Image Credit: Jean Kuns
An early memory from the second house we lived in in Northern New Jersey appears like a watercolor in my mind’s eye: I’m looking out my bedroom window from the second floor of our three story house through white bracts of a flowering dogwood tree. It’s early spring and my father is whistling to a scarlet red bird illuminated against the crisp white of a low branch. The two whistled back and forth in playful gestures. I remember feeling excited and a bit envious that I wasn’t down there with them, but innately I knew my father would have preferred to be alone with the bird. He loved birds. Later, I asked him what it was called. A Northern Cardinal, he said.
As I age, I realize how much I love birds. For being so small, they are powerful and industrious. I have two embroidered bird pillows in my guest room, embroidered bath mats in my bedroom, embroidered hand towels in my half bathroom near the entryway, a blouse (I have yet to receive in the mail) that I ordered because it’s covered with bluebirds, red cardinals, yellow finches, and others, and I’m obsessed with watching birds out the windows of my house. Our place rests on a bluff where Sierra birds of all kinds, from high-speed hummingbirds and black-capped chickadees to Cooper’s Hawks and Bald Eagles, drop in but we don’t have cardinals in the west. I miss them.
When we moved into the childhood home I mentioned above, I was four. We had only moved a few streets away from our first house in the suburbs where my family lived when I was born. It was a grey, chilly December day with frozen mud for a front yard. Springtime would be a new experience with a variety pack of bright crayon colors.
Male red cardinals will always remind me of my father. I wasn’t cognizant that female cardinals wore tan sweaters to tone down their red, allowing the males to show off their beauty and attract mates. As a child, I thought of cardinals as cartoonish because their color was so dense, so perfect. If I colored a cardinal with my crayons, I would choose plain Crayola Red, pressed so hard on the page, pieces of wax would curl to give it texture.
One morning during that first spring, I woke early to the sound of birds chirping joyously outside my window on my beloved dogwood tree. I hopped out of bed, changed out of my pajamas, and ran over to the neighbor’s house in a spell: I saw a glistening bed of solid red and brilliant yellow tulips. Those cups were so pure, so candy-like, I couldn’t help but want them. I squeezed through the box hedge between our yards and beelined for the soft, sunlit bunch. I snapped as many by the lowest part of the stem as my small hand could hold, closest to the soil, and heard the neighbor man yell wildly at me from the front of his house. Startled, I burst through the hedge, ran up the side stairs to our kitchen, and gave the handful to my mother who had begun making pancakes. When she heard the commotion and I told her where I got the flowers, she wrapped the stems in a wet paper towel and we walked to the hedge to return them. I was afraid of getting in trouble, but that came later.
“Maybe Mrs. E. would enjoy them while they’re still fresh,” she said, trying to apologize for my mistake. He gruffly grabbed the bouquet, stomped away, and tossed it in the garbage can.
I knew by the way that man yelled that he was not done with this. As a kid, he seemed to me to be an angry man most of the time. This is a long story which I have written as fiction, but the truth is this: now I want to tell my story and describe how the fucker inserted his middle finger into my vagina as punishment for the bad tulip deed when I went to his house to play with his daughter a short time later. It’s a nightmare I buried deep in a safe compartment until my two daughters were young and I experienced a triggering moment on TV. I saw red.
When I became engaged, my girlfriend and I went to San Francisco to look for a wedding dress. I had no interest in traditional, expensive, princess-like, dresses, but I really didn’t know what I was looking for aside from that. While shopping at small boutiques on Union Street, I wore comfy black leggings and a long bright red blouse made of heavy cotton and viscose. I loved that blouse. After checking out two or three shops, my girlfriend said, “You look so good in red, you should buy a red wedding dress.” I loved that idea and we laughed about how that would look. I ended up finding a white dress for a respectable low price tag that fit like it was made for me. I took it home that afternoon, a simple Jessica McClintock style purchased straight off the rack, and felt accomplished. I wish I still had that red blouse, which would be 34 years young and a tad worn.
I think of that neighbor man’s face, red with anger, nose like a strawberry with tiny black pores that looked like seeds.
I see my father’s face, red with anger, after drinking too much beer and losing his patience with me or my mother or my brothers with their long hair in the early ‘70s.
I see him pushing my chest so hard after a nasty argument that I flew across the room on the tips of my heels and crashed into the wall on the other side of my bedroom.
I wrote a poem about my father dying. It’s titled “Bright Red Cardinals.” It has never been published.
A few days before Christmas in 2002, my husband, two daughters and I were driving to Carmel Valley to spend the holiday with my husband’s family. My cellphone rang. My middle brother’s voice rose in a panic, saying my father’s health had deteriorated so much, he would most likely be placed in hospice the next day. Of course, I panicked, too. I was 3,000 miles away, and it was late afternoon before Christmas Eve — a busy time to consider flying across the country without a reservation. A long-time but casual friend worked for United Airlines and I called her to find out what I could do to get back East in a hurry. She worked hard and was able to secure flights for me and my girls for Christmas night out of San Francisco — a miracle for us and I’ll forever thank her for helping at such a desperate time in my life.
We arrived in New Jersey early morning the day after Christmas. My brother and his wife picked us up at Newark Airport and we drove straight to the hospice facility — a clean, respectable place that passed the smell test. We had checked out a dozen long-term care facilities during my previous trip and each one we stepped into seemed worse than the last.
Over the following 10 days, my father slipped away, bit by bit. On that last frigid cold January day, the hospice nurse told us my father would most likely pass that evening. With all the sadness that had accumulated over the days and hours I sat beside his bed, this news still punched me in the gut. I thought about her words: how today would be the day, and found it remarkable that she knew because of her dedication and experience throughout the years. His favorite crooner, Frank Sinatra, performed his best hits on the single DVD player we brought into his room. Snow fell and the long hedge outside his hospice room became a puffy wall of white. Dozens and dozens of bright red cardinals, and a few of their female mates, lined up on the hedge all day long. I had never seen so many cardinals in one place in my life. My brothers and I were astounded at this wondrous scene. Stark red illumined on white. They came to say goodbye, I thought, and recalled the moment I saw my father with the first cardinal I had ever seen. My eyes filled with tears. Red.
From “Bright Red Cardinals”
…and you, lying in bed,
eyes closed, lungs labored, a few hours left
to massage your hands, cover your bluing feet,
rub your pink forehead.
Stark red on illumined white,
I stared at the wondrous view.
While you faded into another world,
bright red cardinals hopped, waited
at attention, ready to return your call.
In 2014, Marianne M. Porter earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University, Incline Village, Nevada. She is working on a collection of short stories with the working title, When the Clock Strikes Five. Freeflow Institute published an abridged version of her personal essay titled “Rockslide” in their April 2020 online blog after a four-day writing workshop on the Green River through the Gates of Lodore. Her short story, “A Weekend with the Parents. 1970.” earned Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Nov/Dec 2017 Family Matters contest. Her first published poem titled, “Daily Progress” appeared in the December 2017 issue of Clover: A Literary Rag.In March 2016, her personal essay titled, “Five Things I Remember About Rape” appeared online in Jennifer Pastiloff’s “The Manifest-Station, On Being Human.” She is a two-year alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, 2015 and 2016.