Lady Bird, 1962
She had stood outside in the snow for several minutes, admiring the winter birds high above her. The Pennsylvania sky was as overcast and majestic as her secret mood. The alchemy inside her granted her both patience and anticipation, each uneasy with the other. The infrequent passersby would note her demure presence as she shifted her hands inside her coat pockets. Many would take a second lingering glance, as something in her eyes and face seemed exotically out of place in the slush and roadside snow.
I alone dared to pull over and shut off the engine to my car. Inside it, I remained for a long moment, momentarily unsure of myself and caught off guard by the uncertainty. I smashed my cigarette out in the console ashtray, reached for my camera and exited the vehicle. The wind ran up the legs of my pants, causing me to shiver and clutch one side of my coat hastily.
Without preamble, I swallowed my fear and I crossed the slushy street and asked, “Can I take your picture?” My voice came out like a high-pitched plea. She laughed.
“Of course, although I don’t know why you would want to.” She laughed again. She motioned for me to come closer.
Once I reached her side, she pointed up and I followed the arc of her arm as she raised it.
“Those birds, they only seem to come around for 2 or 3 days a year. If they land nearby, they’ll talk to us in their own way. And if you throw them bread, they will swoop past you close enough to touch, if you were so inclined.” Her voice took on a lilting cadence as she spoke as if she were reading her own diary in the late hours of the night.
I watched the birds as I stood beside her. From her pocket, she removed a carefully-folded paper sack. She opened it and reached inside, then scattered pieces of dark bread in the snow.
“Wait,” she whispered, her head still pointed toward the sky.
She threw another handful, higher in the air, and the pieces arced and fell.
The birds, high above us, had taken notice and began to point their bodies downward. Within seconds, a dozen birds were swirling around us, their wings making rhythmic noises as they approached. Each bird had a small swath of red on their necks as if to mark their squadron with a uniform insignia.
Almost in unison, the birds extended their talons and landed. They began poking rapidly at the rye bread pieces on the white snow. As the bread disappeared, the birds began clucking and squawking in staccato bursts. They sounded like old ladies, with voices ruined by clouds of cigarette smoke, each trying to shout down the others.
As the woman tossed more bread pieces on the ground, the birds would take turns grabbing a piece as the others continued their squawking. Their collective noises sounded like out of tune violins but I could discern the haunting melody of it nonetheless.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” She asked me.
I nodded yes as I listened and watched. I was hesitant to speak, lest the lingering magic of the moment notice me observing it.
With no more bread in her pockets, she put her hands back inside them and waited. The birds restlessly paced, their squawks becoming a disharmonious crescendo. They lifted off but instead of taking to the sky, they looped around us two or three times as they rose. After reaching 30 or 40 feet, their squawks ceased, leaving an exquisite absence of sound. The woman laughed again, a laugh tinged with delight, and it reminded me of a row of shattered icicles falling from an early morning roof.
I stepped away from the woman, raised my camera, and pointed it at her. She looked away from the sky for a moment and smiled at me. I pressed the shutter button and felt the moment already begin to fade away, like watching an old friend sitting in the back of his parent’s car, waving as he pulled away.
As I lowered the camera, something must have registered in my face, as she ran the few step between us and hugged me, one filled with warmth.
I got back into my car, once again inside the familiar and known. As I started the car, I looked back one last time, to see her there, faced turned upward in silent joy as she watched her birds flying high.
I’ve never shared this picture with anyone before today, all these years later.
I’ve witnessed the width and breadth of this fascinating world. Nothing, however, lingers in my heart like the stolen moment I shared with Lady Bird. I do not know who she is or anything particular to her story but I do know that sometimes if we dare, the most common thing can shatter itself to reveal the wondrous.
Those birds are still up there, flying high, waiting for us all, if we dare. Lady Bird might be just around the corner for you, too.