Nesting Instinct

In the front yard of our house on West Moreland Road, the first address that I consciously learned as a child and can still recall to this day, there was a small dogwood tree. Its pink and white blooms meant that spring had truly arrived in our small corner of eastern Pennsylvania, that April had pushed winter back once again to make way for life to thrive once more. The tree, though seemingly enormous in memory, was quite diminutive in stature, but it's pale branches jutted from the sturdy trunk at exactly the right angles for our small arms and legs to climb. And climb we did.

We invented a game that was played only in those branches, a version of tag that we called "Diabetes Monster" in reference to adult conversations overheard but not understood. Somehow it was always more fun when Mat was "it" so Karissa and I would climb as high as we could and then scream and giggle hysterically when Mat, imitating the most fearsome animal he'd recently become obsessed with from the Discovery Channel, huffed or growled or roared and chased after us on the all-fours of a gangly six-year-old boy.

In the final spring before we moved away from that little white house with the black shutters and Pennsylvania and all of the ties of family and home that were rooted there, we discovered a small bird's nest tucked in among the blossoms of that dogwood tree. Forbidden to climb while the nest was there, it was the first place we ran after dropping schoolbags at the door each afternoon. The three of us would stand staring up at the tiny nest, discussing all of the possible bird species in our very limited knowledge, quite convinced that we had a bald eagle's nest in our very own front yard and that, any day now, we would be witness to one of these majestic creatures raising its family in our beloved dogwood tree. 

After a week or two, or perhaps a lifetime, we went running out to peer at our nest only to find it gone. Mysteriously vanished, much to our worry and dismay. Over after-school snacks of peanut butter and apples, our Mom reassured us that this was sometimes how nature worked, that a predator may have reached the nest or perhaps a strong wind, and that it was okay to be a little bit sad, but that there were other nests in other trees and all would be well. Bolstered by her explanation and still consumed with the idea of nests and baby birds, we commandeered an old bed sheet from the basement and went back to our tree, excited to once again be able to climb its limbs.

As the oldest, my job was simple: I was responsible for the structural integrity of our endeavor. So I carefully knotted the faded orange and green floral patterned sheet around the branches we'd selected, double knotting where possible but careful to leave enough slack to form a cozy little sack suspended above the ground. Karissa, not only the youngest, but also the most effective charmer with her little chubby four-year-old legs and earnest intentions, was sent inside to request crackers from our mom, a rather strict quartermaster. Meanwhile, Mat made his way into the hanging bed sheet, carefully positioning himself in the most realistic baby bird posture we could collectively imagine and sat with mouth open wide awaiting Karissa's return. When she did return, it was with popcorn instead of crackers and we were delighted with the turn of events as she and I sat perched on our branch beside our "nest" and tossed kernel after kernel into Mat's gaping mouth, giggling all the while at his perfect impression.

That April afternoon under the pink and white dogwood blossoms is the last clear memory I have of my brother, sister, and me truly playing together. I was approaching pre-adolescence and would soon begin to reject playing as too childish while simultaneously craving its freedom. In the months following that day, we would move to Virginia and it would be the first of many moves taking us further and further from where our family began. As each of us grew into the people we'd become, our interests and personalities drew us in different directions and we became separated by time and distance and perceived hurts.

But around this time each year, on those days when the temperature rides the line between warm and cool and the scent of new budding daffodils and fervent life pushing out of thawing ground wafts over the breeze, I can see it all like it was yesterday. Mat's goofy grin between popcorn kernels and the way he said Karissa's name, mispronouncing the "r" in his little boy voice as he urged her to throw another piece. Karissa, blonde pigtails and big brown eyes, seated next to me on the tree branch, her warm little body pressed against mine and the green plastic bowl of popcorn balanced between us. 

Nests sometimes fall from trees, but life moves forward regardless. On that April day long ago, we, unwillingly, were forced to set aside our expectations of all that fragile little nest promised and the potential it held. In it's place, we created something unexpected, built a nest of our own and fulfilled a potential we hadn't imagined until it was suddenly before us. Winter comes and spring always follows, no matter how cold or dark or laden with snow. The blossoms eventually burst into pink and white before yielding to the press of leaves and maturity, all the more precious for their fleeting and fragile nature.