Friday, September 3, 1999
For the past two summers, we've watched a pair of robins set up housekeeping just outside our bedroom window. Atop our floodlight fixture, under the protective eaves, the robins constructed a rather messy nest of twigs, grass, and assorted woodsy materials, charmingly decorated with a foot-long piece of frayed twine that hangs from it like a bell rope.
Although we can't be sure, we believe the same mother robin has returned both years to sit patiently warming her light blue eggs, visited occasionally by her mate and leaving the nest several times a day to feed and do whatever it is that birds do. The nesting, hatching and fledgling process lasted several weeks, and while it won't be seen on Sir David Attenborough's The Life of Birds on PBS, the robin family became part of our lives. Upon opening a sleepy eye in the morning, my first glance shot toward the curtainless window where mama robin would be perched in her aerie. She seemed totally oblivious to our household activities, even when we urged visitors into the bedroom to meet our avian tenants. On occasion our dog lazily watched the birds, but fortunately the cat was completely indifferent.
We were aware that hatching was imminent when mama would perch at the edge of the nest, peer intently inside, and make pecking motions. Father robin, on his periodic visits, did the same. Very early one morning, I awoke to a robin's cascading trill outside my window, heralding the birth of the chicks. Then, the avian Berlin airlift began round-the-clock feedings (well, daytime at least) by both parents. At first, we could only imagine the featherless babes tucked deep inside the cozy nest. Soon, though, tiny v-shaped beaks peeked over the edge, hungrily anticipating the regurgitated worms and insects the parents dropped into each craw. A day or two later, we saw that three small beaks, continually open to the sky, were attached to scrawny necks, ungainly babies only a mother could love. The tiny eating machines waved about like reeds in a breeze, searching for their next meal, and the dutiful parents kept them fueled.
The chicks grew rapidly and vied for space in the now-crowded nest. They grew downy and fluffy and resembled baby birds, not just yawning beaks. Soon they flapped their wings experimentally, groomed themselves, and squawked incessantly.
Then came the morning I awoke and glanced toward the window. The nest was empty. "My" birds had fledged. I felt surprisingly empty too, and my thoughts flew back 17 Septembers ago when I drove my son to his first day at Cornell. No amount of careful preparation for that day could have equipped me to deal with the emotion of this rite of passage. Tears spilled all the way home to my empty nest.
Every September, new generations of parents confront these life passagesthe first day of kindergarten, of first grade, high school, collegewhen we send our children forth into ever-widening ripples of independence. But it is the college-bound journey that truly marks their independence from us, when our children really do leave the nest. They spread their wings, fly off into the unknown and we can only hope we did our job well. When they do come home, grown in so many ways, they're soon off again. That's as it should be.
Our robins' nest is unoccupied now, silent, its incongruous rope dangling in the late summer breeze. I see what may be the robin parents hopping around our garden, calling to each other, tugging worms out of the ground. I don't see "the kids." With luck, the robins will be back again next spring. We'll leave the porch light on, and the rope dangling.
Ellen Miller is a Carlisle resident, Mosquito proofreader and oral history coordinator, among other things.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito