“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus Finch
I read a simple little story on Medium about the life and death of a solitary bluebird trapped in a blizzard outside a window. By itself, the story was deeply touching. It also stirred deep, long-buried emotions that pushed up uncomfortably through over sixty years of forgetfulness. My body tensed as if resisting delivery. Too late; the image formed clear as crystal in my minds eye.
A young, fully fledged mockingbird, perched on a branch in a pine forest, its neck hunched defensively, gazing upward helplessly. My grandfather quickly walking away from it, up the slope to where I wait in the car, helpless as my mockingbird.
I was under strict orders not to get out, or let the bird see me, Because if he did, he would swoop across the intervening space to perch on my shoulder. His one sure place in the world. Grownups had decreed he must be returned to the wild. I had tried. But every time I deposited him somewhere outside and walked away, he caught me within paces. I was rebelliously glad. But I was not quite ten, and grownup authority was absolute. So my grandfather stepped in. As we drove away, my mockingbird looked so bewildered, so lost. Who would care for him and protect him in the wild? I was too young to know such terms as imprinting and bonding. But not too young to not realize I had betrayed him.
Later I dreamed he found his way home and perched on the swing set in the back yard when I came out, and the grownups relented. But he didn’t. Eventually I stopped going to the kitchen window first thing each day to look for him. We never spoke of my mockingbird again. But I never forgave grownup insensitivity. Life moved on, buried the memory beneath layers of new events, new experiences, new trauma. Over sixty years’ worth. It took a random post about another lost bird to pierce the veil.
The year was 1953. The house I was born in was on the corner of Walton Way and Merry Street. There were three more houses on our side of Walton Way before you reached the corner gas station. Next door was where my mother’s best high school friend lived. Then came Mrs. Martin’s. The third house was a rental; I remember a woman from there coming down to borrow our phone, and my grandmother’s prim disapproval of her, muttering she just wanted an excuse to flirt with my teenage uncle. Then, in almost less time than it takes to tell it, all three houses were sold. The people moved away. I awoke one morning to horrendous racket: big yellow machines were among the houses, ripping and tearing and knocking them down. Choking noise and dust and unfamiliar open air followed. Workers cutting down shade trees and stacking bricks to be taken away.
One of the workers waded out of the limbs of a downed tree with something cupped in his hands, and deposited it gently on top of one of our fence posts. A bird’s nest. Several naked chicks, mouths agape. My grandmother brought it inside. One was already dead, The other two gaping and chirping. My grandmother taught me to give them water with an eyedropper. Then a thin gruel of vegetable soup. One bird flourished. The other wilted and died. We moved on to tiny wads of white bread, kneaded and soaked in oatmeal. Taking care of my mockingbird became the center of my existence.
By the time they were grading the bare ground next door preparatory to construction of a drive-in diner, my mockingbird’s feathers were growing in. I have no memory of why I named him Jupiter. He learned to fly in the dining room. Short flights from the table to a chair. Then through to the front bedroom where I was born.
When Jupiter’s flight was strong enough, the adults said time to take him outside and give him his freedom. I placed him on the swing set and stood back. Soon as I turned to leave, he swooped. The only place Jupiter wanted to fly was to me. For a too-brief time it became a kind of game: take him outside, perch him somewhere, and walk away. Or run. Jupiter could fly faster than I could run. All these years later I can almost feel his feather-weight land on my left shoulder, the whisk of air from his wings against my cheek. How could I have forgotten for so long?
There is much in literature about the effect of where you grew up on your psyche. No matter how long I live, or where I wander, the house where I was born always looms largest in memory. I had my own chickens there, and a rooster. I got my first dog for my sixth birthday, and my first fishing rod and .22 rifle. I had violent and bloody grade-school fights over who was the best cowboy, Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.