SOME 20 years ago, we built a beach cottage on Anastasia Island, just south of St. Augustine, Fla. While it was being built, I watched a mockingbird fly in and out of a dense, wind-sculpted, wild wax myrtle on the edge of the property nearest the sea. She's got a nest in there, I thought. We could hear the babies chirp when the carpenter quit hammering and, eventually, after we had moved in but before the electricity was turned on, we watched their solo flights out of the nest, and then they were gone.
Many people, when they are asked what creature they would choose to be if they were not human, say that they would choose to be a bird. I suppose it's the freedom, the ability to fly, that fires our imagination.
But think of that first flight. Puppies and kittens and kids and monkeys all get a chance to crawl before they walk, before they run and so on. Not birds. Theirs is the most precarious of all careers. They can't make a mistake. Not one. Gravity and cats are always waiting. Birds get it right the first time, or else.
Enough of them must get it right. We have a new crop of mockingbirds every year, always a nest in that same myrtle, and sometimes a bird cozies into an overgrown pittosporum that presses into the screen porch. It's a real-life National Geographic special, peering into the nest, watching the eggs hatch, and then keeping an eye on the peeping chicks and fledgings and finally the empty nest.
The bird woman at the zoo tells me that mockingbirds live five to eight years, lay three to five eggs per clutch, two clutches per season. So, I calculate, in 20 years we've shared space with four or five generations of mockingbirds, hundreds and hundreds of mockingbirds.
Mockingbirds in the myrtle, folks in the cottage.
We're on the third generation in the cottage.
So, I am a matriarch.
It's not bad, being a matriarch. Matriarchs don't have to cook for Fourth of July picnics, or sweep sand off the steps or help clean fish unless they want to. Matriarchs may merely direct and approve and pass on tribal wisdom, stuff like, "Bury those fish heads deep, boy, or the raccoons will dig 'em up."
Matriarchs may go to the beach when we wish and stay as long we please. We know how to make coquina stew and sand castles.
There is the most wonderful line about beach-house matriarchy in "Colony," Anne Rivers Siddons's novel about an enclave of summer places in Maine. She writes: "A summer colony is a tyranny of old women."
The old women of summer places have survived. They have inherited and created traditions and habits that rule the summer dwellings. The matriarchs know the secrets, the seasons, the recipes, the players, and, most of all, they know the ropes.
"Bury those fish heads, boy, or the raccoons will dig 'em up."
A friend remembers Aunt Lutie, 91 when she died last summer, the ruler of the family's retreat at Darden Lake, between Oxford and New Albany, Miss. Aunt Lutie was a master of logistics. In the old days, at Darden Lake, crates of chickens, gallons of drinking water, dozens of watermelons, cases of graham crackers, fishing tackle, and linens, buckets of peanut butter and marshmallow creme, and swarms of kids and helpers had to be organized and transported 15 miles out of town on a winding gravel road into the woods. Lutie got it done and kept the wheels turning all summer.
Aunt Lutie was the matriach of the lake colony, a working matriarch to be sure, but nonetheless the matriarch. In later years, she was ceremonial matriarch. But always, she was matriarch.
On the Fourth of July, I felt my matriarchal status like a homespun shawl around my shoulders - or a royal mantle. I watched people who were children the first time they saw the beach house feeding hot dogs to children of their own. I saw them leading the procession to the beach, carrying their offspring on their shoulders through the high dunes, pulling the long seine, bringing home the catch, and declaring when it was dark enough to set off the fireworks. So, as JFK said, the torch has passed - and the
Roman candles, too.
That's the best of all ways to measure time, not in hours or days or seasons or even years, but in generations.