Earlier that day I’d watched Paul heft his bulk up a ladder, reach into the corner of the porch eaves, and grab a partially built nest.
“Don’t,” I whispered, but knew he wouldn’t heed my plea even if he heard me.
He flung the nest to the ground then descended, muttering, “Stupid birds.”
The sparrows had nested in the upper right corner of our rocking-chair porch every year. The wall surrounding their nest became littered with feathers and debris, but as unsightly as it was, I anticipated the springtime ritual of nest building and the appearance of eggs. Soon baby birds emerged and a few weeks later learned to fly. Then they were gone.
Sparrows mature quickly, unlike human children. Mature or not, my Andrea had moved into an apartment with three other girls the weekend after high school graduation. Steven had done the same the year before. Why did they have to be in such a hurry to leave home?
I knew the answer, of course. At our house, everything had to be done Paul’s way. Eighteen years of his way was enough for our kids. They wanted out, wanted the opportunity to have a voice in their own lives. Paul had forbidden them to leave, then had warned them of the dangers lurking in the world. Still, they left, and Paul more or less washed his hands of them. Now he claimed to be happy that our “chicks” had left home.
Paul wasn’t a bad guy. He was set in his ways, but I was used to that. We’d been married when I was twenty and he was thirty-three. We both expected him to be the family decision maker in the same way my father and his had been. I hadn’t questioned his authority – until recently.
I recalled the year Steven asked to redecorate his bedroom. He was almost fifteen, and friends had begun teasing him about the cartoon trains that paraded across the border of his room.
“We don’t need to spend money when that wallpaper is perfectly good,” Paul said.
I tried to explain Steven’s embarrassment, but he interrupted me. “When they’re working and paying their own bills, they can have all the opinions they want about decorating. This is my home, and what I say goes.”
It’s my home too, I thought, but the words remained inside my head.
Now Paul was talking about moving. Whenever he mentioned leaving our two-story, four-bedroom home, I changed the subject. We’d lived on Mulberry Lane since our children were small. I was comfortable there, I knew the neighbors, and the kids were close by.
I said, “Let’s not rush into anything.”
“Nonsense, who knows what the real estate market might be in the future. Better sell while we can. This house is an albatross anyway. We don’t need all this space.”
“I like this house.”
“Well, we’ll like the next one better. I’m going to get Ken Smith to help fix things up.”
I had everything I wanted in a house. Steven’s upstairs room had become my private oasis where my computer, sewing machine, and stereo lived. Paul rarely climbed the stairs – stairs were difficult for him – so, even though he worked from home as a tech support specialist, I spent hours alone during the day.
Paul hadn’t been ambitious enough to remove the birds’ nests in past years, but he was motivated now – ready to downsize. His first renovation project was to power-wash, scrape, and paint the porch. Most of the work was done by the neighborhood handyman. Before long the front of our house gleamed pristine white, and Paul jealously guarded it.
Two birds landed on the corner ledge the day after the painting was completed. Paul chased them off with a broom. After that, he kept vigil, pacing from his office to the picture window in the living room. Again and again Paul scared the sparrows away. Then, after a weekend trip to his brother’s home, we returned to find the half-constructed nest.
“Honey, they worked so hard on their nest. I hate to see it destroyed,” I murmured.
“They’ve got to learn we’ve got new rules around here. I’m not letting those dirty beasts mess up my work. If we’re going to sell this house, everything has to look good.”
The following day Paul saw sparrows carrying twigs to the porch eaves again. He lumbered out to the garage and returned wearing goggles, gloves, and carrying a can of wasp spray. He raised the window, leaned out, and squirted half a can of poison at the intruders.
Go birds, run for your lives, I thought. The birds flew off, seemingly unharmed. They returned a few days later.
“We’re not going to let them take over again,” Paul announced, squirting from a fresh can of poison. “I’ve got a new trick up my sleeve.”
A package arrived from Amazon a few days later. Paul tore it open to reveal a ten-inch, black-and-white plastic owl. “This is supposed to keep them away.” He secured it to the precipice where the sparrows liked to roost. It seemed to work. My feathered friends landed close to the intruder, surveyed it with cocked head, then flew away. Not one twig or feather was placed near the owl that week. Paul pronounced it a victory and decided it was safe to leave town to visit his brother again.
Sam lived in Memphis, where he and Paul had been raised. Paul wanted to buy a condo in a newly constructed development near Sam.
“I think we’d miss the mountains of East Tennessee,” I said.
“What good are mountains?” He scoffed. “We’re not hikers. I couldn’t walk in the mountains even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I’d rather be back in my old stomping grounds.”
“But that isn’t my old stomping ground – this is,” I blurted, my heart racing at the thought of moving to a city where he and Sam were the only people I knew. “And it’s so far from the kids.”
“The kids don’t need us hovering over them, they’ve made that clear. They’ll learn to stand on their own two feet if we’re not close by.” He waved away my objections as if they were gnats .
After two weeks in Memphis, we came home to discover our owl had been asleep on the job. Behind him was a completed nest. Muttering indistinguishable sounds, Paul got a broom, lowered the window, and maneuvered the tool into the corner.
“Stop!” I cried. “There are eggs in it.”
Ignoring me, Paul dashed the nest to the ground. “This will teach them a lesson. Nasty things. They’re messing with the wrong guy. They’ll have to find another place to roost.”
I wanted to tell Paul he was a bully. I wanted to scream at him to leave the sparrows alone. I wanted to say so much more.
The sparrows didn’t attempt to nest in that corner of the porch again. Paul had won. He continued to work with our handyman, painting inside the house and laying new carpet.
I plodded through my days, waiting and hoping Paul would change his mind about moving. The heaviness I felt exploded into panic when he announced the house was ready for market. He instructed me to call the real estate office for an estimate. My hands trembled as I dialed the phone.
The next day I paced the driveway, waiting for the realtor to arrive. I gazed down our tree-lined street, admiring the beauty of the mountains in the distance and brushing away tears. I didn’t want to go to Memphis! I didn’t want to leave my children. But Paul had chosen a nice two-bedroom condo with no stairs to climb. He’d already put down a deposit.
I paused at the end of the driveway to look back at my home. Dark blue shutters against pale blue siding. Red azaleas lovely against the backdrop of the white porch. An expanse of green lawn.
A bird flew past me. I watched as it landed under the eaves, opposite the end where Paul had destroyed the last nest. I drew closer. There it was. A new nest – filled with baby sparrows. I laughed. Those persistent little creatures hadn’t given up after all. Paul thought he’d won the battle, but he hadn’t.
Poor Paul, thinking he could control the birds, the kids, and his wife. And it had worked for a long time. But times were changing. The sparrows found a way around him. The children defied him by leaving home. And I – well, I was changing, too.
A black Cadillac drove up and a suave salesman’s smile greeted me. “Great looking place you have here.”
I agreed with him, shook his hand, and introduced myself. I straightened to my full five feet, took a deep breath, and announced, “Mr. Ellis, thank you for coming today. I’m sorry to have taken up your time, but we’ve changed our minds. We’ve decided not to sell.”