From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Johnny and Jenny Wren

“Oooooffff,” I exhaled softly as I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. Could it be possible that every muscle in my body ached all at the same time? Gardener’s muscles, that’s what Mom called them. If she’d known how sore I was, I’d have been in for a scolding. “Lift with your legs, not with your back!” she’d told me more times than I could count.

But there’d be no lectures on lifting from Mom, I thought sadly. My heart ached with the familiar feeling I’d had since the morning a few weeks ago when my sister called with the news that Mom had died instantly and suddenly from a simple fall . . . a tiny misstep on the stairs in her own house.

In shock and grief, I’d rushed from my home, husband and child in Iowa, back to my childhood home in Pennsylvania, and spent the next weeks with my sisters and father. United in disbelief and sadness, we were busy with the rites of death. The busyness got us through our days and exhausted us to sleep at night; there was no time to indulge the grief, just getting through it was all we could do.

But now I was back in Iowa, and it seemed there was nothing but time to feel the emptiness and ache of losing Mom. It was a Sunday morning. I would have been on the phone with her right then, cup of coffee in hand, discussing the week’s events with her.

Most of the talk would have been about our gardens. Gardening and the love of nature was something she and I had shared from the days of my toddlerhood, when I was granted a small section of the family garden to cultivate as I pleased. I learned all the rudiments of backyard agriculture at her knee, often on our knees, elbow-deep in fresh garden earth. The names of trees, plants, birds and animals all passed from mother to daughter in easy communion in the garden.

After I was married and had a family with my own home and gardens, each Sunday we’d talk to each other as we gazed out our windows, inventorying the birds at the garden feeders and the butterflies on the blooms.

But today there’d be no phone call. Only stiff muscles and the hollow feeling of being a motherless child. “Oh, Mom . . . ,” I whispered.

Almost absentmindedly, I studied the landscape. The new green leaves on the oak and hickory trees fluttered in the spring breeze. With quiet surprise, I realized that the uppermost branches of a redbud tree had grown tall enough to be directly outside my second-story bedroom window.

It was a special tree to me. Mom and Dad had bought it for us when they visited the year after we’d built our house. Then a funny, unexpected little thought, almost like a whisper, popped into my head: “Why, that branch is so sturdy, I could hang a birdhouse from it.”

I went out to the screened porch and pulled a little yellow birdhouse with a barn-red roof off the shelf. The next thing I knew, I was out in the yard behind the house, up on a ladder with my nightgown whipping in the wind. I hung the little birdhouse from a branch, facing southeast, like Mom had always taught. Then I ran back into the house and gazed out the bedroom window. Perfect! It was directly across from the window, tilting just so, providing me with a full view of the hole. “I wonder if I’ll get any takers?” I mused, hopefully. The rest of the day I found myself making excuses to be in the bedroom, looking for any feathered visitors.

The next morning I was awakened by a warbling so loud it sounded as if it was on my pillow. I bolted up in bed and checked the birdhouse. Sitting on top was a little wren, singing its heart out and bouncing all around the redbud branches, as if to say, “Yahoo, I’ll take it!” My heart soared in delight.

For the next week, my mornings always started at the crack of dawn with a loud serenade from my busy friend. My curiosity drove me to my bird books, and I learned that my bird buddy was a male who was looking for a mate. This particular male—Johnny Wren, as I called him—was the avian equivalent of a girl-crazy teenage boy with a bright yellow and barn-red hotrod. “Hey, Baby, check it out. Dig my house. Hey, Sweetie, what’s your sign?” he seemed to relentlessly warble to any Jenny Wren within half a mile.

I began to root for him. “Go, Johnny, go!” I’d call out upon awakening to his love song every morning. My husband and daughter thought I was nuts but were thrilled to see me feeling some happiness again.

Within the week, I got to witness Johnny’s first big date. A Jenny flew to the little house and began to examine it. Johnny perched on a branch above it and loudly extolled the virtues of his house, his manhood and his deep desire to wed her. Johnny’s song now outshone the greatest Puccini aria as Jenny carefully investigated the interior of the house, the outside, the leafy branches around it. They fluttered about each other.

I knew Johnny’s offer was accepted when Jenny flew to a nearby woodpile, tore off a stem and returned to the house to stuff it in.

For the next several weeks I spent a lot of time at that window watching Johnny and Jenny Wren build their nest, lay their tiny eggs and raise a brood of wren nestlings. I watched the nestlings flutter away to start their own lives somewhere in our woods. I marveled at the miracle of it; I reveled in the magic of it. I celebrated the little cycle of life manifesting right outside my window in Mom’s redbud tree.

It would be just like Mom to have sent Johnny and Jenny to me. The charm of their birdie lives simply lived was a wake-up call, a summons back to the larger cycles within my own life. And though I missed my wren friends over the winter, their magic lingered. As the months passed, I began to feel whole again.

The next spring I cleaned out my birdhouses to encourage my friends’ return for another season. When I pulled out Johnny and Jenny’s tidy nest, I held it for a moment and smiled, remembering the events of the previous summer.

I received a special surprise when I pulled out another nest from a birdhouse in a neighboring cedar. I noticed a shred of charred paper entwined in the sticks and straw. No doubt it was a bit of unburned trash the birds had plucked from the bin. Curious, I tugged at the scrap and straightened it out. It was a fragment of an old, shredded telephone bill. Suddenly, I gasped. There was Mom’s phone number.

Of course, I saved that nest. Like Johnny and Jenny, it’s an uncanny reminder that Mom and I are still connected. I consider it a gentle nudge from my first and best teacher, to tell me that, just like our gardens, life goes on.

Holly Manon Moore

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