The Bird Lady
by Adelaide B. Shaw
Lena did a quick walk through the house and pronounced it satisfactory. It was a single- story house at the end of a wooded lane. “Mom! Wait.” Lena went to the car with her daughter close at her heels.
“Don’t you think you’re moving too fast? It’s been only a month. It’s just one bedroom. What about all your furniture and. . and things? And, it’s so isolated.”
Lena shook off Gail’s arm. “It’s fine. It’s not isolated. There’s a house next to me and more houses beyond the trees on another lane.” Lena pointed to her left and then her right. “I don’t need half of my things. I’ll sell them or give them away. Whatever.” She turned to the real estate agent.
“I’ll pay the asking price. I don’t want to haggle. I don’t need the additional stress.”
Stress had become the normal situation. Not just monthly, or weekly, but daily. Martin’s passing did not mean the end of stress and worry. All that stress and worry had made Lena look older than her sixty-two years. The slump in her shoulders, the fading of her dyed-brown hair to its natural steel gray, the paleness to her complexion—all added to her older appearance.
“It’s the dementia,” Lena was told by doctors and those who knew or who thought they knew. “Your husband will say things and behave like he never did before. You mustn’t take it personally. “
A lot of crap that was. They didn’t know Martin. No one knew Martin like she had.
* * *
At the end of Lena’s third week in the house, all the cartons were unpacked and everything arranged as she liked, not Gail, whose placement of items required a complete rearrangement of two cupboards and one closet. Lena did a slow walk through the rooms and again pronounced the house satisfactory.
“Don’t you miss some of your things? It looks so. . .so sparse?” Gail had that disapproving look she usually gave to her eight-year-old daughter, but lately was giving to Lena.
“I kept some things, my blue and white china and pottery and a few of my books.”
“All of Dad’s things are gone. His books and the chair he always sat in.”
“I never liked that chair and your father had way too many books.”
“Really, Mom. Sometimes you seem. . well, harsh, like you didn’t care.”
Lena turned to face her daughter, the tightness in Gail’s mouth, the ridged stance, all of which told her what Gail was really thinking and not saying, that Lena was a bitch for putting Martin in a nursing home. Isn’t that what Martin called her? Bitch. But that was nothing new. Lena had heard that before, long before the doctors said that dementia was eating away his brain.
“My neighbor must like birds,” Lena said at the kitchen window. “See. There are two feeders in front of her house. I haven’t seen the woman yet. She must go out to feed the birds very early before I’m up.”
Gail went to the window, and together they watched as several birds came and went from all directions. “Those birds are leaving their droppings all over her walkway and yours, too.
What do you know about her?”
“She’s quiet. I hear nothing coming from there. And, she likes birds.”
Lena knew more, but didn’t care to satisfy Gail’s curiosity. On Monday mornings, a woman came with a vacuum and cleaning supplies and took the trash container out to the road. On Tuesday, the gardener came, retrieved the trash container and cut the grass. On Thursday afternoons, another woman came and stayed for about an hour. Twice she saw a man and a woman and two young girls visit on a Sunday. Twice bags of groceries were left at her door by a food delivery service. Lena had seen the mailman deliver mail to her own mailbox across the road, but never to the Bird Lady’s. Perhaps, it was delivered elsewhere, and the Thursday visitor brought it with her.
Lena had to admit, she was curious, but not enough to do anything about it. She was too busy dealing with the aftermath of Martin’s death, the doctor and nursing home bills, insurance claims and denials, a confusing financial situation that had her living more on hope than reality.
Gail had no idea of the mess Martin left behind, and Lena, as she was before Martin died, was disinclined to disillusion her daughter about her father. Or about herself. If she talked about how the situation really was, she would have to face her own defects and failures head on.
There were two Martins, one Martin for home, one for away. In the beginning there was only one Martin, but he separated into two about the time Gail left for college. It was as if he had held himself together when she was home or when he was with other people.
Lena hadn’t known why he changed, why he became easily cross and argumentative with her, why he was insulting, why he was secretive and silent regarding their finances. One doctor theorized that these were early signs of dementia. It only made her feel stupid for not recognizing the symptoms, for not questioning the change in behavior. It wasn’t sudden, just a gradual splitting into two Martins. Showtiming, one doctor explained. Best behavior for others. She should have known. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. If only. . . Whipping words that kept her upsome nights.
