at the office that weekday afternoon.
He could have been calling to ask if he could bike to a friend’s neighborhood or to ask if he could order some online game or to tell me that Summer the Setter had escaped from her pen again. I was a little stunned, though gleefully so, to receive what news he felt had to be immediately shared.
He was home from high school in the waning days of his freshman year. As is customary for kids all over the country, I would guess, his first stop was the pantry in the kitchen. Just outside the window to the right of the pantry and hanging in the yaupon tree is my birdfeeder. It holds several pounds of sunflower seeds and there are perpetual visits by finches and sparrows and doves (I would also include Mom’s favorite, the tufted titmouse, but I can never resolve whether two of them become titmouses or titmice).
As a small boy myself, I would sit at the kitchen table beside Aunt Louise “Wezy” McQueen with a Peterson’s guide and she and I would identify feathered visitors to her concrete feeder in the side yard of 105 Westmont Drive. (She loved towhees, but considered blue jays to be terrible bullies.) As a result of those days with Wezy, I have budgeted for bird food my entire adult life.
“Hey, Dad,” I heard through the earpiece. “There is a female cardinal eating sunflower seeds and she has a baby with her. Its feathers are still kinda downy. I think this must be its first trip to the feeder.”
Of our three children, Hoose has always been the one that most favored me physically. A third-grade teacher well-versed in both Deep South phraseology and the proper drawling delivery of same told me upon her first meeting with Hudson that he was “spit of my mouth.” One never knows, though, what direction children’s interests will take. After my budding ornithologist confirmed the accuracy of my predictions about what the momma cardinal was doing and how the baby was reacting, I put down the phone and grinned at the thought of his being intrigued by the activities of a bird feeder.
Harry Chapin’s line entered my head: “The boy was just like me.” In this one small aspect, anyway.
I arrived home myself a couple of hours later. As is customary for men caught between middle and old age all over the country, I would guess, my first stop was the cold drawer in the bottom of the refrigerator. On the door were a few of the graduation announcements that had been arriving in the mailbox. I walked around the island on which lay a couple of new announcements. I looked through the pantry window, and there was the momma cardinal, in her understated garment of russet feathers. Little Red was not with her.
I remembered being in my kitchen on North Edgewater Drive forty years prior, getting ready to don my high school graduation gown. Mom was in the kitchen spinning the dial on the first-generation microwave oven, dutifully satiating my hunger in my first moments home from school in the waning days of my senior year. She began to speak of how soon I would be leaving for Davidson College and what it would be like for my little brother and my dad and her to live in that big house with two of the three boys gone and the clock ticking on brother John’s final departure. I remembered one of those little sayings from somewhere that had stuck in my mind. With less compassion and empathy than the years would eventually bring, I repeated it for Mom, just before the timer wheel dinged: “A mother’s job is to be left.”
The cardinal cracked her seeds in solitude. Little Red was no doubt flitting about close by. He would come back to her regularly… for a while. And then he would be a part of the flock universal with his own priorities and without regard for where his mom was every hour. On all of those graduation announcements were the smiling faces of those brightly feathered ones joining the flock universal. And just off from the border of the cards were the unseen parents in their understated, russet-colored garments faded a bit by time; the ones who had fed and watered and warmed the graduates as hatchlings.
Hoose sidled up next to me in his customary greeting, his arm around the middle of my back and his hand on my off-side bicep. We watched the feeder for just a moment before speaking further. “The baby is not there anymore,” he said, in a voice that was deep in timbre and confident in delivery. I looked deeply into his eyes.
“No, son. He surely is not.”
A mother’s job is to be left. A dad’s too.