Tag Archives: storytelling

How Disney Made Me Worry about Pigeons

Reading some of the comments in the discussion after last week’s post How and Why I Don’t Know Science, my mind started wandering a familiar pathway: how cultures decide which are the “good” animals and which are the “bad.”  If they are bad, we don’t have to care whether they live or die or what their lives are like.  Which ones, if any, “deserve” to be dissected or even vivisected in the name of science or education.

Although I have my beliefs about animal rights and animal welfare, I’m not a raving radical, but am more the type to wonder about things, to feel sadness about things, and to recognize (and get bogged down by) the complexity and paradoxes of life.

I want to tell you a story about a lady who lives in my city. It does touch on these issues, I think.

A couple of years ago, as I was sitting at my computer, I noticed a young pigeon hopping in little circles on my porch.  He couldn’t seem to fly. On closer examination, it seemed that his wings were bunched up on his back. As I peered through my glass door, a larger pigeon fluttered down to this smaller one, coaxing it into hiding behind the urn.  Then the older bird (mother? father? auntie?) flew off to its rain gutter perch and watched over the injured bird.

I thought I understood. Every evening a brown falcon surveys the world from the gable above my bedroom.  The owl strikes in secret, so private that only three feathers are left. But I am not there when the birds-of-prey kill. I’m not a witness.

This particular pigeon circled dejectedly just a few feet from my house, behind my clay pot, not far from where I was writing at the computer. As I stepped outside, I spied one gray-furred feather on the doorstep.

Looking at the bird, which was helpless to fly away, I sighed. We’d had such a pigeon problem at the house. My roof was covered with mottled gray feathers and mottled gray shit. In large quantities, pigeons can be so annoying. I’d read up on pigeons and discovered that they like to nest on rocky hillsides, and my tile roof probably seemed like the next best spot.

As I looked at the bird, I felt the heavy cloak of responsibility settling on me. I thought of the best work of Anonymous: Some days you’re the pigeon. Some days you’re the statue. I was pretty sure that at that point we both felt like the statue, heavy and cold.  And frightened.

After all, I had no idea of how to help him.  He shivered. He bebopped. He looked as if his arms might be caught in the jacket up above his head.

Without an idea of how to help him, but a strong sense that I couldn’t turn my back and go inside, I decided to try to get help.  After calling several animal welfare and wildlife rescue organizations, I was told about a woman I came to think of as Our Lady of the Pigeons.  Call her, the woman on the phone urged me. “She’s the only one who will help a pigeon.”

I put on rubber gloves to pick up the bird. I didn’t want to pick up some kind of wild bird disease. As a kid, when I brought feathers into the house, my mother would insist I throw them away and scrub my hands free of contamination. My husband lives by those rules, too, and I’ve picked up their worries.

I placed him in a box and covered it with a towel, all the while talking pigeon to him.  Pigeon is sort of like cat or dog.  It’s a soothing sound which tells the pigeon or cat or dog that whatever you’re going to do to them will be lovely.

My son held the box on his lap while I drove to the lady’s house. She had sounded terse and difficult on the phone. She worried that a cat had pulled the wing off like they do a foot, leaving it bloodless, cauterized, and corked–a volatile champagne of eventual death.

I parked my car under the orange tree and walked in through her open garage. A dog barked from out back, and I waited at the tattered screen door for what felt like an hour, but was probably only two or three minutes. The pigeon’s feet scratched the box floor every so often, but it was otherwise silent.

The Pigeon Lady appeared at her door, staring at the box.  I don’t believe she looked at me at all. She didn’t wear a halo, but graying hair puffed out over a face which reminded me of an aging Sigourney Weaver. A hint of longjohns peeked from the top of her layered muumuus.

Without speaking, she scooped up the bird and placed him atop the hood of a blocked-up Bonneville, amidst  the curious nose of the blue-eyed half-feral cat, which jumped up in curiosity.

The woman’s man-sized hands unwrapped the pigeon’s wings. They were coiled together like two ends of a twisty. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I’ve never seen wings corkscrewed together. Every pigeon has his own story.” My son’s mouth hung open ever so slightly.

She scraped dried food from a clogged nostril, and said, “He can’t feed himself yet. Forehead hasn’t turned white.”

She simmered with thrill that his wings were only bruised.  “I’ll keep him until spring, when he can feed himself.  Maybe he’ll fly home.”  I pictured him flying home to my yard, being greeted by the older bird who had hid him behind my flower pot.

I asked if I could call and check on him. After all, it seemed the polite thing to do.  She said, “I have your number.”  Clearly I was dismissed.  I slipped her a $20 bill as I left and thanked her for helping.  The bird or me, I wasn’t sure. Without her, what would I have done with the bird?

She said she would use the money to feed all the pigeons.  Many of them would never be well enough to fly.

As I left I stumbled over some of the loose oranges on the ground, thinking how citrus trees attract scorpions. I realized that they wouldn’t dare bother this lady.

