Saturday, November 17, 2012

Memorable Thanksgivings

A woman who worked at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey when I did shared this story from her childhood with me. Although lengthy, I’ve preserved her words to give you a sense of the story’s emotional importance for her:

When my father was a boy, an old man came to their almond ranch in Oakley, California with a beautiful parrot on his shoulder, asking for my grandmother. He was an old grammar school friend of hers, had gone off to sea on a tall ship, and they hadn't seen each other for years. When Myra, whom our family called "Dode,” came outside, she was happy to see the old man. While they were exchanging greetings and catching up on old times, the beautiful green parrot with the brilliant blue, crimson and gold feathers paced back and forth on the old man's shoulder, yelling "Get out of here, you Old Bat !!"

Dode asked why the parrot said that. The old man explained that she'd been the Captain's Bird for decades on board the ship, which sailed around the tip of South America -- she was already at least 50 years old -- but he needed to find a new home for her because she attacked the ship's cleaning lady's broom whenever she entered the Captain's cabin. My father begged my grandmother to let him keep the bird and she agreed. The sailor was happy, the bird was happy, and my father was very happy. Dode was also happy, until "Lorie,” the name my father gave his new friend, started attacking her broom while flapping wildly and screaming, "Get out of here, you Old Bat!” But soon Dode learned not to use the broom when Lorie was around, and then everyone was happy.

Years went by, and my father loved Lorie very, very much. He taught her many words and phrases, and she went with him everywhere, on his shoulder. Then my father went off to college and couldn't take Lorie with him. But they were reunited every weekend, when he came home.

Then he met my mother at college, and they fell in love. When my father proposed and my mother said yes, he told her there was only one thing she'd have to agree to -- that he'd get to keep Lorie. My mother agreed, and everyone was happy.

Then WWIII came, and my father went off to sea, like the old man, leaving Lorie with his parents. He survived Iwo Jima and came home. When his ship came in at the pier in San Diego, my mother, Dode, Grandpa, and Lorie were all there -- Lorie perched expectantly on Grandpa's shoulder. Everyone was very, very happy.

When I was born, not long after my father came back from the war, in the central farm valley of California, one of the first things I remember is the beautiful green parrot with the bright blue, red, and gold feathers in the tree outside the back door. When I could talk, my father explained that she was a Free Bird, and that she always -- always -- came home.

As a young girl, my Mother and father and I, and later also my brother, when he was born, would go on mushroom hunts in the tall green grass in the open fields by our house. Lorie would be on my father's shoulder, as he reached down to pick the glistening white treasures in the grass. On one of the mushroom hunts, when I was about five, we saw a possum in the grass. My father said to stay away from it, because it might not be well. When it ran away, he said possums were known to eat birds.

On the Thanksgiving night not long after that mushroom hunt, all the lights were out, and we were all asleep. Lorie, as usual, was in her tree by the back door, or so we thought. Suddenly, there was a fluttering sound on the back porch and the light above the back door came on. I heard my father get up and go to the door to see what made the light come on. I heard the door open and then my father exclaim, "Oh…!"

We all jumped out of bed and went to the door. There on the porch just under the light switch was a foot long mass of sticky blood and feathers my father was lovingly, ever so lovingly, picking up off the landing and held in his arms. He held it up to his face and slowly, carefully looked into its eyes, which were open and blinking, as if to be sure of something. Tears welled up in his eyes, which fell onto what was left of the face of the thing in his arms, and then he whispered, "Lorie? Lorie! Oh, Lorie!"

That night, my father gently bathed Lorie in the sink, as my Mother had the turkey earlier in the day, carefully removing the blood and dirt from what was left of her beautiful feathers. He made a special mixture of warm milk and stuffing left over from Thanksgiving dinner, and dropped it drip by drip into her open beak, using the dropper from the Thanksgiving gravy. He made a special bed for her in a box, with soft towels for a mattress, and fixed up a light at the top of the box, to dry her and keep her warm. Then he got a blanket from the closet, laid it out on the floor next to her box, and was there the whole night -- and many nights thereafter. For weeks, every few hours, my father would come in from the fields to check on Lorie and make sure she had everything she needed, and just to be there. He'd talk to her, and try to get her to talk again.

One day while my father was home for lunch, she suddenly yelled "Get out of here, you Old Bat!" to my mother from her box. My Mother laughed, and I thought my father would never stop crying for joy.

Slowly, but surely, Lorie started looking like her old self again. She wanted to eat more and more. One by one, her feathers came back -- brilliant green, with the highlights of bright blue, red, and gold. Even her eye healed, and the soft tufts of especially bright green came back on the top of her head. And she wanted to be back in her tree.

My father, who raised cotton, took one of the huge metal cages from an old cotton picker, cut a hole in the side near the middle and fitted it with a small latched door, big enough for Lorie to get through, but not big enough for anything else to get in. Then he hung the entire thing -- all ten by ten feet of it -- half way up Lorie's tree.

Lorie lived happily in her tree house by the back door, in all her glorious beauty, for many, many years after that. When my father came in from the fields, he'd open the door and she'd fly out and sit on his shoulder. As he puttered around the house, garden, and shop, she'd be right there with him.

One Thanksgiving dinner, many years later, with Lorie in her house in the tree outside, my father was telling the story of Lorie. Suddenly, in the middle of telling it, he threw his head back and started to cry.

"Oh, My God!" he said, wiping his eyes. "I just realized! After she was attacked by the possum and somehow made it back home, it was Lorie who landed on the light switch and turned on the back door light that night!" Then we all cried together. Without saying a word, we raced outside to make sure Lorie was all right. She was. My father went back in the house and came out with a big plate brimming with Thanksgiving stuffing, which Lorie ate gratefully.

They were the two most wonderful Thanksgivings we ever had.

Reading her story about her father and Lorie leaves me with two poignant Thanksgiving questions. First, for whose transformative love do you give thanks? Like Lorie, our lives are richer – if not preserved -– by someone who has truly loved us. Second, whose life can you transform -– to whom can you give life itself -- through your love?

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