Finding a Lost Bird and Lost Words

Where and why, I sometimes wondered, in that first hot humid summer we lived in San Antonio had I become so alienated from Art, my 10-year-old firstborn?

Wasn't this the same kid with whom I'd run footraces, made up silly words to songs, and taken long rambles in the park?

Why was he now a stranger - present at meals, sleeping in our house, but no longer a buddy, hardly an acquaintance? He still looked the same with his rumpled brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and occasional engaging grin. Hey, hadn't I been his Scout den mother in recent history?

In the world where I lived with his father, Joe, and Art's three small siblings, Katie, three years old, and Alan and Laurie, six-month-old twins, I folded diapers, bathed the babies, ran after Katie, and fixed meals.

Art lived in the tropical-looking wilderness behind our house in this newly developed part of the city. This is where he really came alive.

When I looked past our yard down the hill to this land, I saw the jungle Harrison Ford waded through in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It looked ominous and deadly, filled with hissing snakes, slithering reptiles, and peppered with rodent holes - the home of tarantulas and other fearsome arthropods.

For my son, Art, this same acreage was a paradise, a territory where he, the conqueror, observed birds, beetles, and a whole zoo of creatures with whom he felt a kinship. He tamed the chameleons and lizards. He caged the garter and bull snakes at the end of our property.

Far from his jungle, I would sometimes corral Art into folding diapers for the twins. Great mountains of cloth diapers piled up on the coffee table and the couch as we worked. For the great explorer, it was a demeaning task, especially since Art's small sisters and brother demanded so much of my attention.

Fortunately, there were still a couple of things Art liked about me. In an unguarded moment, he told me he liked that I made rolls and fresh bread. Then too, I let him keep pets - so I wasn't a total failure as a parent. There was T-Bone, the gerbil; Pete, the beagle; and Budgie, the blue-and-white parakeet.

Pete was a sort of peace offering from his dad and me for not being free to spend more time with him.

Pete was totally untrained. The only command he obeyed was a call to dinner. His master remembered to feed him occasionally, sometimes forgot to change his water, and it seemed Pete was always underfoot.

I'd trip over him as I carried a baby, bath towel, and soap to the kitchen sink that served as a tub for the twins. When I tried to pull him outside, he ignored my calls, planting his hindquarters squarely on the kitchen linoleum, until I dragged him out the kitchen door onto the patio.

Then Pete would howl, long piteous moans that could be heard for blocks around, but which Art did not appear to hear.

The tension began to build until one day came the showdown over Pete. I had put freshly baked bread on the patio table to cool. Glancing out the back window a few minutes later, I saw the beagle, his jaws full, taking off with my prized bread.

Furious, I grabbed a folded newspaper, ran after him, whopped him with the paper, and scolded, "Bad dog! You bad dog."

Suddenly, Art appeared out of the bedroom where he'd been reading a science book, angry in his turn.

"Look what Pete did. He got our bread," I screamed. "You don't watch him; you don't feed him. I don't have time to take care of Pete, too."

"He's just a puppy," Art retorted, folding the trembling dog in his arms. "And you never have time, do you?"

All my anger gone, I watched as boy and dog retreated down the hill. I knew that Art was retreating not just down that hill, but in his mind he was going further away, past his jungle, beyond the neighborhood to some safe place where I could no longer reach him with my complaints and demands.

A few days later, Art was airing Budgie, the parakeet, on our back patio. As he was adjusting her food dish she slipped past his fingers and out the open door of the cage, flying toward the wilderness at the foot of the hill.

"Mom, Mom, I need your help!" Art called. "Budgie's loose. Please help me catch her."

Eager to make amends, I resolutely took off my apron and followed my explorer down toward the forbidding jungle. Like a soldier volunteering for a special patrol from which he might not return, I plunged into the wilderness after Art, who was now far ahead. My sandals slipped and slid on the uneven terrain of broken branches and into swampy pools. The humid air entered my parched throat in squeaky uneven gasps. The branches with their dried spider webs entwined in Spanish moss tore at my hair.

After a few minutes, I heard Art call. "Mom, she's not down here." Gradually, I breathed in a normal fashion.

Art came leaping through the underbrush toward me. "Let's look down the road," he said. Relieved to be unscathed and smiling with relief, I joined him on the road. Almost at once Art shouted, "I think I see her!"

On a scraggly olive tree, just inside the premises of our backyard was something blue and white, fluttering and then resting forlornly on a thorny branch.

"Budgie, you're all right!" Art greeted the frightened bird as he cupped her in his hands and, holding her tightly, started up the hill to return her to the safety of her cage.

Of course, we had cookies and lemonade to celebrate, and Art and I, forgetting our recent quarrel, joked together.

Then Art told me that he didn't think he wanted to fold any more diapers. No, he didn't mind taking out the garbage, and yes, he would change Pete's water every day. After that, Art occasionally told me about a spider or tarantula he'd made friends with, but he thought I should come see the critters for myself.

I told him, "It's your territory. I'll fold the diapers." We both thought that was funny.

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