The umbrella

My bamboo-handled, caramel-colored old faithful of an umbrella, which I've had for nearly 10 years, has broken down. It had to happen, of course, sooner or later. No umbrella lasts forever, not in this stormy world. And considering all that it had to put up with from the rain and other unfriendly elements, I suppose the wonder is that it broke down later, not sooner.

Rain, I remember, could be downright diabolical to it. Once, a sneaky drizzle tricked the umbrella into a jaunty, bobbing dance and then, without any warning, thickened into a downpour that beat on the umbrella top with such hard little fists that the dance came close to ending in a collapse. Several times the rain turned into hailstones that came tumbling and crashing down the steep side of a mountainous sky, as if to bury all umbmrellas in their way.

On those days when the wind joined the rain, that was almost too much for the umbrella. Sometimes the wind speeded up into a gust that came hurtling at it and flipped it completely inside out, turning it into a kind of big, ragged tulip with nowhere to hide. Other times the wind threatened to pull the umbrella out of my slippery hand and carry it away from me. I used to have dreadful visions of it sailing up and away into the rain, and then dropping back down into some ignominious place, like a smoking chimney, to suffer the irony of being undone by fire instead of water. Once I had a dream that it floated down into a pond of ducks, like a parachute without even the dignity of a passenger. The ducks mistook it for a heavenly offering and very nearly gobbled it up.

I made repairs upon repairs. I did without patches on my clothes so I could patch up the rips and holes in the umbrella. I reinforced its bent ribs with spokes from bicycle wheels. I wrapped makeshift supports - masking tape, cloth, even bandages - around its broken handle.

When I could repair it no more, I tried declaring it, in the war of the weather against umbrellas, a kind of noncombatant. Using bright paint to ensure visibility around the clock, I painted a big white dove and the word ''PEACE'' on its top. It was one of those appeals you make to the whimsical side of an opponent that has gotten the better of you. The very next time I opened the umbrella, it simply collapsed in a sorry but resolute heap, as if to spare me having to see the hopelessness of my appeal.

In my mind remains the question of why I tried so hard to keep, to prolong, such a replaceable thing. Why did I bother? When my shoestrings broke, I didn't tie ingenious knots and go on using them; I got new ones. But to that umbrella I clung as if to a spar at sea after a shipwreck.

I think I did it because I thought of the umbrella as a kind of home that I could always take with me. So often in my wandering life I have had to leave a home, a place I could talk to, and move on to new troubles, new joys. But the umbrella, that battered roof over my head in the rain and wind, it was a home I didn't have to leave, a portable home, however small, and so I toiled like an overgrown elf to keep it in one piece, just as if it were a real home.

And where is it now, that ruin? I couldn't bring myself to throw it away, so I shaped it, as best I could, into - of all things - a bird's nest. Upside down in a hedge it sits, stuffed with cushy leaves and twigs, waiting for occupants. So far none have showed up, but I have great hope for many nestings. And whenever birds are listening, I tell them, ''Over my head, it took a beating. But under yours, who knows?''

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