Today is my grandmother's 86th birthday (2/22/22)--she passed away two years ago this spring. I'll never forget that insufferable drive down to Oklahoma for her funeral--not the distance, but how that distance never registered with so many thoughts and feelings inside me. Those 8 hours were 10 minutes. And on the way back to Nebraska, in Wichita, Kansas, an RV side swiped me at a toll station. My family, having taken the exit right before the tollway to head to Minnesota, turned around to sit with me as the troopers did their work on the interstate, and at a mechanics shop as I had my car checked over and tires replaced. They followed me to Lincoln as my car and I limped back home late at night. Did I mention a hail storm at the hotel one day left a huge circular crack in my windshield that the RV finished off? Heckuva week. But here's a short essay I wrote about my grandmother, family history, hummingbirds, gardens.... (need I remind anyone it's copyrighted? Just had to say):
Last summer, on a second, smaller flush of flowers on my pink penstemon, a hummingbird was jumping from bloom to bloom. It was late evening, just before dusk. In that faint light it looked completely brown with no visible colors one would expect on a hummingbird—no silvery reds or greens, not even in pockets. I was astounded, though, to have it in my little porch garden. Monarchs and assorted butterflies, bumble bees, honey bees, spiders of all sizes, lightening bugs, these were all well and good but were now so commonplace I’d expected them. I hadn’t expected a hummingbird. As I stopped my deadheading to watch it I knew that this would be brief. A hummingbird has to visit thousands of flowers in a day to keep its energy up, with its pencil head of a heart beating at ten times per second. It darted, it weaved, it was precise—like some sort of pneumatic piston pulling and pushing out of its shaft. It was this aligned to its business.
What’s really amazing, if you stop to think about, is that it flew backwards. Think about that. What flies backwards? And when a creature, for example a mammal, moves backwards it’s a sign of fear, or apprehension, or submission—this was anything but; it was singular purpose. Hummingbirds can’t only fly backwards, they can also fly upside down, perhaps to get at dangling trumpet flowers. In any case, for the few minutes that this bird / overgrown insect was at my flowers—or our flowers—I knew nothing else but this one creature and act. Time seemed to stand still. But how ironic that while for me time was moving so slow, for this hummingbird the record was spinning at a thousand rpm.
I’ve read that the frantic metabolism of hummingbirds is such that at night, when they rest, their heart rate plummets to keep up their energy stores, but also due to the exhaustion of their trips to all those flowers. Though they are highly territorial on only, say, a quarter acre of land if that large, at night their biggest enemy is themselves. Many hummingbirds die in their sleep as their hearts thump to an inaudible stop. While they dream, if they dream—and how couldn’t they—the world slows to an almost imperceptible pace. The sky, the garden, the bed, the penstemon, the stamen, the moment.
If gardens are a way back to or from our childhood, then my first experiences would have to be with my grandmother in western Oklahoma. She’d lived there most of her life, granddaughter of German immigrants in the 1880’s who settled first in Kansas along the railroad lines, then when Oklahoma opened to homesteaders (at the expense of many Native Americans), they landed on inexpensive virgin farmland, the last of the prairie. My grandma’s house, nestled in the middle of a town of around 7,500 people, didn’t have a garden per se; it did have an apple tree, a peach tree, and a line of honeysuckle bushes along the garage. She showed me how to carefully lift the stamen out of the flower’s cone and then taste what the many hummingbirds did.
I actually don’t remember seeing any hummingbirds there, at least not outside, though she insisted they came frequently to the honeysuckle and her many red feeders. Pretty much all of them could be found inside my grandma’s house: on drinking glasses, dinner plates, fridge magnets, decorative plates on the wall, hollow brass sculptures next to the plates on the wall, in cut out magazine pages slipped into books and drawers and photo albums, in placemats and calendars and fuzzy-half-real-looking models, in a pen that if inverted would have a silhouette float to the top, in bath towels, in a pinwheel with spinning wings ready to be placed outside—oh grandma liked hummingbirds. No one knows why, which makes it all the more interesting to venture a calculated guess or two.
I have to imagine that on some deep, metaphorical, philosophical, Freudian level, the hummingbird was my grandmother: its frantic work and seemingly stagnate or limited mobility, its pace to just break even, its thirst that can’t quite be quenched. Maybe grandma, in her good Mennonite German way, saw in this one slice of nature—among the vast fields of Oklahoma and the flat horizon—a possibility, a sister. She couldn’t very well take up and leave her three sons and husband, she couldn’t not milk cows, clean chickens, cook three meals a day, keep house, mend clothes, and all those other chores most of us don’t have to worry about. Her movement each day was constant and frantic, and yet she didn’t go too far from home. Maybe she ventured out into the fields where her family worked, or once took a tour of the slaughterhouse where her young husband was employed right after they were married. Maybe a few trips “to town” for Sunday lunch and to buy some small new thing, but the work of life was clearly centered on one small place of the planet, and hummingbirds, though they visit many flowers in a single day, keep to a specific area and then focus intently on one bloom at a time.
Perhaps grandma saw, too, something unique. The colors and the speed and size of a hummingbird is pretty much the antithesis of plains living: wide open spaces, “slower” pace of life, greens and browns year round depending on the season and rain fronts. Life was muted, perhaps, and the hummingbird is anything but. When she was older, and her and her family of teenage boys moved into town, she must have been happier with the shade of suburban trees and abundant water supply for colorful plants. Like I said, she had honeysuckle, a peach tree, and a few other things, but there was color and depth to the darkness of greens and the shade of oaks.
Even later, with her body slowing down, perhaps the mobility of the hummingbird was something to envy. Maybe its form was her mind, fluttering and booming and darting, still business-woman sharp from her realty and land development days. More likely, I suppose, it was an old lady eccentricity along the lines of souvenir spoons and belt buckles or a hundred other things—just something to keep her occupied. These speculations can go on all day, but each has to have some truth to it. When we cleaned out my grandmother’s house for her move into the nursing home I came across thousands of black and white pictures dating back to the 1880s, and that drab stillness was deep and haunting like the landscape. When she passed away a few months ago we hit the nursing home room and found boxes of potential gifts in mail order boxes—dried flowers in glass paperweights, tea sets, and hummingbird magnets. She kept going, buying things she’d never give and truth be told we’d never want. But now I do.
I’ll miss my family in Minnesota turning off the video camera at Christmas while we opened her gifts, thinking she might see this some day. I don’t remember how many various bird figurines the grandchildren received over the course of our childhood, but on my fridge is a hummingbird magnet she had in the nursing home (saved from the trash), and on my bookshelf a five inch tall figure of a green and red hummingbird, wings spread in a “V,” and balanced above a red flower. Its beak is almost touching a large orange stamen protruding from the flower’s center, the nectar just out of reach, this hopeful hopelessness frozen like a memory we can never go back to, but try frantically to regardless. Any day now, as I’ve said for almost a year, I know I’ll see my hummingbird again.