The Bird House Builders
Short Story by John McCabe
Just before spring, my mother began to suffer from frightening blackouts and dizziness. With all the signs of aging, she became old and unhealthy. Before long she required surgery. Soon she was in Jeanes Hospital in Northeast Philly, the same hospital that had been practically a second home to my father. With the exception of one overnight scare from uremic shock, she recovered with impressive ease. She had turned seventy that year. The prescribed inactivity that followed placed her somewhat out of shape physically. When her doctor and personal judgment permitted, she began to apply herself to the regaining of her strength and mental health. It was during her first few days of her recovery that I responded to an unusual desire to visit her in the middle of an afternoon on a work day.
I saw her through the windshield of my car. She was in the garage and had walked out to see who drove in. She relaxed when she saw me and the objects in her hands must have moved a bit catching my attention. She had a small board in one hand and a saw in the other.
“Hi, Jonathan,” she said, turning back into the garage.
“Hi Ma. What’s that, oh, a bird house.”
We studied the assembled parts she had been working on and then those boards still in need of work. I said nothing about the crudeness of her work, but it was obvious she was doing everything the hard way. I couldn’t believe it, but she had somehow burnt out the entrance hole on one end of the birdhouse. Now she was pushing an ice pick into a board to create a screw hole. I picked up the wood she had been trying to saw into roofing slats. I discovered she was attempting to get a hacksaw blade through it. She always did things her own way and made her handyman accomplishments mostly through determination.
Selecting the least rusty of the old saws hanging nearly hidden on the wall behind us, I picked up the parts for the roof and walked out across the yard. There was an old steel worktable out there and it offered more workspace than the cramped little garage. I sawed the first board to the size she had designed. Reaching for the second, I noticed that the late afternoon sunlight was identical to the lighting on the day my father died. I remembered leaving the hospital after he died and walking into a church under the same afternoon sunshine. For an instant I saw the church and then the huge tear that dripped from my eyes onto the church floor when I got up to leave. It was so strange to watch a tear fall all the way from your face to your feet. She came up beside me to observe my progress as I sawed the second roof plank.
“Do you see that sunlight?” I asked.
“It reminds me of the day he died.”
“Yes, I have been thinking of him all day.”
“I haven’t felt him around me in a long time…How’s this?”
She said, “They should overlap the sides to keep the birds out of the rain.”
We walked back into the garage.
“When I see him, he’s young and muscular.”
Her words surprised me. Only she could think of him as a young man, it was her own private memory. I became convinced that somehow he had sent me over to help her with the birdhouse. I suddenly remembered he had a saber saw somewhere that we could use to cut the opening on the other end nice and round.
“He has a saw for cutting holes. Do you know where it is? The saber saw?”
“Oh yea, the saber saw.” She emitted a short humming sound while trying to think where it might have been left. I had the feeling he was instructing me the way he used to when he was alive. I began to hear his commands.
“Use the saber saw. You need a small round hole. Do it slowly. Don’t force the blade. It’s on the little shelf on the wall. That’s it. It’ll work. Don’t worry about the old blade. Start the cut in that crack she put in the wood. Turn it slow. Keep up the speed. That’s it.”
“That’s perfect, Jonathan,” she said.
I still hadn’t said a word about the oversized burnt out hole on the other end. It was too great a struggle to criticize. I examined the old rusty saw blade wondering why it hadn’t snapped under the strain.
“What are you going to use up on the top of it here to keep out the rain?”
“I got a piece of wood for that. It’s down there.”
I picked up a piece of broken corner molding and sawed it to the same length as the roof. She was forcing screws into her ice pick holes. The birdhouse was taking shape. She tested its strength by pushing against the walls; it looked firm. I was surprised. She was quite pleased. I knew she would prefer to finish it herself, so I left and went back to work. My father was already gone.
I went back a week later and as soon as I turned the motor off in the car, I noticed the new birdhouse hanging in an old hemlock at the head of the driveway. It was freshly painted barn red. I liked it, and walked under it to examine it closer. I felt myself smile wide when I noticed a small piece of screen had been placed over the big hole she had burnt out and that the proper sized saw hole had been chosen and set in the tree as the front end. She had framed the screen in tiny, popsicle-sized sticks. The whole thing was simple and sturdy looking and cute actually. Nothing could describe it better, except maybe that it was the only birdhouse in the world with a screened window.
I met her at the back door. We said hello from opposite sides of the locked screen door. For a few seconds, she just stood looking at me until she realized the door was locked. She flipped the latch with pinching fingers and a squint. She came out talking enthusiastically about her cleanup work in the big yard, and we walked together to see what she had done.
I said, “Whose idea was it to put the piece of screen on the big hole you burnt out on the bird house?”
“Mine,” she said with embarrassment.
“You knew it was too big, didn’t you?”
“But it looks great.”
“The birds are coming around and looking at it,” she said with that tone of promise people use about good things that might happen soon.
“I cleaned up the whole yard,” she exclaimed.
I looked over the place for her benefit. All the fallen, dead branches from the heavy snows that winter were neatly stacked except for the ones too heavy for her…
“I sleep well at night from this work and my muscles are coming back.” She said. You could hear it in her voice; she was dedicated to her recovery. The surgery was behind her now. I had walked off with the big branches, and after throwing them down into the woods, I turned, and looking across the untilled garden, I saw her standing in the yard under the new bird house. She looked sweet to me. She had been to the hairdresser and the sunlight was doing something unusual to the true color of her hair. As I came closer, I discovered it was the amount of gray in it that the sun was playing off.
She led me into the house and stood behind me talking while I washed my hands. When I turned around, I put my arms around her saying, “I love you, Mom.” I walked out of the kitchen and reached for the back door knowing the rest of her life had begun and wondering if it was really possible for him to be looking after her. It suddenly occurred to me that affection, like what just happened, had not been practiced between us since my early childhood. It was some kind of Irish trait.
That evening, I took an unusually long walk. I was on the quiet block where no houses faced the road. As I passed out of the illumination from a streetlight, I began to think of my children playing at home and my wife’s great desire to have their father play with them. I walked in the dark, and saw my Mother’s gray hair shining in the sunlight that afternoon. The red birdhouse was hanging in the tree behind her. I was home again and I felt strange to think I have kids of my own who may one day learn how it is that people get cared for.
John McCabe, a lifelong writer in all genres, is an active member of the Writers Guild at the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center. His novel The Sanctity of Remembering centers on his experience as a young soldier undergoing atomic bomb testing in Nevada and is actively seeking a publisher.