My friend Andy just published a wonderful shot of a Great Kiskadee that he captured in La Manzanilla, a town on the West Coast of Mexico. It brought back memories of two different sightings I’ve had of one, both in the town where I live in Mexico, San Juan Cosala. HERE is a link to my photos of my second sighting and below is a story I wrote about the first one I ever saw and the lady who inspired the story.
I think every little girl has crushes on older girls. Many years ago when I was living in Australia, the little girl who lived next door once said, “When I grow up I’m going to marry you!” When her sister, full of wisdom at age 8, explained that girls didn’t marry girls, she said, “Oh. Then when I grow up I’m going to marry my dog.” It was the first time I was pretty sure that a little girl had a crush on me and it seemed to signal one of those switching-over times when we ourselves become what we have formerly observed.
Since then, a progression of little neighborhood girls have come to bake cookies or to sing along to my horrendous guitar playing or to do art projects. Now that I’m in Mexico, they come to learn English. It’s a treat for them to see my house and see what a foreign lady wears and eats, what her friends are like. But I don’t think they have crushes on me.
That phenomenon of the crush is dependent not only on the age of the one who bears the crush but also on the age and manner of its recipient. As a little girl, I had crushes on three neighborhood girls. One, the eldest, was independent, tomboyish, and friendly to me. She grew up, married a rancher and moved away. The second was pretty, a talented piano player who lived with her maiden aunt. She married a bully and grew silent and reclusive. The third was our neighbor Patty Peck, my sister Patti’s best friend. She, too, was a talented musician as well as a straight A student.
She was an only child, and I admired the attention her parents seemed to extend to her and to me, too, when once I stayed with them for a few days when my parents left town. In her home there was more care, more rules. I felt fragile, as though I might break. Every time I left the house, I needed to tell them where I went. This made me feel valuable. The first day I was there, her mother Elsa gave me a paper upon which was written the day’s menu. I was to make a check by any food I didn’t like so she could change the menu to meet my likes. This was astounding to me. Some of the foods I didn’t really know, since they were vegetables never served by my mother, and mealtime became an adventure.
After dinner, I could go out to play for a few hours until night time. I decreased my range, proudly boasting to my cohorts that I couldn’t go beyond the school yard block in playing hide and seek because I was being taken care of by the Pecks and they didn’t want me out of calling distance.
This special feeling extended to Patty Peck as well. She was birdlike–a pretty dark-haired high strung girl. She had a nervous little laugh that seemed refined. She paused a moment before answering, as though she was taking care to think things over before she spoke–a quality rare in our world.
Of course, being four years younger and the little sister of her best friend, I never got to spend as much time with her as I might wish to. This was mainly due to my own sister’s guarding of her friends. I was “little” and my presence destroyed some fine balance among her and her friends, who seemed to be more exotic, fun and adventurous than my stay-at-home careful group. My sister’s gang staged circuses and plays, charging admission. They played Tarzan, complete with costumes. My sister was Cheetah, Patty Peck was Jane–the most exotic role. I could watch if my sister didn’t notice I was watching. But Patty Peck, who had no sister of her own, was nice to me and seemed to like to have me along. She never treated me as a pest. I always had this feeling that if it weren’t for that selfish sister of mine, that we would be friends.
This came to be true my sophomore year in high school when she asked me to come to Augustana College, all the way across the state, to stay in her dorm for little sisters’ weekend. I went, thrilled, and was as nervous as if a movie star had asked me over for a few days. I worried about what I wore. I tried to be neat and clean. When we went out to eat, I worried about what to order. But everything was fine. She introduced me to her friends, took me to her favorite haunt for cinnamon rolls. I think there was a banquet or some staged events, but for me the best part of the whole weekend was finally getting to have Patty Peck for my own friend.
After that, we wrote a few times before going off into our individual lives. I went off to Australia and Africa, she married a handsome outgoing man and moved for awhile into a cabin high in the mountains of Montana. During the winter, they had to snowshoe in, which I of course found to be exotic. Also, it was untypical. I was thrilled that she was living a life so unlike the one I might have imagined for her. This careful “inside” girl, studious and musical, chose a life-of-the-party regular Joe and let him carry her off to the wilds. I loved that.