On the way home, my son, somewhere off with his own thoughts, didn’t speak any more than the Pigeon Lady or the pigeon. I remembered how as a kid I had loved the “Feed the Birds” scene in Mary Poppins so much. Although I was only nine when the movie came out, that was my favorite song.  The problem with the song is that it’s one that is hard to get out of your head.

This lady reminded me of that song, that scene, that woman. But with a gritty real-life edge of imperfection to her.

That was that.  The pigeon was taken care of and I could go back to my computer.  My son could go back to the TV. I tried to write a poem about her, but it wasn’t successful.  It’s hard to write about something you find a little holy and a little human.

But nothing is ever really over. A year later I came home from vacation to find a sick pigeon huddled up against the wall of my house. This time I knew the drill and took the pigeon to the lady.

A few days later she used that phone number of mine that she had kept from the first pigeon. Without any chitchat, she said, “I’m so sorry, but your pigeon died.”  I didn’t know whether to sympathize with her or to accept her sympathy and leave it at that.

She had tried very hard to save the pigeon, but without knowing what was wrong, she wasn’t able to help it. She said, “I have a difficult question to ask you.  Would it be ok with you if I do an autopsy on the bird? When they die I like to do that so I can learn more about what is wrong with them, so I can help the rest of them.”

My pause might have been a moment too long, but then I assured her that it was fine to do so. Anything in the cause of helping the birds.

When I hung up the phone I could hear that damn Disney song playing in my head again.

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That’s the story of Our Lady of the Pigeons, the story I remembered from reading the comments of fellow bloggers about the reason I don’t know much science.

Have you ever met anybody like her?  Tell me his or her story!

17 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Writing, Writing prompt

Grandma and the Purple People Eaters: Re-Post

This week I need to take a little blog rest so I can focus on my other writing. In case you weren’t reading my blog back in December, here is a post from back then about my grandmother.

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When I was little I stayed with my grandmother during the day while my parents were at work.  It was just Grandma and me at the house.   Grandpa worked down the block, at his Sunoco filling station.  Every day at noon, Grandma and I brought his lunch to him.  He’d climb up out of the pit where he worked under cars and smile when he saw us with his gray lunch box.

Sometimes I played with the girl up the street and other days I’d pick through the toys and books left behind in their bedrooms upstairs by my mother, Aunt Alice, and Uncle Don.  I found a giant printing set, a potholder loom and loops, and a collection of miniature furniture and animals.  In my aunt’s room, I read my first chapter book, The Bobbsey Twins.   Grandma and I fried donuts and sugared strawberries.  We sang Ethel Merman songs like “Anything You Can Do.”  I could always manage to sing louder and higher than Grandma.

Any note you can reach
I can go higher.
I can sing anything
Higher than you.
No, you can’t. (High)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can’t. (Higher)
Yes, I CAN! (Highest)

Occasionally, we walked “uptown” to the bank, passing the thrift store, which fascinated me. I thought it was a combination antique store and fine dress shop.  Also en route was the home of the Purple People Eaters.  My overweight, matronly grandmother sang the song and danced right there on the sidewalk for me.  It was years before I realized the building was actually a dry cleaning establishment, painted purple.


Grandma carried the filling station’s bank deposit bag in her big pocketbook, which also held mints and pennies for me.   We stopped at the florist to say hi to some relatives and at the bakery for sugar cookies.

With all the fun Grandma orchestrated, I still got bored one time.  I was in “that mood,” the one where it seems that all is wrong with the world.  Grandma knew how to handle the situation.  She put me in an old work shirt of Grandpa’s and handed me a paint brush.

“Come outside,” she said.  On the back stoop, she’d placed an old wooden child’s chair on a spread-out newspaper. “Go to town, Luanne,” she said.  I worked hard for a long time, painting that chair, which seemed so big

When my mother picked me up after work that day, she laughed.  “Mom, you had her do the same thing you made Don do to keep him busy!”  Even today when I feel “at odds,” this example keeps me working, moving forward through the doldrums.

Grandma did her chores while I was at her house.  She cooked and baked and ran errands, which were all on foot or by bus, as she didn’t drive.  I helped her and learned at her elbow.  She ironed my parents’ clothes, too, while I played at the kitchen table and sang with her.   She didn’t waste our time cleaning too much, but everything else got done—and done well.

She devoted a half hour to herself every day, watching As the World Turns while I “napped” beside her on the couch.

Mostly, though, Grandma doted on me and made sure I could learn and use my imagination.  She sat me on her lap and told me stories “from her head.” Her attention wasn’t fragmented by a cell phone or computer.  She limited her telephone and TV usage.  She was completely there in the moment with me each day.

Can we say the same today for our children and grandchildren and the children we babysit?

4 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir

Cross-post: “The Importance of Story”

Today I wrote this post for the adoption blog called Don’t We Look Alike? that I write with my daughter, but it also seemed to connect with this blog as it concerns the notion of story.

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” ― Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

Everybody and everything has a story.  According to Terry Pratchett, we are all shaped by stories.  This quote might mean that reading a variety of stories helps develop us into who we are.  But, in fact, we are shaped even more by the stories which are unique to our selves.

