Summer is on the horizon at last. It has been a long time coming this year; the winter was savage and spring was not much better. Today, though, on a quiet, cloudless Saturday evening at the tail end of May, the sun is beaming kindly down on our back garden.
Music is playing in the house. A golden oldie. Roberta Flack giving the business to The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. The emotion stirred by Roberta’s mellifluous delivery could very well crack my tender heart in two if I but allowed myself to weaken and succumb.
In the kitchen my wife is baking potatoes and making a Caesar Salad. She’s a pip, that woman. She knows how fond I am of Caesars. The anchovies in the dressing are the hook for me - I adore the taste of their singular pungency. Anchovies, in a curious, serendipitous way, maintain my enthrallment with the majesty of creation.
Out here in the garden, three steaks are sizzling on the barbecue and a bottle of Beaujolais is sitting on the picnic table waiting to be uncorked. The lawn is cut and the air is moistly fragrant with the smell of freshly mown grass. All is well with the world - at least my little patch of it here in the east end of downtown Toronto.
I am sitting on the sagging, low, red-brick wall that divides our picnic area from the lawn. I am watching my son. He has his toy soldiers out and is recreating the American Civil War at the base of a peach tree in the middle of the garden. The Union Army has the high ground but, with all the grim, single-minded concentration of childhood, my boy is lining up the Confederates for a major offensive. It looks like the lads in blue are in for a mighty battle.
Above the preparations for war, the foliage flutters at the top of the tree. A robin redbreast descends through the greenery, flaps his wings and elegantly settles onto a lofty branch, just above the birdhouse full of budgie seed which I hung up there a week ago in anticipation of just this occasion.
The bird checks out the lie of the land and eyeballs me appraisingly. Then he takes a long, wary look at my boy at the base of the tree. After a while, having apparently decided that we are both harmless, Robin Redbreast hops down onto the edge of the birdhouse and starts pecking at the budgie seed.
I whistle softly to my kid and he turns his head to look at me. I point towards the bird. “We have a visitor,” I whisper.
The boy looks up and spots the robin and a jubilant grin fills his face. He abandons his warmongering and tip-toes over to me. “It’s him, Dad,” he says, his voice enchanting with the excitement in it.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s him all right. For the third year in a row.”
He sits down on the grass between my feet, raises his gaze to keep tabs on the bird and rests his head against my knee. I run my fingers through his hair. I stroke his cheek. I cup his chin lightly in the palm of my hand. He is at an age when he sometimes tolerates these displays of affection but often decides that he is far too grown-up for such carry-on and shrugs me away with scornful impatience.
Today, softened perhaps by the arrival of the robin, he nestles his chin in my hand. An earthquake lurches in my heart; it measures a good eight on the Richter Scale of Love. This is as good as life gets. If I was a praying man I would be asking my God to please freeze this moment and let it be my eternity. Let nothing ever change.
“I was afraid he wouldn’t come,” says the boy.
“Well, here he is, son. Large as life.”
“I wonder where he’s been.”
“Oh, off on some exotic island in the Caribbean or the Pacific, I suppose. Some place rich with buried treasure from the pirate days of old, where the population are mostly descendants of olden-days explorers, pirates and intrepid adventurers.”
“I don’t know why he’d want to come back here, so.”
“He’s here to visit us, of course. He’s almost a member of the family now.”
“We should give him a name.”
I suddenly feel like I’ve entered a time warp. Deja vu surges through me. It hums in my hair, tingles in the tips of my fingers and toes and pulses in the pores of my skin. It burrows into the marrow of my bones, pervades my senses and transports me back to another fine summer afternoon back in Raheny, the Dublin suburb where I spent my childhood.
The house around me shakes as the Belfast-bound express train rumbles by on the railway track at the bottom of the back garden. I am at the table in the sitting room doing my homework, plumbing the depths of my imagination to come up with enough narration to fill two pages of foolscap with an essay on The Life of a Tree.
It is a lovely sunny summer day and my father is out the back tending the garden. On the radio in the kitchen, where my mother is making the tea, Queen are singing I Want to Break Free. The song is Number Two in the charts. Dad’s face appears at the window beside me, an index finger pressed to his lips in a mute demand for quiet. “JR is back,” he whispers.
I jump off my chair in a flash. I scoot past Mam in the kitchen and out into the garden, where Dad greets me with a grin. He nods his head at a trail of white bread leading down the garden path. A pile of the dough sits beneath the railings that separate the garden from the railway and JR, the robin who has been visiting us every summer for more years than I remember, already has his beak buried in it. He flicks a piece out of the pile and methodically goes to work on pecking it into oblivion.
My mother comes out to check out the cause of the commotion. She balefully regards the bread. “That was for the tea,” she says.
Dad grins at her. “Ah, there’s plenty left,” he says.
She shakes her head in despair and goes back into the house.
We called the bird JR after a character in the TV soap opera Dallas. The JR on the television was a nasty trickster who was always ducking and diving and wheeling and dealing and forever throwing shapes to get ahead in the oil business. Dad said that while JR the robin was of a kinder disposition, he would still need to employ some crafty habits in order to survive in the wild.
There are three deck chairs open beneath the sitting room window. Dad sits in one and I settle down in another and we watch the bird eat. After a minute or so he pauses, squints briefly at us and abruptly resumes his feed.
“Did you see that?” says Dad.
“What?” I say.
“He winked at me.”
“Birds can’t wink.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. You’re dense, you are.”
“I might be dense but I know what I saw. That robin winked at me. I swear.”
“Ah, Dad. Go away out of that.”
I am pulled back to the land of the living by the sound of the cork popping out of the Beaujolais bottle. My wife pours the wine. “Grub’s up,” she says.
The three of us sit at the picnic table and eat. The steak is a perfect medium rare, the Beaujolais is full and fruity and the Caesar Salad is fit for a king.
“What name should we give the bird, Dad?” says my boy.
I chew a mouthful of Caesar Salad, contemplate the question for a moment and swallow. “We should call him JR.”
“Gee, Dad. Whoever heard of JR for a name?”
It is a long time since the scheming, heartless oilman has appeared on prime-time TV and it is not in a young boy’s nature to be sentimental about history or nostalgia, so I opt for discretion and a modicum of wit as the better part of valor. “The name JR represents true grit and an enduring spirit,” I say.
“Gee, Dad, it’s only a bird.”
“Now that’s where you’re wrong, son. He’s a special bird who has chosen us to be his human friends. This is a solemn thing with mystical connotations about it. It’s kind of like anchovies.”
He grimaces. He has not inherited my taste for the salty little herrings. Plus, he is clueless about what I’m talking about - as is my wife, who is wearing what looks like a patronizing smirk around the corners of her mouth. I carry on regardless. “The exploits of JR and the alchemy of anchovies are two of the minor miracles of life that crucially contribute to the majesty of creation.”
My wife and my son look at each other and roll their eyeballs in exasperation.
“Excuse me,” says the boy, standing and pushing himself away from the table. He moves down the garden to sit on the wall and watch the robin preen himself after his feed. My wife stacks the used dishes into a pile and carries them into the kitchen. I follow with the accoutrements.
“You’re in a wistful mood today,” she says.
“I’ve been time-traveling,” I say.
“Well,” she says. “If you pass a shop in your travels, will you pick up some milk? We’re running low.”
I don’t dignify that remark with a reply. I fill a jug with water, return to the garden and slowly approach the peach tree. The robin eyeballs me warily, ever ready to take flight. On the day when I put up the birdhouse I hung an old tin cup out of the same branch. Now I fill this cup with water from the jug and I go sit on the wall beside the boy. I sip my coffee. The bird shifts and drinks the water.
“I thought of a name for him,” says the boy.
“Diablo,” he says nervously.
Diablo was the name of our pet cat who lived with us happily for eight years and died of kidney failure six months ago. I surreptitiously study my son. His face is tense and expectant. He is awaiting my reaction with a mixture of needs; he needs me to like the name he has chosen and, much more importantly, he needs me to approve of his loyalty and commemoration.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “That’s great idea, son. I’m proud of you.”
He beams. “Thanks, Dad.”
My eyes water. That boy is a prince.
I look up at the top of the peach tree. The bird is intently eyeballing us. He squints at me. He jerks his head and looks at the boy. Then he tilts his beak back in my direction. And he winks.
I gasp. “Did you see that?” I say.
“Diablo - he winked.”
“Aw, gee Dad.”
“He did. He winked at me.”
“Gimme a break. Birds can’t wink.”
He walks away from me, shaking his head at how hopeless I can sometimes be.
“I saw it as clear as day,” I say. “That bird winked at me. I swear.”