Winter Birds

Maria studies her family clustered around the table, hopeful not of food but of deliverance. She is stretching her arthritic limbs towards a decision—albeit not in the direction her family anticipates—but the last few inches are excruciating and perhaps the goal is unobtainable.

A peacemaker and the core of a happy family all her life, Maria longs for a new role. But with so few years left, she wonders whether she should upset the apple cart. From her family’s elated faces she realizes that inviting Mr. Walters was a mistake.

Resurrected by the arrival of the unexpected guest, the family celebrates the evening like comrades after uncertain battle—calling for drinks and remembering old songs. The guest, a usually-grim farmer, savours the attention. He hasn’t been treated so well since his wife’s funeral two years ago.

Anxious eyes monitor the old man closely for encouraging responses. Flying gratefully to the weathered face like winter birds to scattered seeds.

Maria—mother, widow, homemaker, and this afternoon, hostess—refills empty glasses and carries in more food.

“You’re a shrewd one, mother,” her son teases, nodding towards their guest.

“The old coot could do with a home-cooked meal,” Maria admits. And a little company she thinks.

She knows what it is to be stuck behind curtains in an empty house watching weekend visitors’ cars drive by. And weekdays when even before lunch, her chores are complete. With only the motley cat to advise on the weather, she busies herself picking leaves off pampered plants and organizing meals in case one of her children visits.

“Sorry, Mom, Buddy has a baseball game.”

“I have to bone up for a Monday meeting.”

“Jenny’s coming down with something.”

“The car is acting up… the weather is bad… it’s a long drive… sure you don’t mind?”

Sunday is the worst. More from habit than conviction, she and her late husband attended church, weather permitting. Then rain or shine, after a midday meal they hiked across the familiar terrain, commenting on the growth of the cedars, the height of the marsh grass, or the work to be done on the back pasture. “Like God on the seventh day,” Paul would chuckle contentedly, snapping off a dead branch to clear the path.

Widowed three years, Maria misses the companionship—the shared ritual of instant coffee and toast before turning in for the night, the Sunday walks, the mutual memories. She misses returning to a warm house after penning the chickens and finding her husband reading the paper. She does not miss her role as chief cook and bottle washer.

Till her husband’s death, Maria had never lived alone. Even when Paul was outside working, she was on call. Now her life is her own or almost. The children still have their say, of course. When she considered moving into town, her daughter protested.

“You’d hate to live anywhere but here, Mom.”

But would she? She pictures a small apartment near the park and the shops. Maybe she’d learn to do something—to paint or speak Spanish. Her sister Bea had started university at sixty-three.

“Fine for Bea, she’s different, Mom. You like looking after people, having your chickens.”

Truth be known, she hated chickens: ugly, noisy ingrates that pecked at your hands. Paul had insisted they were worth the effort but as soon as she got the energy, she’d cheerfully initiate a beheading.

Watching Mr. Walters joke gruffly with the kids even with the false promise he brings, she is glad she invited him. He is no hero, always complaining about something and never lifting a hand to help. But since Peggy’s death he is friendlier—needs must. They both have had to learn new dance steps.

Like her, he has been left to drift, all the routines disrupted, the familiar patterns destroyed. When a few weeks earlier at the local K-Mart Maria noticed him forlornly staring at babies’ wear, she had taken pity and helped him choose a gift for his grandchild.

The following week she had spotted him at the supermarket check-out counter: his clothes needing an ironing, his jacket frayed. He was staring at the frozen meat pie in his basket, “I sure miss her pies,” he sighed, prompting Maria’s invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.

“The kids would love to see you,” she lied. “We’ll be having turkey and pie.”

The old farmer squinted cautiously. “Sunday?” he muttered as if scanning a busy calendar. “Okay,” he nodded indulgently, and then smiled, “I’d like that.”

“Another helping, Mr. Walters?” Sharon encourages, tempting him with a generous slice of blueberry pie.

He declines. “Lord no, I’ve eaten more today than in a month.”

The man nods appreciatively down the table at Maria who looks away, then comments pointedly, “I don’t have much occasion for making pies these days.”

Her children flinch.

“Do I hear wedding bells?” Betsy whispers to her sister.

“They’re pie-eyed,” Sharon giggles.

Later, when the house empties—”Don’t forget to take some turkey.” “Where is Arnold’s hat?” “Are you coming up next weekend?” “Thanks for everything mother”—Betsy and her mother cozy up on the sofa. Outside, the persistent snowflakes bury the footprints to the road.

“I always hate to see everyone leave,” the older woman sighs. “I’m like a skeleton rattling around.”

Betsy squeezes back her impatience and smiles. “You can change all that now, Mom.”

“Move into town, you mean?”

“No, of course not, re-marry.”

“Re-marry? Why?”

“You need someone to look after.”

“I have the cats to look after.”

“Be serious, Mom,” the girl cautions. “You’re not like me; you’ve always had someone to cook for, to care for. That’s what you like.”

“Maybe I don’t.”

The girl winces. “Don’t what?”

“I cleaned and cooked for you kids and Dad but I don’t want to do it for some stranger.”

The girl gasps. They’d pinned their hopes on the old man. After all, her mother had invited him and he’d settled right in. Sharon would be furious. Even Bill wouldn’t be able to hide his disappointment. The future which they had talked of with their mother settled into down with a companion was fading like water colours in the rain.

“You like being a farmwife,” the girl coaxes.

“Would you?”

The girl sighs. “Then you and Mr. Walters?”

“I’m better off alone.”

“But is it fair?”

Turning from her daughter’s crumbled face, Maria slowly rises, takes off her faded apron, folds it, and places it beside the others in the drawer. A certainty is growing inside her. Her heart pumps like a fledgling bird, timid but determined as she meets the cool air for the first time.

She glances out the window at the snow collecting on the bird feeder, then stares through the lacy curtain of snowflakes at the ghostly silhouettes beyond. By morning the smaller birds will have to struggle to get seed. And when she moves into town, they’ll have to fend for themselves.

~ Melodie Corrigall

Originally posted at: http://tclj.toasted-cheese.com/2011/11-1/corrigall.htm
Photo Credit: ekpatterson