Because we stopped using the car, we stopped opening the garage door, so a couple of amorous robins decided the motion detector light above the door would be a nice place to build a nest. And the two of them spent every day carrying twigs and sticks and bits of twine and dental floss to their new home.
Our kids stopped going to school. My wife stopped taking classes. I was teaching from home. A new word, “Zooming,” entered our vocabulary. “Daddy’s going upstairs to Zoom,” my wife would say, and the kids accepted this in the ancient and unquestioning way of kids. And the days were quiet and we cleaned closets and did odd, useless things like trimming the hedges. We weeded. We had long conversations every morning about what we would have for dinner. “You grilled last night,” my wife would say, “so maybe I’ll cook something tonight.” Or I would say, “You cooked last night, so maybe I’ll grill tonight.” And this conversation makes sense and is reassuring.
The days blurred together. My 3-year-old son, Alex, won the prize for the best line of the spring when one somnolent afternoon he asked my wife, “Mommy, is it yesterday?”
And the robins finished their nest, a modest one-room home on the slumbering motion detector light. One day we saw the scrawny, naked heads of the babies, four of them, their yellow beaks gaping wide with the famished urgency of being alive.
We would stand at the kitchen window, my wife and our two little boys and I, passing the binoculars back and forth as the mother swooped down with a worm for a gaping mouth, flew off and then a second later the father swooped down with a moth or worm. And this tag team worked from sunrise to sunset, trying their best to fill up those black yawning holes of hunger. What exemplary parents, we thought, with a twinge of guilt.
My own parents were not like this. My father owned a big car dealership in St. Louis. He was a wealthy man with a drinking problem that demanded his utmost attention. Most evenings you could find him tending a shot of Jim Beam at the Tack Room or Club 34, watching the fights with his cronies. My mother reacted to this by becoming what in those days was called a socialite, a nice word for a drunk who hung out with her socialite girlfriends (“gal pals,” as they said back then) at the nicer dinner clubs.
My sisters and I were raised by a kind and long-suffering nanny named Velma, who taught me to read and write when I was still in kindergarten, who baked cookies for us and told us stories and took us for long walks through the neighborhood on steamy summer afternoons. Of course we loved her, but on those rare moments when our parents were home, I know we were just as needy and ravenous as those baby robins.
Through the sleepy, viral days in Cleveland Heights my wife, boys and I drifted in a trance. Yes, terrible things were happening far away, but to us it seemed unreal. The bad news reached us like the faint thunder of a battle happening at an immense distance. We were the lucky ones. No one was sick. The paycheck arrived every month. The weeks passed and gradually we started to forget about our old life.
How strange it seemed, the idea of getting up early and rushing to work! Ferrying the kids to school and soccer practice! Meeting friends for dinner in Tremont! And as we gradually stopped being the people who lived that life, we realized we were becoming something else.
As we spent the longs days together — having breakfast outside on the deck, making chalk drawings on the driveway, snuggling on the couch with popcorn to watch E.T. and The Wizard of Oz, doing crazy things like camping out in a tent in the backyard — my wife and I understood we were becoming a family in a way we had never been before. Like the ship-wrecked castaways in one of the films we saw, Swiss Family Robinson, we weren’t just a part of each other’s lives: we were each other’s lives. Those hardworking robins had nothing on us.
One morning, my 7-year-old, Michael, ran up to us at the breakfast table, binoculars in hand, and shouted, “They’re gone!” We looked over at the nest on the motion detector light. He was right. Not one little head was there, peering out anxiously, waiting for a worm. They had flown away from us, vanishing into the great, unspeakable mystery of the world, and my wife and I looked at the silent nest, and then at our little boys, thinking exactly the same thought.
There was no point in putting it into words. The important thing was to go back to the breakfast table, the four of us, to finish our pancakes, then plan what to do in the afternoon, which might involve chalk drawings on the driveway or maybe going to the sunporch to read Captain Underpants for the 10th time. It’s Michael’s favorite book, and I don’t mind read-ing it to him again. We’re not in any rush.
8:00 AM EST
August 20, 2020