Lessons in devotion

She comes to my window and knocks.

I know she is there from the sound, which is uniquely hers. Each time is like the first. The greeting touches my ear and immediately my heart. No matter how I feel, I must respond with a smile.

I call her ''little mama.'' She's a cardinal mother, assertive, elegant, and faithful. She has been visiting me for a year now. There's an emptiness to the day when she does not come.

I first met her as part of a family. Her baby flew in the garage by mistake, and I watched in fascination, which soon turned to admiration, as the parents coaxed the little bird out of his predicament.

Concern, love, encouragement, and instruction were constant as the flashes of red entered the garage. I was impressed.

So I put sunflower seed in a feeder on the kitchen windowsill, not a foot from the sink. ''Too close,'' my husband said, ''they'll never come.''

The father came first, bringing the baby with him. The son chirped continuously in a high pitch. The father cardinal, stunning in his red plumage, picked seeds from the dish and cracked them open. Underneath his tail, the little gray fellow, with the unmistakable family crest, chirped and fluttered his own open wings in constant motion. The father, patiently, turned his head and fed him.

Day after day I watched the wonderful process and thought about how humility and service added immensely to the elegant beauty of the bird. Late in the afternoon the mother came alone to feed in peace. The ritual of pecking began about that time. I usually awoke to it. Early in the stillness of the morning, the sound reached through the quiet of the house, and I stirred. ''She's calling for you,'' my husband said with a sleepy grin.

In the fall, my schedule and the loss of my beloved fox terrier caused me to neglect the feeder. One day I realized I had not heard ''the little mama'' for a while. I cleaned and refilled the feeder, but for weeks, nobody came.

In the cold of January, chickadees and titmice returned. Again and again I looked out the window for a flash of red and listened in vain for the deep-throated chirp.

One afternoon I sat before the fire, reading. Suddenly, a sound: was it a log in the grate? Again. Tears stung the corners of my eyes, and I started to smile. There you are, little mama. Welcome back.

She returned to her habit gradually.

She comes regularly now, feeding several times a day. Sometimes she wakes me up, other times I still hear her at dusk, for a final good night.

Her mate visits less often, or so it seems. When he is feeding, I know she is nearby on a limb, watching. The slightest warning from her, and he is gone.

It looks now as though she is eating for two. If so the father will bring the baby to my window to feed. It's wonderful to anticipate.

I could draw lessons from all this about constancy and loyalty about watchfulness and care. But I won't. She's at my window, calling me, looking in with confidence and a toss of the proud head. Underneath, where the parsley and dill grow, he watches. She flies to him and they touch beaks for a second.

It is enough to start my day with a blessing.

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