Coffee and nicotine. Wicker furniture and the sun rise. I am alone as the sun breaks over the far off line of trees and bathes the front porch in its paternal warmth. This is my favorite part of the day: the promise of another morning being fulfilled.
I woke up early today. Early for a Saturday that is. Penny, our thirteen-week-old yellow lab apparently has yet to be trained in “weekends.” Like clockwork the high pitch yelp of her full bladder wakes me from dreams and rest. “Come on Penny, let’s go out,” I tell her as I fumble with her kennel’s latch mechanism. She stretches and then relieves herself seconds after her feet hit the grass of the back yard. Still rubbing Friday night from my bleary eyes I praise her, “Good potty Penny. Good girl.” Back inside I begin to make my morning coffee as she playfully chews on whichever puppy toy was left on the kitchen floor overnight. She’ll get her breakfast, a green St. Patrick’s Day mug full of Purina after I’ve hit the grind button on my over-priced, very modern looking coffee maker. She waits patiently for me to finish my tasks. I am the alpha dog in her dark round eyes: the man of the house and leader of the pack.
It is still early spring. Cold enough for the furnace to regularly pump warm air through the house but warm enough to survive without my wool socks. As I make my way over the refinished wooden floorboards of the house –quietly, softly as to not wake Betsy and Jackson- I snag the novel I’m reading and a pack of matches. A long time ago my mother fostered the habit of reading. At some later point I began to celebrate small moments with a healthy dose of nicotine. The end of a good novel is a favorite. A sunset is another. A chance to grill dinner, barefoot out in the backyard is close second to the end of a novel. Little victories and bad excuses. Either way I know the smoke I’m about to have will be delicious.
As I clip the end of my cigar and thumb through my book I’m struck by the habits we acquire and the cycles that they take. I grew up with a faithful dog, now my family has one as well. As mentioned before, my grade school teacher mother instilled a love of books in me at a very early age. My dad spent his time teaching us respect and integrity. Whether I was playing baseball in the front lawn or spending a rainy day with a good book I think their life lessons embedded themselves rather deeply. It is smoking that drives my dad nuts though. At one point I probably did it to spite him. I cannot remember necessarily doing so, but there’s a chance. What will my son do that I despise? Will he take up smoking long after I have quit the habit for good? Will he get piercings and tattoos all over his body? What if he chooses to root against my favorite team on Sunday afternoons?
My eyes fall back to the pages of my book as Penny lazily chews on a piece of rawhide at my feet. My favorite coffee mug gets refilled once or twice and my cigar slowly burn its way towards my fingers. Not much to do today really, but this quiet time in the morning is still very appreciated. Within the hour Jackson will begin to roll around a little more. Shortly after that he’ll call out, “Dee?,” then he’ll pause. “Ma!?” At twenty three months I thought he’d have a much larger vocabulary and better pronunciation. I still expect him to start talking about the significance of soybean futures at dinner one night. I guess we’ll have to wait for that though.
Suddenly, with no hints of its coming there is a loud, “Scratch, scratch, scratch” coming from above us. Penny and I look at each other. “What was that!?” I ask the dog, fully expecting her to answer me. There’s definitely something in the roof. It sounds big, like massive Dunkirk squirrel big. It keeps going, scratching and digging at something five feet about my head. Separated only by a tiny bit of lumber and old white paint I wonder for a second if I may be in danger. Just as quickly I wonder if there’s enough noise to wake Jack up. After a minute of what sounds like horrendous amounts of damage to my house it subsides. By this time my face is pressed firmly against the window trying to see if there is anything above me. Besides noticing that we should Windex more, there is nothing. Then, with no warning, a bird swoops out of the eaves and disappears up the drive way. “No way that racket was a bird,” I emphatically let Penny know.
Minutes pass. My cigar has gone out and Penny is back to her now soggy piece of rawhide that I’ll most likely step on later in the day. Suddenly the bird is back, lacking the hammer and saw I expected him to have, but back nonetheless. He grasps the cable wire that runs from that corner of the house to the street with prehistoric talons. It’s a plain black bird, nothing spectacular, kind of ugly in fact. “What are you doing to my roof,” I think at him. Then he turns his head the other way and the sun hits him. “Wow,” I say aloud. His head has turned a dark, almost metallic purple with the tiniest hint of green. He’s suddenly not as ugly as he was a second ago. Again I address him, “I wonder what kind of bird you really are.” He flies away, either not interested in my conversation or lacking the courage to speak to a human. While he’s away I run upstairs to find my bird book. Always unsure why I bought a field guide for birds, I can finally justify that long lost twenty dollars.
I sit back down in my chair and flip through the pages. “How are these things even organized,” I wonder. I see ducks, hawks, parking lot birds, seagulls. Wow, these books have a lot of information in them! Then I find the quote, unquote normal birds. Robins, sparrows, cardinals, and then, on page 310 I see him. He could be a Brewer’s Blackbird I think. Nope, they don’t live around here. Oh look, Common Grackles are, well, common around here. I scan the description looking for similarities, “Male with iridescent purple on head.” That’s it! Very content with my research skills I wait for him to come back. He does quickly but vanishes back into my roof. There was something in his beak this time but I couldn’t tell what it was. Is he building a nest? Remodeling my unused space? It’s then that I hear a new sound. Tiny chirps. Quiet at first, then a little louder and more frequent. “He has babies!” I excitedly tell Penny, who is now half asleep under the other chair.
I am immediately proud to have to a family of birds living above me. Their existence reflects and gives clarity to my own life; refining the sometimes confusing roles of being a father, a husband, an adult: a microcosm of relationships and responsibilities just above my head.
That was three years ago now. Each year, in late winter usually, I will hear him digging around in the roof. Scratching at this, clawing at that. After a month or so we hear the chirping begin. Softly and slowly at first, building to a chorus of hungry screaming blackbirds not old enough to find their own food. Just about that same time every year I think of blocking the hole that my Blackbird family uses, but I don’t. I probably never will. I like the idea of a tiny family being raised above my porch. It’s wholesome in a world that seems to have less and less wholesomeness available in it. Honestly, I leave them alone because their existence makes me smile. I look forward to those very seldom, unseasonably warm February or March mornings when I can sit down with a cup of coffee and a good book only to be interrupted by my blackbird family having breakfast. It reminds me of what I’m doing with my family, what people and animals have done for millennia. It reminds me that this might be my favorite part of day.