An Out-of-Work Woman Finds 'Employment' in Nature

I have a painting that dominates one wall of my living room. I painted it during a time of adversity in my life, but it is a serenely joyful painting, depicting hope and expectancy. I call it "Promise of Spring." You could say it's my version of that rainbow seen by the watchers on Noah's Ark, as they rode out the flood and prayed for a better tomorrow.

It was a tough, snowy winter in the Virginia suburb where I shared a small house with my sister, Kay. I'd lost my job as a Washington trade association secretary when the headquarters moved to Connecticut.

Facing winter, I mailed out resumes, kept house for Kay, and grappled with loneliness, doubt, and self-searching - that crossroads feeling. But I always had a hot meal ready when I recognized Kay's footsteps crunching up the road from the bus stop, and heard her stamping the snow off her boots on the front porch. It was the least I could do.

I often looked out into the dusk of the countryside at all the little houses nestled in a landscape of dark oak trees etched against a rose-gold horizon.

Cars crept home along icy roads out of the city. The traffic helicopter flashed red and green lights overhead. The neighbors' fussy cocker spaniel barked at the squirrel who lived in our oak tree in her nest of brown leaves. And a mockingbird perched on the neighbors' chimney, warming his tail feathers over the heat that seeped up from the oil burner below.

After the dog got whistled in, the bird flew to a nearby fir tree for the night. We were winter watchers - the mocker, the cocker, and I.

Every evening, I swept snow from the back porch stoop and put out a smorgasbord of winter treats for the bird and the squirrel: peanuts in their shells, chopped suet and raisins, bites of cheese, and crumbs from fruit-nut bread. Plus warm water for sipping in a terra cotta saucer. It was their "high tea," and they became regular customers. Helping these brave little creatures helped me forget my troubles.

One morning a young boy with some sort of air rifle came down the ravine on the north side of our house. To my horror, he took aim at the mockingbird and fired. I ran out on the back stoop and called in disbelief, "Why would you want to shoot that bird?" Startled, he ran down the ravine and disappeared.

I was stunned. It was no good trying to find anything in all that snow-covered mass of underbrush.

But how could such a beautiful experience end this way? By nightfall, I decided to put out food as usual. And I forced myself to look up toward the chimney, just to be sure.

He was there! The little bird was there! Oh, what a load was lifted from me at that moment. When he saw me he flew down and perched on the porch railing. He put one foot up under him briefly, then sat down on the railing. It was the foot that had taken the boy's bad aim.

From then on, I put out lots of warm water all through the day, and my plucky little bird would fill his beak and go over his claw with it. Never have I seen such an example of courage in anything so small. The indomitable spirit of him! "You were protected," I told him, "because you're such a good bird and you really know how to fly!" And to myself, I added, "and because, thank goodness, that kid was such a poor shot."

During the January thaw, the bird began using his foot more normally, even when he lit on a branch.

One night there was a superb sunset. The bird and squirrel were there watching it - the bird swaying on an upward branch, the squirrel on a cutoff branch knob, with her bushy tail wrapped about her for warmth, like a fur parka.

Suddenly everything came together, and a painting took shape in my mind. The image was that of a rugged tree standing tall against the radiance of the sunset - complete with everything that should be in it, including the bird and squirrel - all framed by the window. I knew this was something I had to do - and I wouldn't rest until I had it on canvas.

These lessons - and the promise of renewal after hardship - could not be forgotten.

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