Lena nudged Gail towards the door. “Next time you come, call first, because I may not be here. I got a part time job at a local book store and my hours are varied. Don’t know when I’ll be home.”
“Why? You don’t need the money.”
“People don’t always work for the money.” Lena wasn’t so sure about the money. Her accountant was still sorting that out. “I get to read on the job.” One of the perks. It kept her from looking back, at least for part of the day.
* * *
On the days Lena was home and was frustrated with another insurance muddle, she brewed a cup of herb tea and sat by the kitchen window. She noticed the daily changes in the trees around the house as the days became warmer, the changes in the shades and size of the leaf buds and the change in the number of birds at her neighbor’s feeders. There were more now, migratory birds, as well as the regulars. Sparrows and cardinals she recognized, but none of the others. With the aid of binoculars and a couple of books from the bookstore, Lena began to recognize other birds, chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, different woodpeckers. She made a list of the birds she saw at the feeder and was thrilled when she saw a goldfinch and was ecstatic when she got a photo, albeit a rather blurry long-distance shot, of a scarlet tanager at the feeder. Of the Bird Lady, Lena saw nothing.
* * *
“I’m surprised you got a Saturday off. I haven’t seen you in weeks.” Gail nibbled on a cookie between sips of her coffee. “What a lot of birds over there. And squirrels. They’re pests and will get in your attic. You should say something to your neighbor. Have you met her yet?
Aren’t you the least bit curious?”
“I’m not working because I’m attending a lecture at the library given by someone from the Audubon Society. The squirrels are not getting in my attic. I haven’t met my neighbor, and I am not curious. So, drink your coffee. I have to leave in ten minutes.”
Lena was no longer curious about the Bird Lady. An eccentric. Someone with agoraphobia. A woman with scars who didn’t want to be seen. All possibilities, which gave Lena some interesting moments of speculation. With a lot of spits and sputters and a flurry of her own feathers, Gail left after Lena poured out half of the coffee.
* * *
By the end of August, Lena’s financial situation was sorted out. The doctors got their gold; the insurance companies dribbled out their payments; the accountant presented her with a spreadsheet and a bill; and Lena’s shoulder slump began to disappear. She gathered together the piles of paper, put them in a box file, labeled it MARTIN, and shoved the box to the back of the hall closet. What couldn’t be hidden in the dark of the closet were the memories, the loss and the pain.
One morning in late October Lena noticed that the bird feeders were empty. The Bird Lady had never missed a day. Two days later, when they were still empty, Lena became curious. She went and rang the bell and looked in the windows. Empty. Like some magician’s magic act, the Bird Lady had vanished, leaving only the two bird feeders hanging in the trees. Did the Bird Lady move in with family? Go to a nursing home? Die? Was there a trail of regrets, a road paved with the guilt of family members or perhaps, just one person?
After a few days, the birds and squirrels stopped coming. No more the flashing red of a cardinal or blue streak from a jay. Wind and rain denuded most of the trees, creating piles of leaves on the steps and porch of the Bird Lady’s house. A few shingles had blown off the roof. The house looked abandoned, forgotten, but the empty bird feeders looked sadder than the empty house.
Lena had gotten a lot of pleasure from watching the birds. In November, after an early dusting of snow, she retrieved the two bird feeders, hung them on a tree outside her kitchen window and had a fifty-pound bag of seed delivered. The birds needed her. Martin had needed her, too.
She had done the best she could, the good wife, even when angry, and she was angry because of not knowing why. When the why was explained, Lena had tried to view Martin without rancor, but with understanding. That she did not always succeed created havoc with her peace of mind.
Somehow, taking care of the birds had become connected with caring for Martin. It was illogical, of course. One had nothing to do with the other, but every morning she filled the feeders, in the rain, in the snow, in twenty -degree weather. It was the least and the most she could do.
Bio: Adelaide B. Shaw lives in Somers, NY. She has been writing stories for over 35 years and has been published in The Green Silk Journal, Loch Raven Review, The Griffin, Emry’s Journal, MacGuffin, Bartleby-Snopes. Oasis, and several other journals. She also writes haiku and has a blog with her published poetry: www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com