We create stories out of our complex lives.  To understand ourselves and others around us, we tell ourselves stories that make some sense out of it all.

As Patrick Rothfuss puts it:

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

Most of us come to our consciousness with family stories told to us by relatives.  Even in families which are reticent to talk about the past, there is a pattern which is story in hearing that one has the same stubborn streak as one’s father and that he has hammer toes because his mother couldn’t afford to buy him new shoes when his feet grew.  These elements become part of the story of the child.

Some people have stories which are missing big gaps.  Imagine having amnesia in your fourth grade year.  You can remember the rest of your life, but there is a hole where an entire year should be.  Many adoptees have a hole larger than this.  If an adoptee was not part of an open adoption, it’s probable that she was not given much information about who her birth parents were, what their stories were, and what their lives were like when she was not yet born.

The person who was adopted might not know anything about her own birth or what her life was like as an infant.  When there is information shared, it can be sparse and not tied into a narrative.  It might not even be accurate.  It could be lies.

I was not adopted, and I have been told plenty of family stories.  I grew up with family stories and photos.  Many of the dots were connected for me.  Recently I’ve done some genealogical research, and it astonishes me how some of the stories I was told turned out not to be accurate.  However, the most fundamental information has been true, unlike that for some adoptees.

My children were adopted as babies in international adoptions.  We received some pages of information from the agency.  Mainly, we learned about their medical exam results while living in the orphanage (son) or with the foster family (daughter). We learned their weight and health when they were brought to Holt. But there is also information on the charts listing the ages and education levels of their birth parents, and what areas they came from.  When we read these pages with our case worker, she filled in information, providing us with story fragments.

I took all the information we had been given—both written and oral, guesses and facts—and wrote up stories for both children, providing them with a story which pre-dates their lives in our family.

It seemed important that they have their own stories.

“[T]here’s a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin.” ― Mitch Albom, For One More Day

Think of this: “behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin” [my italics].

So while it seems important that the kids have their own stories, these stories had to begin with the stories of their birth mothers.

Next time you wonder why many adoptees search for their birth families and wish to to learn information about these families, remember that you are who you are because you have your own story.  They are only searching for part of their story, a story that is important to their very identity.

12 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

Grandma and the Purple People Eaters

When I was little I stayed with my grandmother during the day while my parents were at work.  It was just Grandma and me at the house.   Grandpa worked down the block, at his Sunoco filling station.  Every day at noon, Grandma and I brought his lunch to him.  He’d climb up out of the pit where he worked under cars and smile when he saw us with his gray lunch box.

Sometimes I played with the girl up the street and other days I’d pick through the toys and books left behind in their bedrooms upstairs by my mother, Aunt Alice, and Uncle Don.  I found a giant printing set, a potholder loom and loops, and a collection of miniature furniture and animals.  In my aunt’s room, I read my first chapter book, The Bobbsey Twins.   Grandma and I fried donuts and sugared strawberries.  We sang Ethel Merman songs like “Anything You Can Do.”  I could always manage to sing louder and higher than Grandma.

Any note you can reach
I can go higher.
I can sing anything
Higher than you.
No, you can’t. (High)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can’t. (Higher)
Yes, I CAN! (Highest)

Occasionally, we walked “uptown” to the bank, passing the thrift store, which fascinated me. I thought it was a combination antique store and fine dress shop.  Also en route was the home of the Purple People Eaters.  My overweight, matronly grandmother sang the song and danced right there on the sidewalk for me.  It was years before I realized the building was actually a dry cleaning establishment, painted purple.


Grandma carried the filling station’s bank deposit bag in her big pocketbook, which also held mints and pennies for me.   We stopped at the florist to say hi to some relatives and at the bakery for sugar cookies.

With all the fun Grandma orchestrated, I still got bored one time.  I was in “that mood,” the one where it seems that all is wrong with the world.  Grandma knew how to handle the situation.  She put me in an old work shirt of Grandpa’s and handed me a paint brush.

“Come outside,” she said.  On the back stoop, she’d placed an old wooden child’s chair on a spread-out newspaper. “Go to town, Luanne,” she said.  I worked hard for a long time, painting that chair, which seemed so big

When my mother picked me up after work that day, she laughed.  “Mom, you had her do the same thing you made Don do to keep him busy!”  Even today when I feel “at odds,” this example keeps me working, moving forward through the doldrums.

Grandma did her chores while I was at her house.  She cooked and baked and ran errands, which were all on foot or by bus, as she didn’t drive.  I helped her and learned at her elbow.  She ironed my parents’ clothes, too, while I played at the kitchen table and sang with her.   She didn’t waste our time cleaning too much, but everything else got done—and done well.

She devoted a half hour to herself every day, watching As the World Turns while I “napped” beside her on the couch.

Mostly, though, Grandma doted on me and made sure I could learn and use my imagination.  She sat me on her lap and told me stories “from her head.” Her attention wasn’t fragmented by a cell phone or computer.  She limited her telephone and TV usage.  She was completely there in the moment with me each day.

Can we say the same today for our children and grandchildren and the children we babysit?

14 Comments

Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir