A Tenor With Feathers

I didn't expect that taking Hannah to her fifth-grade school play would be a life-changing experience. These performances become routine events for parents. With good planning and good effort, they usually turn out to be successful family outings. On this particular occasion, the girls and I had time to spare.

We decided to swing by the mall for a quick look at shoes for the actress-in-waiting. Big sister would be happily appeased with a frosty, frothy, fruity drink. (Such acquiescence later rose in price.)

As we came to a pet store, we paused in unison in front of the large window. The kittens and puppies frolicked and rolled and tore at our hearts. I did a quick mental inventory of our home menagerie: two large dogs, a cat, a gerbil, and two rabbits. A single mother cannot get carried away with emotions of the moment.

But then the knell sounded that brought reason to a pile of shattered good intentions. I heard birds. Not little chirping birds, but bold jungle sounds that meant business.

A shipment of Amazon parrots had newly arrived, and each was noisily staking out its territory on a series of crisscrossed branches. Flashes of orange and yellow appeared when wings flapped, and beautiful shades of blue accented the vibrant green feathers. I thought of Billy, a parrot more than 40 years old, that I had taken care of during summers when his owners traveled. I was Hannah's age, and Billy would let no one but me near him.

His cage was tall and elegant, made of curving brass with elaborate detail. Billy had a few things to say, but mostly he loved to sing. He knew only part of one line, but he sat on my arm, puffed up his feathers, and with solemn dignity sang, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of lib...." That's it. His owners said he was too old to learn anything new, but Billy was happy to perform solo or share the stage in a duet. However, the tune remained the same.

Now I was looking at fluttering reminders of a happy childhood. "Girls," I heard myself say, "what would you think of getting a parrot?" We picked a bird with gentle behavior and voice. His prospects for success seemed more certain than those of his more strident neighbors.

"Is this a male or female?" I inquired.

"Can't tell without cutting it open," was the reply.

All our pets were females; we were an all-girl household. This addition, we determined, was going to be a male. In the car on the way to Hannah's school, we decided to name him after the play. He would be Oliver.

Perhaps because Oliver spent his first evening with us in a cat carrier listening to a fifth-grade musical, he has always loved music. Loud music. He seems partial to opera, but I stumbled on this fact quite by accident.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with doors and windows wide open, allowing the spring-scented breeze through the screens. The radio was turned up high, and I was enjoying a full-length opera performance. Suddenly, there were odd punctuations of aria, random bursts of enthusiastic song. Tracing these outbursts, I found myself in front of Oliver's open perch.

HE was not a shy performer. Stretching as tall as he could while still maintaining his grip, his feathered frame swayed with the music. Certain rhythms and chords made him lift one foot and then the other, as if marching in place. High notes caused his head to tilt back, and a series of squawks accompanied the honeysuckle breezes.

Oliver has never learned to talk. He says "Hello," if you have a good imagination and a lot of patience. I tried to teach him, "Hi, Mom," in anticipation of the time when the girls would be grown and gone, but it didn't work.

The girls are gone, and he is still singing opera. Or so we pretend. I think his favorite is "The Tales of Hoffmann." It's a story of unfulfilled love, and he seems particularly involved with the chorus of male voices. Maybe it's a bonding thing, and he really is a boy bird.

But I do still owe Hannah a pair of new shoes.

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