My grandmother’s white, clapboard farmhouse was circled by seven tall oaks, and by mid-September the shade of the green leaves had scrubbed the air clean of August heat.
After Sunday dinners in mid-September, Ma-ma would slip off her shoes beneath a rocker on the porch. She and her sister, my Aunt Peg, would talk about the sermon, the weather, the pretty hats in church—the children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins and neighbors whose lives had been woven into their own generations ago (and for generations yet to come).
Sometimes, when Aunt Peg and Ma-ma talked, I would sprawl at their feet and cut paper dolls from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Sometimes, I would rock on the porch swing, reading “Nurse Barton” novels or “Nancy Drew” mysteries. Sometimes, I would play “Rock School” with my cousins on the granite front steps.
Always, at the first breath of a bird song from the nandena bush or the cedar tree or the high limbs of the oaks that shaded the porch, Aunt Peg and Ma-ma would whisper “shhh.”
They would point to the breeze and tell us to listen.
Only when the song ended would Aunt Peg call the bird by name. Then Ma-ma would describe the color of the feathers and, more often than not, she would say where the bird had nested in secret through the summer.
The bird lessons were not restricted to Sunday. Ma-ma never failed to point out a flicker of blue wing in the china berry tree or a pair of redbirds in the mock orange bush. She has awakened me in the early morning darkness to hear the cry of an owl, and she has encouraged me on fall afternoons to answer the call of the bobwhite.
I now wish I had studied the lessons more carefully. My life is all the poorer that I cannot call by name all the birds whose songs are familiar to me, I cannot describe the color of wings hidden in the gardenia bushes and trumpet vines at my back door, I have not discovered all the secret places in my yard where birds nest through the summer.
On cool, September mornings, my life is all the richer that I lift the windows and open the doors to welcome inside the beauty of bird songs, that I pause from the laundry and the breakfast dishes and the work piled high on my desk to savor the soul-refreshing sweet songs of unnamed but not unfamiliar birds, that I celebrate the wonders of Creation within—and beyond—my grasp.
In that celebration, I honor two women who insisted that the children they loved would one day claim faith in a Mystery that can be heard, even when it cannot be seen.
The certain frailty of “what can be seen” all too often has intruded upon my comfortable notions about how things “ought” to be: the lives of people who follow the rules should not be cut short; good and faithful servants of a merciful God should not die young; children should bury their parents, not the other way around.
Over 10 years ago, my good-hearted sister who walked every day and took good care of herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and endured painful treatments for a disease she did everything to prevent.
Over 10 years ago, my good-hearted brother who built homes for poor families in Mexico, who loved his wife and children and family, who served his country as a Marine in Vietnam…was diagnosed with, endured painful treatments for, and died of liver cancer related to a history of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, caused by Agent Orange exposure.
I know of no family that has not been assaulted by the cold grip of cancer, by the fear of loss, by the pain of shattering grief. Perhaps you, too, are being assaulted this September by a bruising awareness of green leaves turning brown.
Yes, what can be seen is all too frail…
But there is comfort in what can be heard.
Something clearly heard but not seen this September morning assures me: “his eye is on the sparrow.” Something clearly heard assures me: I need not understand the Mystery to have faith in it. Something clearly heard assures me: in God’s creation there are secret nesting places—safe places, where grief and winter and frailty cannot be found.
Those assurances, I am convinced, are the song of your prayers.
During those dark times ten years ago, my family and I felt sustained and comforted by loving prayers. We felt blessed to live in a community of faith where prayers for healing and for comfort are generously offered for families in grief, for loved ones in pain.
Regrettably, I cannot call by name all of the people who lifted up our family in prayer circles and at Sunday worship services, but we are grateful yet for every prayer.
And I want you to know that even in the early morning hours when you could not be seen, your wondrously beautiful song was heard.
It is mid-September again, the air has been scrubbed clean of August heat. Outside my open window, I hear the familiar song of an unseen, unnamed bird.
“Shhh,” whispers a voice from long ago. She points to the breeze and listens. She knows the name of the bird, the color of the wing, its secret nesting places…
All I know is how grateful I am for the beauty of the song.
For now, that will have to do.