How my birth mother gave me a gift of songbirds


My birth mother was an amazing person. And although she died too young at age 39 when I was still a teenager, she left me many gifts that have made it through life’s storms and helped me along my way.

Some were little wisdoms. I got my glass-is-half-full attitude from her, as well as my love of plants and animals, gardening, cooking and crafts. She lived out her kind heart and her belief in God and his directive to love and care for other humans through her volunteerism. The way she gave 110 percent of herself to help other people was a life lesson that gave me a sense of mission. She worked hard and taught me that nothing is free.

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And some other gifts were her hobbies. My mother had more than a dozen pen pals when she died, and because she had taught me a sense of duty, I wrote individual letters to each one about her death. I corresponded with a couple of the pen pals for several years afterward, until I just didn’t hear from them anymore and assumed death or the unkindnesses of old age had caught up with them.

Mama loved music, and she and my stepfather would dance in the living room to Frank Sinatra and others of that era, or she would play her piano and sing old familiar songs, while my brother and I played nearby.

For much of my childhood, she wore housedresses and aprons, and put her lipstick on first thing in the morning before she even got dressed — the iconic image of the perfect mid-20th century housewife.

She gave me a love of reading. I remember how special a gift of books was; and our trips to the small library in the next town, where I would spend a long time choosing my books for the coming week. We often would read in the evenings as a family. Although we had a television, it wasn’t the focal point of our family life.

She would play board and card games with us for hours at the dining room table, the wood cookstove in the kitchen making the house toasty warm. Sometimes she would make popcorn and hot cocoa for us, or some other snack. And we would joke and laugh, never realizing how precious those moments truly were, and how death would test our resolve to keep those memories alive. My brother died at 8 years old and my mother died six years later.

My mother did crafts, sewing, needlework, crocheting and knitting, gardening of vegetables and flowers, and so many other hobbies, but one of her true passions was feeding and observing songbirds.

I have some of her diaries in which a couple times a day, she would write down the various species of songbirds she had spied at her feeders that were clearly visible out the double windows in the dining room.

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It was a passion she shared with my grandmother — Mama’s mother. They would spend hours talking about songbirds in person or on the phone, or looking for them in woods and fields. Or trying to outsmart the squirrels to keep them off the bird feeders so the birds wouldn’t be scared away.

My mother would collect bacon fat and other kinds of fat in a metal can, let it congeal and freeze it, then hang it out for the birds to eat during the cold months. She also would throw out bread and some vegetable scraps for them. Filling the bird feeders was just part of her daily chores, and it always got done — like making meals and sweeping floors.

Feeding the birds remotely wasn’t enough for her, and she would carry sunflower seeds in her pockets and teach the chickadees to perch on her hand to eat. They learned the lesson so well, that hunters in our rural area complained that the little clowns would perch on the barrels of their guns or otherwise dive-bomb them, trying to coax them to offer seeds.

We all had to carry sunflower seeds in our pockets because the chickadees would bug us, thanks to Mama’s efforts.

My mother coaxed a couple other species of birds to her hand too, but the chickadees were the easiest to teach.

I think about those days often, especially in the winter. And I love watching the different birds that come to my little feeder hanging off my back deck in my home of 34 years. Beautiful cardinals, various woodpeckers, sparrows, chickadees, jays, juncos, nuthatches and so many others turn my old apple tree into a temporary winter aviary.

I wonder if I could teach the chickadees to eat out of my hand — if I even have the time for that. Life is so busy these days. Regardless, feeding the birds in any form makes me feel closer to the woman who raised me to a teenager, and who died from cancer more than 40 years ago.

I realize now how I never really appreciated her like I should have, and although it’s too late to say so to her face, I hope my birth mother knew on some level how much I love her and how very special she was — and is — to me.

And how, because of her, chickadees always make me smile.

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JULIE HARRIS

About JULIE HARRIS

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.