Let the humming begin

My summers begin with a hummingbird's song.

On a day in June, I pack the station wagon for the lake. Dinah, the dog, watches anxiously, concerned that I'll leave her behind. She knows where we're going just as surely as if she'd been the one crossing the days off the calendar. Dinah's summers begin with a dive off the dock.

I slide three cases of soft drinks next to her crate and toss in a duffel filled with T-shirts, shorts, and my old purple swimming suit. A blue-canvas tote I won at the school fair is filled with books. "On Writing Well" is tucked between James Thurber and E.B. White. My computer sits next to me on the passenger seat where my sons used to ride.

The drive to the cottage takes six hours. Chicago to Madison, Wis., to Wausau to towns too wonderfully puny even to mention. The air's a tonic I wish I could bottle.

"I can't make you love me if you don't," I sing. "I can't make your heart feet something it won't." I sound just like Bonnie Raitt. I sound so much like her, in fact, I'm surprised my brown hair doesn't just explode from its barrette and grow wild and red like hers.

Dinah shifts around, trying to cover her ears, I suppose, like my sons used to do whenever I sang. But I don't have to worry about that anymore. They've grown up. Now they define their summers in their own way, too.

It's 350 miles to the cabin. But the fragile-seeming ruby-throats' journey much farther. My bird book says some even fly across the Gulf of Mexico. I wonder if they will be there when I arrive. I imagine them sleeping in tiny nests high in the ancient pines, splashing in warm woodsy rain puddles, zipping around, probing open flowers with their long slim tongues. Mostly, though, I imagine them waiting for me. I want to believe we remember each other from one summer to the next, and that when it's time, my hummingbirds will come back.

They wake me every morning, like noisy children playing musical chairs, pushing and jockeying for one of the four red-plastic perches that sprout from the bottom of the feeder. I don't know why the greedy, scrappy little dive bombers can't get along.

One will land, then bounce, light as a raindrop, on a slim pine bough. Such a tiny bundle of nerves, yet so graceful when it glides toward the feeder. It pokes its beak, long and sharp as a toothpick, into the sweet, clear liquid until one bubble rises to the top and I feel the same pleasure I used to feel watching my sons drink hungrily from baby bottles.

I'm a good mother. I mix the hummingbird nectar carefully (one part sugar, four parts water) from mid-June until Labor Day. Then, like children, they have to be let go. I bring in the feeders so my little kamikazes won't miss their migratory trip back to Panama or Chile or wherever it is they go.

When I see the cabin, I think only of hummingbirds. Have they come back? When will I see the first one? How many will there be this year? I'm ready for my summer to begin.

But I make myself wait. The hummers are like the smallest, most exquisitely wrapped gift under the Christmas tree. I save them for last. I feed Dinah, unpack the car, open windows, yank the sheet off the couch. I flit and fly, back and forth, room to room, until finally it's time for the celebration.

"Let's give 'em something to talk about," I begin, taking the feeders from the shelf. "A little mystery to figure out," I warble, measuring the sugar, stirring until it dissolves. "Let's give 'em something to talk about," I trill and fill each feeder. "How about l-u-u-u-v?"

I hang one feeder outside my bedroom, one by the kitchen, one by the screened porch. I guess I'm just a sucker for little things. Miniature china tea sets. Babies' fingernails. I'd like to hold a hummingbird in my hand and feel his heart beat. I'll bet it feels like a newborn's pulse beating through the soft spot on top of his head.

I put the rest of the hummingbird juice into the refrigerator and wipe spilled sugar off the counter. Dinah's been waiting on the dock an awfully long time, a big stick gripped between her teeth.

"I'm coming, Di!" I shout, opening the porch door.

I hear him before I see him.

The first little chirp. So soon, I think, so soon this year. I look up to see the startled hummingbird tumble backward like an acrobat and fly off into the blue sky.

"Oh, Dinah!" I squeal, running to the dock. "Dinah!" I yell, whipping the stick far out into the water. "They came back!"

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