They Gave Me Gifts: The Hyacinth of Easter 1978

I had a difficult time my first year of marriage.  At only 20, I had married my high school sweetheart and was swiftly moved away from my family home in Michigan, not knowing I would never again be closer than a long trip home. I didn’t know the years I would miss, the family gatherings that would be lost. I didn’t know I wouldn’t be a vital part of the growing up of my younger siblings, would never participate in the lives of my nieces and nephews, and that the golden, but aging years of my parents would always have to be ‘a phone call’ away.  I didn’t have that foresight then.  I was young and romantic; devoted. I had lofty dreams of life in the Rocky Mountains, a white picket-fenced cottage with roses around my door, and promises of children of my own with a boy I only thought I knew. It was a lonely year, the first of many.

On that first Easter following my marriage of 1977, my parents and younger siblings came to visit me and my new husband at Western Illinois University where he was doing his graduate work and I, well, was busy being a supportive wife.  I will never forget the excitement I felt at their arrival. Every little detail in place, my new china and silverware was stacked and ready with cloth napkins in blue calico fabric that I had sewn myself. I had made my mom’s potato salad for the first time, and everything was airy and clean to make that good “welcome to my home” first impression. My heart was bursting with joy and anticipation! To be physically embraced by my father and mother again, to giggle and share my pretty ‘grown-up’ things with my siblings, to show off my ‘first’ little apartment and make dinner for all of them, was the height of my new married life.

My mother brought me an Easter plant, a single purple hyacinth.  I was so charmed. An unexpected gift, beautiful in its simplicity and so like my mother; I just loved it.  I can still see that moment of them walking up the stairs of married-student housing where I lived a rather solitary life of ‘wifedom,’ my husband often gone at classes or studying late into the night with ‘friends.’ I spent most of my home hours alone. So, I became very self-sufficient.  I worked in town at a local dress store, had a favorite spot at the drugstore lunch counter, a fragrant hippie shop and organic food co-op that I frequented, but I really didn’t have any friends. After living a life of constant company in a big family where ‘togetherness’ was the norm, it was both a great learning experience and a sad existence for a young bride. I took from it what I could. But to have my family there after that long cold winter, the earth rich with the fragrance of awakening, the remnants of old snow still lacing the edges of the roads, and the voices and faces that mirrored mine; I was in a sort of surreal bliss.Easter past 1978 in Illinois with Bill

We drove around the community and shopped in the quaint town square with the old stately courthouse at its center. My parents reminiscing about the Midwestern farming towns they had lived in gave a sense of continuity to my daily life. We strolled through some of my favorite shops where my mom bought some stained glass sun catchers to put in her kitchen window. She had them for years, saying that whenever she saw the light coming through the cherry red glass, she thought of me. I found them last October in the boxes of ‘junk’ that were to be given away after my mother’s death, and brought them home to continue to catch the light of our love. We went to Mass, and together with the family talk and shared stories the meal was made perfect even in the cramped space of our small apartment.  The weekend was too brief.

Life would be too brief. It would take years and years of driving home through miles of cornfields, across wide prairies, through northern forests and hours of shorelines, through the cycles of many seasons, for me to learn, really learn what my parents meant to me. I have nothing but a heart full of gratefulness for what my parents were able to give us in those post-WWII years of large families and stay-at-home moms in which I was raised. We were, by today’s standards, the middle-class poor.  We had our share of charity boxes of clothes brought to our house, hand-me-down toys, and meals of mostly mashed potatoes and gravy. But for everything they could not afford to give us, and for all the innocent mistakes that young parents stumble through rather hit-or-miss, I was saturated in love in their house. We were never in ‘want’ or deprived of education and opportunities to develop our imaginations, and music was threaded and laced through every step of our lives like the laces on our shoes.

Through their love and high value of education and music, I developed an appreciation and understanding of the human experience. Both have been my refuge and stronghold through all kinds of challenging situations. But, above all, the unconditional love of my parents, has kept me alive in times of despair, motivated me to continue to reach for my dreams, and given me the ability to fully love others. They exhibited what I have learned to be a true love… attentive, unwavering, and never ending.

The beauty of these immeasurable gifts is that long after I left home, married and married again, went through college, bought and sold homes, earned a living, raised children, and watched those two beloved people lowered into the cold ground, their gifts have been alive and fruitful in my life.

At Easter, Christians humbly observe the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and celebrate His return to walk with us throughout our lives, loving us, forgiving us, and embracing us with unconditional love. His love seems to reflect, in my eyes, the intentions of my earthly parents, their sacrifices and continual love.  Especially at Easter, with the green glow of budding trees creating a fresh lense on old hopes and dreams, I feel their reassuring embrace. I may be little goofy singing ‘Easter bonnet songs’ and over-stuffing woven baskets with familiar treats, but these are only extension of the rich life that I have led, due for the most part to my parents walking up the paths of my life with their gifts.

My little purple hyacinth eventually died despite my care, as did my marriage, and, in time, my parents. But, to this day I cannot look upon a hyacinth without seeing my mother’s soft round face, laughing and eager to see mine, coming up the walkway with that flower in her hands, with my dad’s big grin above her shoulders close behind.  The safety of their love was so strong and deeply rooted, that nothing could destroy it….not distance, not husbands, not mistakes, not the act of walking a down a broken road, not failure or any choice that I made.  It was there. They were there.  Even on this Easter weekend of baskets full of colorful foiled candy for my children and grandchildren and the aroma of those favorite family foods once again in the air…they are here in my heart as is my heavenly Father whose invisible hand is always holding mine, reminding me that I am never completely alone.

I never did make it to Colorado and have yet to get my cottage with a picket fence and flower garden around my door, but I will. I am still the romantic, but with a long journey of lessons on my side.  And, there will be a special place for hyacinth bulbs to bloom, glass sun-catchers in the window, a song to float easily from my lips, and a calm knowing that I am and always have been loved.

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She’s Not Just Any Old Bird

 Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream –All night long he heard your scream.

~Sir Walter Scott

Some 34 years ago, my young husband and I were driving through the Hiawatha National Forest in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in route to our new home in Sault Ste. Marie. We had been on the road for many hours, in fact days, having left frozen North Dakota in the middle of January, and had traveled across the snow covered northern highways of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most of the U.P. before nearing our destination. We were glad to be back in the woods, where the giant pine boughs formed a welcoming arch way over the road we traveled. It was breath-taking, even in the dead of night. It was cozy in the warm cab of our U-haul truck, with our car being towed behind. Perhaps the rumble of the robust engine was lulling us to sleep or we were in that travelers weary-mode not looking for anything eventful to break the steady stream of road, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a snowy owl struck our windshield, it’s wing-span covering the glass with an incredible bang, causing our hearts to jump and bringing us to a sudden stop. In the glow from our headlights, our boots crunched through the snow as we looked around and found nothing to make us think the bird had not survived.  It was a perfect snow scene, a cathedral of ice; peaceful, pristine, almost haunting.  In the serenity of that ancient, snow cover woods, he and I stood in silence hand-in-hand, dwarf by the trees and darkness around us, like Hansel and Gretel, a little afraid and bewildered, yet respectful of that moment, almost spiritual, we shared together.  Needless to say, we found ourselves wide awake and more aware as we climb back up into the truck for the last leg of our trip. We didn’t know it then, but the move was to bring a sad ending to our marriage, and we were to travel away from the peninsula we shared a love for on to other places and people. I have often thought that snowy owl was trying to warn us, but we weren’t awake enough to see what was coming down the road. Or maybe, it was just a freak incident.

Now-a-days, there are owls around my house most of the fall and winter season. That’s not unusual, except that we live smack dab in the middle of a rather bland suburb in San Antonio, Texas. It’s definitely not the Hiawatha Forest, but we still seem to have our share of mockingbirds, cardinals, chick-a-dees, finches, cedar wax-wings, warblers and the like without much of an offering from our feeders.

The owls perch themselves in the giant live oaks that surround our house and can be seen on chimney tops and on electrical poles. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen or heard those majestic birds; each time is rather magical, awe inspiring, unless, of course, you don’t want to hear them.

Such was the case when my mother died in October of last year.

I had learned years ago about the mythology of owls, the bearers of bad news, harbingers of bad tidings, and symbols of death. Seen as good and wise (as the teacher symbol) and in other cases the sign of evil and doom; the owl has been widely written about in poetry, play, and prose. It’s not just any old bird.  From the Inuit people of Alaska, Scotland’s Cailleach (the dark hag), to Disney animation, the owl has remained a mystical symbol, wise and ominous, a bird with a message or lesson.

