I have always loved birds and I like people who love birds. One of the first books I bought with my own money was a small blue book with birds on the cover. Each page was about one bird and I studied them carefully. In Massachusetts I could spot robins, chickadees, cardinals, cedar waxwings, and more. I remember the excitement of seeing a bright kingfisher on a low branch as I rowed under it on an artificial lake where I went to school in Great Barrington. I feel a deep kinship with birds perhaps because we used to eat the same things at that school. It was near the end of World War II and I was hungry all the time. It was a huge place to someone not yet eight years old, with eight hundred and eighty acres of a grand estate in the Berkshire Mountains. But the food was not what my grandmother had fed me as a toddler. I learned to hate sauerkraut and pea soup. If I had been aware of the world I would have been grateful to be safe and fed at all. I lived at that school fall, winter, spring and summer and wondered who I belonged to since nobody ever came to see me except when, after two years, my mother showed up and packed my big black trunk and said I was going home. I remember asking her the magic phrase, “For good?”
The birds, the school, the war somewhere far away that sent us another kid named Joan, the same age, who had fled with her father from Poland. I was forced to give her my one doll, but I didn’t mind so much since I hated dolls, especially that helpless baby doll I knocked against the wall the way someone threw me about as a baby. My roommate Mori Wildfeuer and I stole bread from the supper table, wrapped it in our paper napkins and hid it in the cupboard in a wall of our room. At night when we felt like a treat, we would take the bread out, the staler the better. I can still hear the crunch, taste the dry treat today a half century later. During the day we ate whatever we could find: grass, seeds we gleaned from pine cones, and little yellow tomatoes we stole from the greenhouse above the lake (where I learned to row a boat) with its marble double balustrade and a landing big enough to hold the seniors’ graduation prom. I can still remember the tangy taste of sourgrass. So you see, I too, like the birds, ate grass and seeds, at least until I went home “for good.”
Home was another boarding school. I was, at eight years old, according to an old photo, emaciated, long stringy hair and torn coat with missing buttons. I looked like I had been raised by wolves; I now was told the war was over and I wouldn’t die under a fallen beam in a cellar like the kids in the Saturday movies I watched before I had to go off to that faraway school. At the start of the school year I was dropped off at a convent in Arlington Heights where I was to live for the next eight years. And then, one day like Jane Eyre, I was released into the world to inevitably become a teacher. Oh..of course, I really did marry a handsome Englishman.
Today, as I watch my caged birds at the window, six Australian Zebra finches, I think about what they teach me about being raised in any kind of cage. They are small and white and do not sing any beautiful songs. The males have a little reveille song like in the army, “You gotta get up. You gotta get up.” That’s their message. They will never be free…well….Maybe they’re telling me today that the world is not a very nice place for lots of little creatures.
Today the school In the Berkshires belongs to Michael Eisner, I am told, where he has established a camp for orthodox Jewish kids. On the Web it looks very nice. It was a truly beautiful place even a long time ago to a little girl who crawled about eating sourgrass.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH64weKPF60 Enjoy a favorite video!