A few months ago, I traveled to Wilmington, Delaware, to celebrate my cousin Elaine’s eighty-fifth birthday. Our family group also included Elaine’s daughter Rachel, who’d come from Indiana; Elaine’s son Michael, who lives in Wilmington; and his wife Sarah. (I’ve changed all of my cousins’ names.)
These family gatherings are rather new to me. I’ve tried to be supportive since Elaine’s husband passed away a few years ago. I didn’t grow up with these cousins. My parents hardly ever took vacations or traveled to see my mother’s family.
Now, when we get together, we scrutinize each other and delight in similarities. We are good with words, love animals, and enjoy drinking red wine. Well, perhaps that last one isn’t a family trait—especially since Elaine makes a face whenever she tastes it.
We share our scant common memories, over and over. We like to reminisce about a few days in the summer of 1966, when Elaine and her family made their only trip to Green Bay. I recall Rachel—a chubby, smiling toddler—standing next to our coffee table, pushing cubes of kosher salami into her mouth. I encountered her again, briefly, on my wedding day when she was almost four. The next time I saw her, she was twenty-three, slender and somber, at the funeral of her grandfather, my uncle.
We’d made no plans for Saturday afternoon. The previous summer we’d visited an aquarium and a zoo. But Elaine has lost some mobility during the past year, so that kind of trip wasn’t practical. And we weren’t sure she could sit through a movie. We thought we’d grab some lunch and discuss it.
We were crossing a plaza near the restaurant when we saw a small, brown object on the pavement. At first it looked like a pine cone. As we got closer, we saw it was a bird.
This little bird didn’t look right. It didn’t fly away when we approached. “Isn’t it breathing awfully hard?” Rachel asked.
“Small animals breathe faster than large ones,” I said hopefully. “And babies breathe faster than adults. Is this a baby bird?” With puffy down on its chest, it appeared to be a fledgling.
We wondered what the little bird was doing on the pavement. There were no trees above us, so it probably hadn’t fallen from its nest. Maybe it had tried to fly and become fatigued. Maybe a predator—a hawk, Mike postulated—had seized it from its nest and dropped it before it became a meal.
As I mentioned, we are a clan of animal lovers. Elaine, who has some memory issues, recalls the pets from her youth better than the people. Michael has been a paid employee at two different animal shelters, while I’m a longtime shelter volunteer. At one time Rachel worked for a veterinarian. Our homes are filled with rescue animals. That’s how we are.
If you’re walking your dog, we’ll stop to admire it. We brake for squirrels. So we couldn’t just walk away and leave this tiny creature to its fate. If any of us dared to suggest that, he or she would automatically lose face.
Elaine needed to sit down, so we decided to have our lunch and figure out what to do. Maybe the bird would be gone when we got back. “Oh, that bird!” our server said. “There was a young girl in here talking about it. She wants to be a vet, and she thought maybe she’d take it home.” We wished she had. It made us feel worse to think that the bird might have been there for hours.
When our meal was done, Rachel, Sarah and I hurried back to the plaza while Mike helped Elaine maneuver her walker. The bird was still there. It had been silent before, but now it chirped plaintively and listed to one side.
“I know!” Sarah said. “There’s a bird rescue in Newark, Delaware. It’s maybe fifteen, twenty miles away. Maybe they’ll let us bring the bird there.”
Sarah found the listing and called Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, Inc. They said they would look at the bird. I ran back to the restaurant for a carry-out container and punched a few holes in the lid. Rachel put paper napkins around the bird and lifted it into the container. It flapped wildly when we started the car, but soon quieted. We hoped that didn’t mean it was dying.
Rachel kept checking to make sure the bird was breathing. She decided he was a male and called him Pufnstuf because of his puffy feathers. The bird looked into her eyes and chirped intently. He appeared to be bonding with Rachel.
A half hour later we were on the narrow, wooded road that led to the Tri-State Bird Rescue. Mike and Elaine stayed in the car while Sarah, Rachel, and I went in. We told the receptionist that we were the family who’d called about a bird on the pavement. She peered into the container. “Oh,” she said. “It’s an English sparrow. They do that.”
They do that? “We’ll check him out for you,” the receptionist went on. “But he looks okay.”
Another woman took the bird into a back room. After a few minutes, she brought it back, in a cardboard box with proper breathing holes. “Yes, he’s an English sparrow,” she said. “They like to hang around where people are. They beg, hoping to get fed. I’m sure his parents were close by. He is a fledgling, maybe three or four days away from flying. But he doesn’t look like he’s injured. He’s spreading his wings symmetrically, and he seems to be well-nourished.”
“So what happens now?” we asked.
“Oh, you put him back,” the ornithologist replied.
“Put him back? On the pavement?”
“Well, no, not on the pavement. Is there a wooded area a few feet away? His parents will find him there,” she said.
I looked at Sarah. “You tell Mike and Elaine that we’re taking him back,” I said.
Pufnstuf acted more relaxed on the return trip. He seemed to be enjoying the ride and the attention. “That bird!” Sarah said. “He’s nothin’ but an ol’ grifter!”
There was no wooded area near the plaza, but there were bushes and mulch. Rachel gently lifted Pufnstuf out of the box and set him under a bush. He hopped in circles and chirped loudly. He was more animated than he’d been all day, and we began to think his parents would find him after all.
We’d blown our afternoon. It was too late to go anywhere else, but we didn’t really mind. We’d done our best for the little bird, after all, and learned something about English sparrows in the process.
And, more important, we’d made a family memory.