All the birds fall from the sky
By rob mclennan
I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elizabeth says.
I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.
Ali Smith, Autumn
Moira places her palms on the wet soil of their suburban front lawn. After such a long winter, she feels the relief of melted snowdrifts, revealing her discoloured lawn, slowly renewing fresh green.
Toddler Paige bounds down the walk and sets her own index into a mud puddle. Pulls a dirty finger. Calls for her mother to remove the stain from her skin. She holds out her hand, repeating: Muh.
Their weekday morning routine: packing Paige into stroller, and Amelia, who walks alongside, hefting backpack to school. Three blocks, three blocks. Parents and grandparents and children convene. Traffic guard smiles and waves.
At the end of each school day, the pair await Amelia’s release. Paige, released from the stroller, trails a trio of ducks through the swampy lawn. Requires collection, although more for the ducks’ sake. Says to her mother: Huh. Folds her arms to demonstrate. No, baby, no, Moira responds. Ducks don’t want hugs.
Paige stops. Makes a sad face. Bereft.
Moira is solo parenting this week. He texts one-liners between conference sessions, and she returns snaps of the girls at the park, the playground, the backyard. A bedtime Skype that goes awry; that sets Amelia to howling, attempting to reach through the screen. After the routine of brushed teeth, potty and vitamins, Moira coaxes the bedsheets as best she can, prepares a space between two, and reads stories. Paige in her crib, set as sidecar against their queen-sized bed. Amelia, the respite from her own solo bedroom, thrilled for the company.
When Moira was small, a bird in her father’s jacket pocket. One of the palm-sized carvings he’d spent hours forming from wood and steel blade. A sparrow. She would ask to see it, to touch it. Hand-painted and smooth, and cool to the touch. Always there.
At the schoolyard fence, Paige fills her pockets with gravel. Breadcrumbs she will trail through the house, or reveal, like an amateur magician, stock-still in the shopping mall.
The following afternoon, they await Amelia’s release as Moira scrolls Twitter via her cellphone. Retweeted, a stranger posts a selfie in a t-shirt that reads “Joan Cusack,” and the responses include far too many who correct the presumed misspelling of “John.” He has a sister, you know. Doesn’t anyone remember her from Grosse Pointe Blank? Toys? Her own short-lived sitcom? Moira shakes her head. Chicago, show yourselves.
By Friday afternoon, Moira decides that the girls should visit their grandfather. Moira gathers post-nap Paige from her room and Amelia from school, and begins the two-hour drive to her father’s small property along the St. Lawrence River. Paige drifts into sleep. Amelia complains. They drive.
Once in his driveway, they discover him resting in his handmade Muskoka chair, staring out at the water. Walking cane across lap. His arms in a book.
His backyard is birdsong. A clarion of loons. The snail-set of sailboats.
Seventy-eight years old, Finlay seems positively ancient. When he was younger, they said of him: he could coax butter from toast. He could charm the leaves from the trees. He could talk all the birds from the sky. All the birds fall. Moira listens to her father as he speaks to his granddaughters. Both girls, transfixed.
She collects their bags from the car. Amelia calls, cooing: Poppy. He turns. A decade after the death of Moira’s mother, he remains in the family home. Why shouldn’t he? Where he has always been. A house his own grandfather raised, built with his hands. Perhaps the biggest reason her father is still here, alone. He talks everyone out of their well-intentioned plans to remove him.
Moira’s father: bookish, charmed. Charming. A man who spoke, as Moira’s mother once described, with “the efficiency of apples.”
She sees it, even if she isn’t sure how to explain it.
He takes the girls to the shed, to collect seed for the birdfeeder. Both girls gather handfuls. Two trails thread through the yard. They breadcrumb.
Moira moves through his house, an eclectic mix of handmade styles and purpose; all of his choices based on whatever home renovation show he’d seen that day. Another shelf, another wall.
She discovers ants in the cat food; she can’t tell where they’re coming in.
Upstairs, Moira begins to dig through her father’s attic storage. All that she has left behind, it would seem, down to a series of unmarked cardboard boxes. High school yearbooks, journals. Her wedding dress.
Her father, less sentimental about objects or things. A rarely-opened faux-steamer trunk passed down from her own grandfather. Cracked schoolbooks, postcards. Victorian lace.
Diaries, birthday cards, school assignments. Notebooks filled with scribbles and bad poems. How much does she leave, and how much should she carry? Is memory to be stored, kept, retained? Set on a shelf?
She finds a framed photograph from Disney World, the spring break Moira was sixteen years old: big-haired, braced. A bright yellow t. Her mother’s stern face, with her hair in a perm. Her mother’s grimace an oddity against such a colourful backdrop. A perfect replica, she realizes, of two-year-old Paige.
She has been dead a long time.
One of Moira’s close friends lives with her widowed mother, and when she marries, moves her new husband in.
She wonders: what might that be like to live with your wife and her mother? How many people in the house must he have a relationship with? What does that do to the intimacy between a couple?
And what made her think of this, now? She has no idea of her father’s plans. Plays cards close to the chest. What happens when her father dies? Where will this go? The world dissolves.
She remembers the tensions between her own mother and paternal grandmother. Her grandmother widowed so early, and her father an only child, raised with considerable maternal influence. There was bound to be conflict. He was torn between loyalties, refusing to choose. In the end, the two women forced to fight it out.
She had an uncle who lived the same way, with wife and mother-in-law, which she always found odd. Knowing full well generations of families have lived and even still do this way, perhaps all of her ideas are outdated. Perhaps she is the one who compartmentalizes, and can’t allow her relationships to mingle.
What might she do if this happens? What might she do if she hasn’t the chance?
In her father’s attic, child-free, she catches her breathing. She listens, the first in a long while. She recalls her mindfulness regime: the app she’d set on random, to ring a bell to remind her to pause, and take a breath as deep as possible. She inhales, slow and steady and calm. And her muscles relax a bit, for the first time in eons. And she holds it.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives there, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2017. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent poetry titles include A halt, which is empty (Mansfield Press, 2019) and Life sentence (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, Touch the Donkey, and the Ottawa poetry PDF annual ottawater. He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, editor of my (small press) writing day, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.