So, it was puzzling when the day before my mother died, that an owl was perched and hooting on a low branch in our yard. Close enough to make our dogs growl, hair-raised and at alert, while the patio furniture vibrated from the intensity of the owl’s call. As odd as that seemed, I didn’t know then what I would know the next day.

The next morning, as I readied for work, an owl sat on a branch just outside my bathroom window. Its hoot rattled the pane and caused me to stop in my rush to brush out my hair. I could see him there in the shadows, could he see me? How strange to be so close, I thought.

That same owl, it seems, wanted more from me. As I drove out of the driveway, with the light of dawn breaking on the day, the owl flew down from that branch near my second story window and escorted me down the street a spell, hovering in perfect symmetry just over the hood of my car, in direct line of my vision. I had to stop, for my eyes were so glued on this incredible bird, seemingly guiding me down the street, I couldn’t drive. It lifted from my car and graceful flapped its downy wings in flight back into the trees on the other side of the street, while I sat there dumb-founded, and feeling ‘blessed’ that I should behold such a close look at this beautiful bird. I wasn’t thinking at all about harbingers of bad news or lessons. In fact, I was taught by that young husband years ago, that to see a hawk or owl was ‘good medicine’ in the Native American world, and I embraced that belief.

By afternoon of that day, I had received news of my mother’s passing. My mother was an avid bird watcher and keeper, her Michigan yard covered in bird houses, some make-shift, some whimsically covered in bright colors. From hummingbird nectar drips to the piles of Peterson’s Guide to Backyard Birds, it was clear she felt connected to winged-things.

It wasn’t until I was on the plane, indeed sitting above the wing, that it hit me. Numb from the shock of her sudden death, a little angry that she left me without a word, a sign, or even a laugh as she always did at ending our weekly phone chats; I suddenly remembered the owls. Did they know something? Wasn’t it strange that they came so close to me and loudly seemed to be grabbing my attention? Later I learned that two of my sisters had unusually close visits from owls in their yards in that same time period, solidifying my conviction that the owls knew something, perhaps were even my mother in spirit. How appropriate that would be, that she not be a little song bird upon leaving this world, but one who hovers and guides, keeping a kind of watch over her children from the trees.

Since then, the owls have continued to be so plentiful around our yard, that at one point I screamed at them to go away! They were, indeed, making me nervous and frighten. I just couldn’t handle any more bad news, and now they seem to haunt me more than please me.

Until the owl with the funky hoot could be heard, I just wanted to cover my head with a pillow at night. One evening we heard this strange loud sound like a messed-up duck call or a party horn with something stuck in it. We watched for many evenings. As the days moved into dusk, my husband and I would stand in the grayness of the naked-limbed trees and follow the movement of the owls around ours and the neighbor’s yards, looking for the source of that odd hoot, not even sure if it was an owl.

Though we couldn’t tell which one it was, we concluded that it was one of two owls that seem to visit every evening, and continue, even now as I write, to call to each other, one with a regular powerful owl hoot, and one with a broken odd sounding squawk. My heart went out to the owl with the funky hoot, as I wondered what happened to its voice. Could it have been met unexpectedly by a windshield one fateful night, like that snowy owl so many years ago, only to survive with a damaged, scarred vocal cord? Does its handicap make it any less of an owl, less able to contribute to the messages of news, good or bad, or call and connect to others of her kind? Certainly my hoot has turned to a squawk at times and has hindered the way I communicate my needs, my heart’s desire. How hard that must be for an owl’s survival.

I have always loved birds of prey, particularly the owl. My mother would want me to continue to respect them, regardless of their appearance at her grief-filled passing. And certainly, that little owl with the funny hoot has put a new spin on how haunting they have become for me. I see her, the owl that is, half-asleep, party-hat cocked to one side, with a horn in its mouth….trying to be like the others, and she just can’t be normal, or noble, or foreboding, no matter how hard she tries.  I needed her to bring my back into embracing her kind. Teacher, wise-one, harbinger of doom, whatever, I’m so glad they continue to hang out and hoot at my house. They remind me, even now in a silly way, that my mother is always with me…in winged-things and in ear-shot, and she continues to make me laugh, to stay awake and present, and to remember the lessons I’ve learned along my many roads. Perhaps, that was my mother’s message as she took flight, “Stay awake, Cynthia. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel of your journey.” Good medicine, after all.