My mother walked. Every day. Five miles. Sometimes ten. Rain never stopped her. Nor 110-degree temps. There’s Martha, people said, from as far away as three hundred feet. Her gait was unmistakable. Flat-footed, she slapped the stiff soles of her red orthopedic shoes against the asphalt. Short in stature, yet formidable in spirit, she held one hand on her aching hip, the other punched forward like a bird with a broken wing determined to get wherever the hell she was going.
Bird, her mother had called her. Birdy. Such a happy baby, everyone said. Listen to her, singing in her crib, all alone, while mayhem ruled the house. The older siblings didn’t get along. Birdy was kept in a ribbed cage, in a back room, on the second floor of an old Colonial farmhouse. She would later tell me no one had time for her. Big families were like that, she said. She had to fend for herself.
I don’t remember my mother singing. Not once. She was tone-deaf. Like me. Like my sister. She wouldn’t even pretend to sing, not even mouth the words like I would do. In church, even in her late eighties, her mouth was clamped shut. Her hand gripped the other in a gnarled fist. Everyone in the nave surely knew she was no dove. She wished no one Peace on Earth since she’d found none.
Not because she was mean-spirited. Although some might’ve said so. She was more like a bird who’d been blown off track. Her migratory path between infancy and adulthood was thwarted by family, church, society, leaving her stunned, scrambling, to find what materials she could to build a nest of her own. Still, she could flash a smile, a mouthful of white porcelain teeth, and her belly laugh was deep as if she never fully digested the stones and grit she’d eaten along the way.
She appreciated good old black Irish humor, like all of us who once perched precariously on the dried-out, tired limbs of the Mahoney tree. Who couldn’t see the absurdity in my Aunt Margaret’s behavior? She was the bird-headed gargoyle hovering above the front doorway while my grandmother descended, hidden deep inside the house, into a pit of dementia. This gargoyle could squawk, and she scared the family, the lawyers and judges, and even the doctors who wanted to amputate my grandmother’s leg after a bedsore bloomed into gangrene.
Grammie’s leg fell off! What? How?
It dried up and dropped off!
My mother was a devout Catholic and believed my grandmother’s woes were God’s way of punishing her for treating her children—six, plus one stillborn—unfairly. My mother in later life faithfully wore the Brown Scapular, two small pieces of wool, reminiscent of a monk’s robe, that hung from a plain cord around her neck. I couldn’t fault her for that. After all, I had once worn one, too, after another aunt, Mimi presented a convincing case that the Blessed Mother was appearing in Flushing Meadows, New York, at a site that had been the 1964 World’s Fair Vatican Pavilion. Mary’s message to the world: Satan had entered the Church and Armageddon was at hand. He who is clothed with this habit shall be preserved from eternal fire. I traveled four hours to attend one of these evening vigils. My aunt, paralyzed from the waist down, drove through the night, using hand controls to operate the gas and brake pedals. Me and the cousins were packed in the station wagon, the surplus of us, crouching like birds on the floorboards, unable to unfold our limbs.
I took photos at the vigil site where the Virgin Mary supposedly delivered messages to a woman who knelt on a raised platform, hands clasped, eye skyward, as a flock of white doves rose around her. The Polaroid film developed in my hands—in front of my eyes. It captured the birds mid-flight as they realigned into what appeared to be shimmering strands of rosary beads flung across the sky. A vigil patron, wearing a light-blue beret and clutching a single long-stemmed red rose, interpreted the meaning of my photo. See there, she said, the rosary beads are a message from Mary telling you to pray. She points to what could be a capital G in the squiggles. G stands for God. And there, she taps the photo, is an hourglass. Time is running out.
My mother was not convinced by the photos I brought back. Phooey, she said, although she saw no harm in her sister Mimi praying for a miracle to rise from her wheelchair and walk again. It was around that time that my mother took to wearing the Brown Scapular, so possibly, she was hedging her bets. Although I remember her telling me that as a child she thought she might become a Carmelite nun, but that dream, too, became fodder for the pyre. We’re doomed, Char, she’d tell me. Nothing good comes to us.
My mother had three children. I think of us as pebbled bird eggs she placed in a fragile nest of torn newspaper, rough straw, and a few downy feathers. She then made a wish for when we hatched—that one of us might love her. The first hatchling was born when she was a young girl, unmarried, and shuttered away in an institution for unwed mothers. He never had a chance to reach for her before he was swooped away by a nun with catholic charities and adopted out, despite my mother’s protests. The second hatchling, my older sister, by all appearances flourished but flew far, far away as soon as her wings grew strong enough. The third hatchling, me, if measured against society’s standard benchmarks, failed to thrive, and my mother was forever pestering after me, I don’t know what the hell you’re going to do without me to take care of you, Char.
My mother’s affinity for birds carried throughout her lifetime. After my father died, she moved from Massachusetts to California, the Central Valley, where I then lived. She had never seen a white-tailed kite, and when she took her daily five-mile walk, she interpreted the way the bird hovered in the sky, almost motionless above her, to mean it was showering blessings over her. I initially tried to explain that a kite is a bird of prey, and this was how it paused in flight to spot a vole or shrew in the fields where she liked to roam. You don’t know everything, Char. And I suppose that is true. She would stand in the open grassland, her arms spinning like windmills, crying out to the bird, I love you.
My mother developed dementia, as did her mother, her sister Margaret, and a younger brother, although she vehemently denied she was impaired. At first, it was confusing to me. Had she just blown too far off course? Even after decades in California, she couldn’t distinguish between the car and bike lanes on the roadways to drive safely. She didn’t understand politics and was forever discussing the genius of Glen Beck. She confused low-water pressure with the belief her neighbor had dug underground and drilled into her well to steal her water.
She made me promise one thing—actually, she made me promise many things; some I kept, some I didn’t—that she would die at home, on her land, with a view of the fields, the sky, the birds. After a nasty fall, which she didn’t believe happened; after hip surgery, which she didn’t believe happened; then after days in the hospital, her hands tied down to keep her from ripping out the IV and catheter, screaming CALL THE POLICE! —it became painfully apparent to the doctors, the nurses, the attendants, my daughter and me, she wasn’t mentally fit to even go into rehab. No nursing home in a fifty-mile radius would take her.
We took her home to die in hospice, which they said would take about seven days. By then, she didn’t recognize home. She could no longer eat on her own. She could barely swallow. My daughter and I kept watch over her, feeding her morphine from a tiny dropper, holding her head up as it dripped down her parched throat.
I would talk to her, but I don’t believe she knew who I was. Her eyes were mostly closed. At times, she would call out to her sister Mimi. Mimi, I’m so thirsty, and I would swab her mouth.
I slept on a mattress on the floor by the hospital bed the hospice provided. Usually, late at night or very early in the morning before the sun rose, she would converse with her mother or Mimi, both dead. And if for whatever reason the conversation went silent on the other end, my mother would call out, It’s me, Bird. Where is everyone?
Charlene Logan’s work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Blackbird, Jelly Bucket, Pembroke Magazine, Witness Magazine, and elsewhere. She received a McDowell Fellowship in Literature. She was a recipient of a grant from The Pollination Project for organizing an art benefit for animals at risk. She later served as an Animal Rights and Welfare grant advisor during their ’22-’23 reading cycle. Her story, “Brothers,” is included in Among Animals 3, the Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction, an anthology published by Ashland Creek Press.