Promise of Bluebirds


The Pennsylvania-landscape was in severe wintry garb as our car sped westover the interstate Ul The season was wrong, butI couldn't get bluebirds outof my head.

Only three weeks before, at Christmas, Dad had given me a nesting box he'dmade: He had a special feeling for the brilliant creatures, and each spring heeagerly awaited their return. Now I wondered, will he ever see one again?

It was a heart attack. Dad's third.

When I got to the hospital at 2 a.m., he was losing the fight. As the familyhovered at his bedside, he drifted in and out of consciousness.

Once he looked up at.Mom sitting beside the bed holding his hand. "Theywant me to let go," he said, ':but I can't. I don't want to."Mom patted his arm. "Just hold on to me," she murmured.

The next morning the cardiologist met us in the waiting room. "He's stillfighting,"the doaor said. "I've never seen such strengthMy youngest brother was only five when Ileft home 30 years ago. Relation-ships between my brothers- and sisters had become -frayed because of dis-tance and commitments to our own families. But Dad needed his childrennow, so we stayed at the hospital. During the long vigil, we reminisced aboutour years at home.

A miner, Dad had not had an easy life. He and Mom raised six kids at a timewhen coal miners eamed as little as 25 cents a ton, and he loaded nine tonsa day. Even now, I'm sure we don't know most of the sacrifices they madefor us.

I remembered Dad's hard hat, its carbide lamp showing a fine pall of coaldust. Dad's graygreen eyes seemed large and wise as an owl's in his black-ened face. They often sparkled with devilment when they met yours inconversation. .

Each evening he came home, eager to take up his crosscut saw or clawhammer. Dad could chock a piece of walnut on his lathe and deffly tum outa beautiful salad bowl for Mom. He could build a cherry fold-top desk withfine, dovetailed drawers as easily as he could fashion a fishing-line threaderout of an old ballpoint pen.

Dad bought our plain, two-story house from the coal company and immedi~ately began to remodel it. Our house was the first on the hill to have anindoor bathroom and hot water. He spent one summer digging out the clay-filled foundation to install a coal furnace. We children no longer shivered inour bed-rooms on cold winter mornings.

We loved to watch him work. When Dad needed something, we ran to getit. If we called it a "thingamabob he would say, "That's a nail set" (thetool for sinking the head of a nail below the surface of the wood). "It has aname. Use it."Dad carried a spirit of craftsmanship into every job and expeaed the samefrom all six children. Each job had its claim on your best efforts. And evertool had its name. Those were his principles, and we lived by them just aSDad did.

His playful spirit would set us to giggling-like the time he was buildingfireplace in the back yard. He sent us to look for the "stone-bender" he needeto make the comer stones fit more evenly. "Guess I'll have to bend theiamyself," he said when we retumed empty-handed. We saw the sparkle in.bijeyes, and knew we'd been had.

Sitting in the hospitalwaitting room, I thought back to an afteon in Dad'sworkshop several years ago..He was retired by then, but he kept busy building beautiful furniture, now for his children's homes. A volunteer naturalist,I was eager to tell him about the help bluebirds needed.

When the early settlers had cleared forests for farmland, I explained, blueLbirds flourished, nesting in fence-posts and orchard trees. But their habitatwas disappearing, and now the birds needed nesting boxesDad listened as-I spoke, his hands gently moving a finegrained sand-paperover a piece of oak. I asked him if he would like to build a box. He said hewould think about it.

Several weeks later he invited me into his workshop. There, on his workbench,sat three well-crafted bluebird nesting boxes. "Think the birds willlike themT'

he asked.

"As much as I do,"I replied, hugging him. Dad put up the boxes, and thenext spring bluebirds nested in his yard. He was hooked.

Dad became quite an expert on the species. Bluebirds, he would say, areharbingers of hope and triumph, renowned for family loyalty. A pair willhave two or three broods a year, the earlier young sometimes helping to feedthe later nestlings.

The presence of his children must have boosted Dad's spirits after his attackbecause he grew stronger and left the hospital on Valentine's Day WhenI visited my parents at the end of March, Dad was confined to the downstairs.

But I noticed that he paused longer and longer at the windows facing theback yard. I knew what he was hoping to see. And one day a bright flash ofcolor circled the nesting box closest to our house.

"Well, it's about time the rascals showed, don't you think?" Dad said.

Sporting a resplendent blue head, back, wings and tail, a male bluebird sanghis courtship song so passionately that we dubbed him "Caruso," after theItalian tenor. A female appeared, but rejected the nesting box. Caruso foundanother in the field below the yard. He circled the new box, singing feverishly.

She remained aloof on a distant perch.

Dad was walking more and more each day as the love story unfolded. Icould see strength coming back into his wiry frame.

One day Caruso battled a rival for the female's attentions. Then she foughtan even more vehement battle with another female. Afterward she resumedher haughty. stance while he fervently continued with his rapturous repertoire.

Suddenly one exquisite morning, when the sky mirrored Caruso's courtingraiment, she flew back to the box nearest the house and inspected itthoroughly. Caruso hovered nearby and sang blissfully as she finally acceptedhim.

Shortly thereafter she proceeded to lay one egg a day until there were six.

Caruso fluttered outside, defending the nest while she incubated.

Dad was now well enough to go outside, but he still couldn't reach the back-yard. He asked us to check inside the nesting box once a day. When we'dreturn, the questions came. "Is she on the nest?" he asked. "Have the eggshatched? Did you see that showboat what's-his-name?""Caruso, Dad," I replied. "He has a name, you know." Dad's sly grin re:

flected the devilment that had returned to his eyes.

When the eggs hatched, we marveled at the herculean efforts Caruso andhis mate expended to capture insects for their brood. Nestlings must be fedevery 20 minutes.

Near the end of May, the fledglings left the nest. By then Dad was able towalk to the fields beyond and see what other bluebird news there might be.

Mom and I would watch him from the kitchen window. "He gave some-thing to those bluebirds," she said quietly one day. "Now they've given itback."