October 11, 2012

The Goldfinch

I recently had occasion to look through a collection of my essays entitled A Misunderstood God, which, by the way, is available for free in e-book format at all the major sellers. I came across this piece, and I thought it would be fun to share it with a younger generation of family members who may not be familiar with these events. The story is true. As for what it means, I will leave that to you, gentle reader.

In 1975 my father died suddenly from a heart attack. He had been playing golf, as he did nearly every weekend. A doctor who happened to be at a nearby tee rushed over to give assistance, but my father was already dead. It was Saturday, September 6, just short of his 61st birthday.
The next few days were a swirl of events as we immersed ourselves in planning for the wake and the funeral. My father had been a life-long resident of Cohasset, and we expected a big crowd at the wake, especially since my mother wanted to limit the wake to one night. Just the immediate family was enough to fill the Sons of Italy Hall. When it was all over, about 700 people had come, including my father’s kindergarten teacher.
The funeral was held at St. Anthony’s. My father was buried in a plain pine casket. The marker was a large stone from our back field. Beside him were my older brother Louis, who drowned as a young boy, and Maria, who died in infancy. Three simple graves that blended in with the hundreds of other graves in the cemetery, some plain like my father’s, most with large granite monuments, the names and dates carved deeply in cleanly chiseled strokes.
After the funeral, the family returned to my mother’s house to sit and talk and eat. This is something we have always done. People joke that Italians deal with most major events in their lives by cooking and consuming enormous amounts of food. But aside from the fact that preparing several different courses keeps everyone busy, the meal itself, which lasts for hours, surrounds you with people to share the grief and ease the burden. It was during this get-together after the funeral that a strange thing happened.
To set the stage, I must go back to something that happened almost a year before my father’s death, when my wife and I and our 10-month old son were visiting for the Thanksgiving holidays.
This particular incident stemmed, I suppose, from attempts by my younger sisters to get my father to quit smoking. Cursed with a bad heart all his life, his heavy smoking created a combination that was clearly unhealthy. My sisters had pestered him into quitting several times, but he always went back to smoking. Finally, a rough compromise emerged. He could smoke as long as nobody saw him doing it. This worked out for the most part, but after dinner, when my Dad really wanted a cigarette, he would contrive some sort of excuse to leave for a few minutes so he could sneak out in the back yard and smoke.
On this particular Thanksgiving visit, rain had fallen for several days, typical New England late-fall weather. Not being aware of the arrangement concerning smoking, I was surprised when Dad suggested that he and I go outside after dinner. After a bit of cajoling, I finally figured out that there was more to this than met the eye, so I put on my jacket and walked with him to the back yard. The early evening air was gray and heavy with a thick drizzle that chilled to the bone.
Our house had at that time two back yards. The first went back about 100 feet, ending in a cultivated area where my mother raised blueberries and my father kept some strawberry beds. Behind this was an acre field bounded by a stone fence that ran around the property. When we bought the house, the back field was a tangle of brambles and weeds. My job was to clear all that out, which I did using a contraption called a sickle bar, a self-propelled cutter that had a blade like an electric hedge clipper that ran along the ground. Since the brambles were all tangled together, on a single swath I would pull the entire row behind me, forcing me to stop and disentangle the mass of thorny branches about every 10 feet. It was the first really hard work I had ever done, and I have never forgotten it.
That field, now neatly mown, was to our backs as we huddled behind a lone cedar that grew at the corner of the blueberry patch. My dad hunched over as he lit his cigarette, then waved the match in the air to extinguish it, and let it fall to the damp ground. Looking out over the blueberry bushes, he began talking about a bird he had seen just the other day.
My dad knew nature from working outdoors all of his life. He knew the names of all the local bushes and trees and wild flowers, and he had a good knowledge of birds. He started telling me about this bird he had recently seen. Judging by his interest, he must not have seen this particular bird before. He described it as small and bright yellow.
I said I didn’t know for sure what it was, but I thought maybe we could look it up in our bird book, A Field Guide to the Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson. When we got back inside, we quickly flipped through and found our bird right away. It was a goldfinch. I had only seen them once myself, during the spring migration, when a flock settled on a small tree in the back field of our first house. They filled the bare tree with bright yellow leaves that fluttered and chirped. After a brief rest, they swooped away, a flashing yellow cloud dipping and rising off to the east.
We studied the picture awhile and decided that, yes, it had to have been a goldfinch. When we finished, I laid the book down on the hutch beside the dining room table, figuring that was the end of that. I eventually forgot about the goldfinch and was not reminded of it again until the day of my father’s funeral, during the get-together at my mother’s house.
The main room of the house was a kitchen and family room, divided by the kitchen counter. Set against the counter on the family room side was a large rectangular table, made from pine, with two leaves that ran the length of it. My father had built the table years ago. He always sat at one end, in front of a window. My mother sat at the other end, and we kids would squeeze in along the long leaf.
On big occasions, we would pull the table away from the counter that divided the dining area from the kitchen so more people could sit at the table. On that day, the table was covered with large China platters, filled with layers of sliced meats and cold cuts, breads and rolls, salads and vegetables. Little dishes of pickles and black olives filled the chinks between the platters, making a sturdy mosaic of foods.
I was sitting at the dining room table, facing into the kitchen. My father’s chair sat empty to my left, the window behind it. I was listening to Aunt Georgina, my mother’s older sister. Like a chess master who can play many games at the same time, Aunt Georgina had the ability to track several different conversations at once, and she would interject comments into these conversations at random moments. Unfortunately, she was usually about 5 sentences behind, so her comments never quite caught up with the current train of thought.
I was trying to decipher one such comment that ranged back to something said about 5 minutes before, when Aunt Georgina and I were both startled by a splash of yellow as a bird flew up to the window, hung there beating its wings frantically for a few seconds, and then swooped away. Aunt Georgina let out a cry, pointing excitedly out the window. All the conversations stopped as everyone in the room looked over to listen as she explained what had just happened.
Birds occupy a prominent place in Italian superstitions concerning death. It is commonly believed that if a bird flies up to your window at night, it is looking for a soul to take away. A bird inside the house is very bad luck. My mother was horrified when she visited our first house and discovered our family room wallpaper featured huge birds in bright colors.

With this in mind, it is easy to imagine the babble of excited conversation that broke out, especially among the old woman, after they understood what we had seen. Aunt Georgina immediately proclaimed it a sign that Louis, God rest his soul, was in heaven and that everything was all right. There were fervid murmurs of agreement throughout the room.

Meanwhile, I quietly went first to the hutch and then to the bookcase and found the bird book. I laid it in my hand, and it opened to the last page used, as books often do. There, looking back at me, was the picture of a goldfinch that my father and I had studied together, the one that looked like the bird he had seen fluttering around his garden.

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