It’s hard to leave this nest
For about 10 days last month, my mother took four young blue jays everywhere she went.
She fed them canned kitten food, poking it gently down their tiny gullets on the end of a pencil. She changed the newspaper in their makeshift nest every day. She washed her hands so much her skin started to crack.
When she drove to school to teach her night class, the blue jays rode shotgun in their cardboard box. She put them in her office, returning during the class break to give them a feeding.
"When will they learn to fly?" I asked after she’d had the birds about a week.
"Not soon enough," she said.
My mother inherited the birds from a dead tree. She had the tree in her yard cut down, only to find the squawking jays and their nest scattered among the branches on the ground.
She called some wildlife experts and described the birds, who were fully feathered but still in some early, ugly stage of bird development. The experts told my mother she could probably get the birds to survive if she kept them fed and safe. When the little jays were ready, they said, she might even teach them to fly if she took them outside and tossed them gently into the air.
On the other hand, the experts warned, the birds might not want to leave. Even if they flew, they might turn directly around and head for her house.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
My mother has a knack for making it hard to leave home. She doesn’t set out to do this, mind you. She just gets a thrill out of taking care of other creatures — the needier the better. When it’s time for them to leave her, the world can be a shock to those she has nurtured.
When I was about 13, my mother taught at a private girls high school in Virginia. Years later, after we had moved to Chattanooga, a former student decided to come here to attend UTC.
She lived with us, of course. During my growing-up years, my mother’s friends and old students rotated through our house, moving in when things got tight, moving out when things got better.
This young woman came and lived and dubbed our home the Hotel California. "You can check out any time you like," she said, "but you can never leave."
About the same time, when I was 18 years old, my mother converted a storage area in the basement into an apartment with a kitchen, bathroom and private entrance. She said she did it so my grandparents could live with us if they ever needed to. In the meantime, it was mine.
So I lived with my parents until I was 24 years old, which is more than a little embarrassing to admit. I lived with them during college, and I lived with them after I graduated, commuting from their house in East Brainerd to Dalton, Ga., for my first newspaper job. At 23, I used to tell co-workers I was the world’s oldest teenager.
After I left home, the apartment housed a parade of friends, family and former students. These days it’s usually empty, save for the occasional weekend guest. But any time money gets scarce at my house, my mom brings it up.
"You should sell your house and live with us," she says, grinning, trying to pretend she doesn’t mean it. "We could have a little commune — you and Jim and the baby downstairs, your dad and me upstairs. It would be great."
There are days when I am tempted. Anyone who knows her would be.
When her blue jays started hopping out of their box and flapping furiously, my mother took them outside. One by one, she tossed them gently into the air. Three of them flew, flapping awkwardly away from her and out into the world. The fourth, who had always been the smallest, fell like a stone.
Mom scooped him up and took him back inside. After another day and night in his nest eating kitten food, he seemed ready. Mom took him outside and tossed him up. He flapped and struggled, getting as far as the back yard before lighting on the ground. Mom went after him, but couldn’t catch him as he fluttered into the woods.
"I figure that’s a good sign," she said. "If I can’t catch him, maybe nothing else can."
It was a relief to be rid of the little jays, she said. They were messy and demanding and noisy. But she’s still looking out for them. She scans the trees, watches from the windows for a glimpse of blue feathers.
Mark my words, they’ll be back.