“Nine- and-fifty swans . . .
Scatter wheeling in great broken rings . . .
And now my heart is sore . . .
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore . . .
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build . . .
When I awake some day
To find they have all flown away?”
William Butler Yeats “The Wild Swans at Coole”
Recently, cold spring winds blew over Crooked Lake. Drifts of ice wafted with winter rhythm against the sea wall. There were no boaters, no children skating on ice, no water skiers, no brilliant sunsets.
All was grey; but in this grey horizon there was beauty, for on the cold, lapping waves swam a family of swans. Beautiful and austere, they floated and ducked beneath the waves searching for food. A pair of ducks sailed nearby, while a flotilla of geese flew high above the grey waters, their cries mingling with loud whistling wind.
My father joined me at the porch window where I stood watching this avian scene, powerless to the chill of nature, humbled by the strength of these downy creatures.
He said, “I wonder if this is the same family of swans that were here five years ago?” When your 89-year-old dad reflects, you listen and your heart stills in recognition. Five years ago, my mother was still alive, and they started to plan for their 60th wedding anniversary.
On that warm spring night, the swans were swimming and my parents shared with them a sunset filled with promise. My mother loved the birds. The pages of her bird book are well worn. On dog-eared pages, my mother circled the birds she spied on Crooked Lake.
Once she told me about the Baltimore oriole that visited her feeder. It was the only one she had ever attracted, and she was so proud, so happy. For Christmas one year, my parents bought each other a set of binoculars to share, as couples do who have spent a lifetime together. They share life’s simple joys.
This past summer I spied a trio of sandhill cranes. Prehistoric remnants, they were quite comfortable with their awkward bearings. I had never witnessed these birds in their natural state, feeding amongst the pussy willows and lily pads, their eyes, feathered slits of red, brilliant through the distorted lenses of the old binoculars. At once, I felt as though I were intruding upon their family table. Who was I to share in this remarkable dinner with such unique creatures?
The Names of Birds
My mother taught me the names of the birds that hovered at her feeders and fished in the waters outside of her kitchen windows. Tufted-titmice, nuthatches, coots, ruby-throated hummingbirds, a lone rare bluebird, and of course the mute swans.
My mother warned me of the mute swans. They can be vicious while protecting their nests. In truth, when a swan unfolds her wings and proudly rises to her full height, she is almost the size of my petite frame, and probably fiercer. While I keep my spaniel far away from the swans when they near the shore of the lake, I do enjoy their beauty. For all their noted aggression, they appear serene and mark the lake in early spring with elegance and memory.
May is a month for mothers. Trees explode with fragrant blooms, the earth warms, and mother birds teach their fledglings to fly. This is perhaps the hardest lesson of motherhood, when does one rise like a protective swan or when does one nudge her babies from the nest?
My ears ring with my mother’s words: “You never know what it is like to be a mother until you are one yourself,” “Pretty is as pretty does,” “Fretting does not control that which you cannot control.” How I wish that I could listen to the patient advice of my mother once again.
The Bond Between a Mother and Child
I remember the last time I held her. She was weak and could not bathe herself. I opened the box of luxury soaps and lotions that I purchased for her the previous Mother’s Day.
My mother was so small, like a child. She shrank with the worries she quietly carried for those she loved and her tireless effort as a mother.
On that day, it was time for me to hold and pamper her with delicate fragrance and soothing lavender. For her, I extended my arms like a confident swan tucking my tears away and embraced my mother on the last day I would see her alive. The bond between a mother and child is strong; it is no wonder that spring birds protect their nests with such ferocity. Strength hides in the guise of beauty.
This Mother’s Day will be my first as an “empty nester.” I disagree with this colloquialism; a mother’s nest is never truly empty. While her house may quiet, a mother’s heart is always alert; her nest filled with joy and memory, sadness and worry, strength and perseverance. A mother’s nest is cloaked in the economy of life: a twig here, a tuft of lint there, and always, a place of comfort to which her young can return, unconditionally.
For now, I celebrate my children, their joy and accomplishments, and share in their sadness. Despite my mother’s advice, I worry about the safety and health of my young. How am I different from the red-wing blackbird that guards her nest with the tireless flutter of frantic wings? Knowing that I have loved and guided my children with my whole heart, I am at least comforted as they journey into the world. I am here keeping their home safe, a refuge from the uncertainty of adult life.
On that cold day in early spring, as my father and I looked out at the family of swans swimming in the frigid waters of Crooked Lake, some of their plumes washed ashore, ephemeral reminders of warmth and commitment. Silently, we acknowledged the familiarity of the swans as they swam toward the reed-lined shore and settled in their hidden nests.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at email@example.com.