Parenthood has always baffled me. When I was a teen, my parents fretted that I would either get a girl pregnant or do drugs bought from hippies, possibly one leading to the other, or vice versa.
I never understood how they thought either would occur short of divine intervention. The week I turned 16 I got a Social Security card. A week later, I started working evenings and weekends at a textile mill. I rarely had access to the family car but to run errands whose time and distance my parents already knew. There was no internet, and we lived in Shelby, North Carolina.
The rest of the time I was at school or at home (my youngest sibling- ten years my junior- put me in my display case when I declined to take her somewhere by car without the parental OK: "You're so boring, all you do is get up, go to school, go to work, come home, do homework, go to bed, and take the trash to the landfill on Saturdays!" I tried explaining how the landfill was the highlight of my week, to no avail).
There was another factor at work, too, and when I came out what was once shunned was now desired: my father chided me for denying him grandchildren bearing his surname.
When I told him my partner and I were discussing adoption, he laughed.
We shelved that idea. No point giving kids grandparents who wish they weren't.
I've been an uncle and a godfather, once each, and succeeded at neither. I was not given the Godfather's Notebook; the parents divorced. Mom and goddaughter moved to California.
The friends were divided in the decree, so I stayed in Oregon with the dad, who went on to get married twice more. I moved to Seattle and he referred money-losing cases to me from his prosperous practice in clergy abuse. The church's law firm would get my notices of appearance and write back, "Dismiss it now. save us the trouble."
So I was surplus to requirements almost from the get-go, and let it drop.
I met my goddaughter once, back at the turn of the century; a couple of years ago she ran me to ground and added me to her Christmas card list.
I lived on the West Coast when my nephew was born, and in the hubbub of the first grandchild and the rest of the family at cradleside, no one thought to tell me until several weeks later. I got poor uncle performance ratings for years, always sending birthday cards and gifts late.
But I got to see him on trips home until I learned I could only come by myself. Happily, his paternal grandparents lived in Oregon so stops in Seattle were easy and frequent. My nephew thought me cool, but not nearly so cool as Uncle John, my partner (who was, in fact, the very essence of coolth). Little kids are very accepting of adults as a class. Then they learn sorting habits.
When I moved back to the Carolinas in 2008, I had lots of conversations with my teenaged nephew. They were all variant inflections of "yo." Then he went off to be a chef somewhere.
So I've been chuffed, the last month, at successfully acting as, well, what?- a birdfather? a guardian ad avian? for two additions to the neighborhood population of Carolina wrens.
Mom and dad have lived next door for several years: first in the woodpile, until I quadrupled it in size. No one likes living in a construction site, so they decamped to the copse next door:
But they liked the back deck with its elevated perch over the area. I keep the den door onto the deck open days in spring and summer. I work at the other end of the house and only turn up evenings for an hour or two of television in the den, so it was some time before I noticed Mr and Mrs Wren (their kind pair for long periods- often for life- so I accord them the honorifics) were building a nest in the Christmas village that lives on top of a seven-foot curio cabinet:
(It has wires and lights and it's just easier to leave it up there).
Last year they tried building one in the jabot* over a den window and I had to deny the building permit on that one. Just a bad site.
This year I am officially old. While I have dodged most of Thomas Harrington's dictum, in Leviathan, that the life of man is nasty, brutish and short, mine is longer than I'd like on "solitary," so I told them, "Have at it."
What the people thought, who suddenly found a three-story straw structure going up in their driveway and swallowing their station wagon, Christmas tree on the roof deck, I do not know. But I can guess they found life akin to the Twilight Zone episode "Stopover in a Quiet Town," only with the added terror of residents in a 1950s American International horror film, their world overtaken by ravening, radiation-upsized animals and insects.
The biggest trees in town- which looks more than a little like the cartoon city of South Park- were the first to topple as Mrs Wren started airlifting supplies. The streets are narrow and irregular, the hillside steep.
But she went to it with a will, and before long she was coming in about dusk and settling in for the evening. Mrs Wren didn't seem to mind my tastes in television- which run to talking heads and TCM- and she didn't get in my way. Wrens have been picking nesting sites for way longer than I've been around. They know their mind.
It would be interesting to watch, I thought. If it didn't work out, then one of two principles were at work: natural selection, or "God's ways are inscrutable."
Wrens like hipster, bohemian nesting sites; old boots are very handy. They just put in the lining, and Bob's your uncle.
Nest site is in any kind of cavity, including natural hollows in trees or stumps, old woodpecker holes, crevices among upturned roots of fallen trees, sometimes in middle of brushpile; also in nest boxes, crevices in buildings, on shelf in garage, many other artificial sites. Usually less than 10' above the ground. Nest is bulky mass of twigs, leaves, weeds, with lining of softer material such as moss, grass, animal hair, feathers. A piece of snakeskin is frequently added. Often a domed nest, with entrance on side. Both sexes help build, female adds most of lining.Mom also proved a useful alarm clock, her one-note "tdink!" starting about 6.30 am. I got up and opened the deck door, then evaluated whether to stay up or get another 90 minutes of dreams involving stories on Morning Edition.
About two weeks ago, I started hearing little "cheeps"- barely audible over the evening news. Mom, and then Dad, started a two-bird Berlin Airlift that ran fourteen hours a day for a fortnight, ferrying in bugs and worms. They stopped, and the fledglings went quiet, each night about 8 pm. I then closed up for the night.
Ma and Pa began scolding me for walking through at inopportune times. Wrens are very territorial; they and the mockingbirds in my neighbor's gardenia are always at it over the DMZ in the back yard, the Birds on Broadway production of West Side Charlotte Story.
Only there's no romance. It's all a turf battle, and nothing is more in need of a wide security perimeter than a nest in a Christmas village.
Mid-morning today, I walked through en route to the kitchen and the bottomless iced tea pitcher. Mrs Wren pitched a fit and flew outside- from the den carpet. Something was up.
I caught sight of another small creature legging it around behind a side table.
Graduation Day, I thought, and went back to work.
At 11:30, on a refill trip, I heard the anxious, one-note whine of infants, but not in the village. I stepped to the open door and found Mrs Wren suited up as Flight Instructor Wren. I sat on the couch and watched her two pilot trainees practice takeoffs and landings on the deck for an hour.
They retired to the corner of the deck, between railings and the Very Large Potted Yucca, for an extended debriefing.
Then I saw a flash of motion. One of the kids had launched, flown thirty feet or so, and landed near the mouth of a dry stream bed I've been building. Shortly after, the second- Mom was gone- followed. They took flight again and disappeared into the woods.
I am, truly and literally, an empty nester tonight.
*For several summers in college, I sold drapery material and hardware in the company store. I know from jabots.