Later, when she got her Masters in Microbiology and then went on to get her Ph.D., it seemed a more believable course for her life to take. Amazed that anyone could maneuver successfully the upper realms of science and math beyond trigonometry and chemistry, I was only amazed–not surprised. I could picture her in the white lab coat leaning over an electron microscope. I could imagine her care, her graceful movements transferring the test tube from location to location.
I missed imagining her with Jerry, her ex-husband. When I pictured them together, I always thought of her as being called forth out of herself, giggling perhaps, a bit silly. Brought to that place by him. But I knew there was that scholarly alone place in her, too, that place that also needed satisfying. That person sat on the high stool in the laboratory of my imagination, looking closely, evaluating.
Of my three crushes, she was the only one who remained in my life. For years I knew all of the turns of her life through my sister.
During our thirties and forties, our relationships with former classmates and town mates survived long distance. We met at high school all-class reunions every five years or stopped in while passing through each others’ towns. Then as we got less busy, we took more time to renew the closeness of old relationships. Patty Peck began to take once yearly visits from Baltimore to Wyoming, where my sister lived.
Once, when I was visiting at the same time, we watched fireworks together and trekked up to the medicine wheel that was miles out of town. As my sister and another friend walked ahead, Patty Peck and I fell into walking together. I liked the person she had become or perhaps remained. Interested in wildflowers, medicine wheels, cloud formations. The scientific part of her noticed the minute world just as the artistic part of me did. There seemed to be no difference. You could go slowly and she understood that it was not out of laziness but out of a need to see it all, notice it all. Her scientific mind recorded the details that I had to sketch quickly onto paper to remember.
Years later when she was one of three Pattys who came to visit me in Mexico all at the same time, I found that she had not changed. She devoured my bird books, leaving little stick-it notes jutting out from pages, recording on them which birds she had positively identified. She’d get up at six and sit on the patio recording the birds. I, who had recently lost my husband and moved to this country where I knew no one, had quickly fixated on birds and insects with an insatiable interest. The plot of my past six months had centered almost entirely upon them. It was as though we had a child in common. I ate up her interest and her contribution to my informal research. I had wanted that brilliant bird to be a red-breasted sapsucker so badly. The story I was writing depended upon that exotic bird being in it, and she had concurred in my opinion.
I took to getting up early and joining her. It was a special time without distraction when I got to have the extra older sister of my childhood dreams. Over the years, my relationship to my real sister Patti had augmented and mellowed into the relationship I always yearned for when I was little. She listened, took care and valued me as much as I valued her. But I had felt that neighbor Patty had felt that way about me even as a little girl, and it was fun to be on an equal footing, the difference in our ages having been canceled out by our both passing age 50. Now our varying interests, careers and life choices had brought us to this same place–my early morning patio overlooking Lake Chapala in Mexico.
I always imagined that trip of the three Pattys–my best friend, my sister and my sister’s best friend, would become a yearly event and I looked forward to it becoming so. Next year, we wouldn’t float four abreast on the queen-sized air mattress; drinking margaritas and laughing for so long that we’d all get sunburns. Next year, we’d continue our indexing and notation of the birds in my world. Next year, we’d find different places to walk now that the lake was full and our former walking grounds covered by water.
Of course, in real life, those next year plans don’t always happen, and so it was for the three Patty reunion. But on the shelf next to my computer is the vivid blue book titled “Mexican Birds” and sticking out from its pages like bright yellow plumage are the miniature sticky notes embellished with her fine flourished script. “Vermillion Flycatcher, Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee” she has written, defining my world for me, leaving me a gift, a communication.
Recently, my sister Patti has gone out to to see her old friend for what will probably be the last time. They say that there is a good likelihood that her stage 4 cancer was brought on by her extensive use of electron microscopes in her work as a microbiologist. I hope that as those closest to her come near to share her next journey, that they will all find the words they need to find for each other. So far away, I wish I could comfort her, comfort my sister. If I could get my emotions enough in check to talk, I’d call, and perhaps will. But for now, I try to send strength, energy. As I think of her, I can feel something from inside of me stream out toward her. She might have a scientific name for what I just experience as healing energy; there might be a theory in physics to explain it. But for me, I am sending a current composed of all of our short moments together combined with every time I have thought of her, admired her, wished that we were closer friends in proximity and sentiment. I add my little stream to all of those who love her most. And on the shelf near my computer, from the pages of the little blue bird book, she speaks back.
Good bye my friend and neighbor. I’ll miss you.