THE NIGHT I FLEW
Occurred: Sometime in 1987
Whenever I see a feather, I smile. I smile in the kind of way that one would when passing children playing on the street. Or in the way one would watching a stubborn dog stop in its tracks while the owner stands, defeated, tugging on the leash and collar. I smile in the way that other people look at me and know that my toes are tingling.
It was 1987. We lived in a three-story house that had “Betty Crocker-esque” wallpaper and carpet that we would now describe as being retro. I was four years old and I had four heroes. My dad, my brother, my sister, and most of all, my mom. The woman from whom I had received my eyes and my taste in music. The woman who provided me with role models ranging from Aretha Franklin to Hedda Gabler. She was a stunning mother of three. She had pale skin, the color of cookie batter and reddish brown hair that rested in soft curls just below her chin. When she laughed, bangs would fall in front of her deep blue eyes. And she laughed a lot.
She was one of those rare mothers who would play with her children, not just dress them up and show them off. We would have sock wars with our balled up dirty laundry. Sing and dance around the house while cleaning. We were allowed to help her cook, even if the end result was disastrous. We would all dress up in her fanciest clothes, put on make up, then wait for my dad to come home and pretend as if he, a Prince, had just entered the ball.
My dad was the opposite. He was reticent and stoic with glasses that hung on the end of his nose. Dark hair and small green eyes peeked out over the aforementioned glasses; a businessman to the core. He would come home every night and want the house to be quiet as he read his paper. He liked the expected. He liked his routine. He was affectionate, but in a very different way than my mother was. He could be silly when he wanted to be, but usually he was the disciplinary figure in our house. Every night at the dinner table he would have a “question of the day” for us—some tidbit of information that we all had to take a guess at and whoever answered correctly won the right to choose what to have for dessert that evening. I was the youngest and therefore never got the answer right. However, there were nights when he would cater the question to me.
“Question of the day:” his voice boomed over my mom’s mashed potatoes, “Who can tell me who our current president is?” Bridget’s mouth opened revealing a gaping hole where her front tooth was missing. “Ow!” A jerking movement came from my brother as he glared at her. “Oh, uh—hm, that’s a tough one, dad…”
Bo scratched his head and furrowed his brow in exaggerated thought. Exhaling like a leaky tire, he lifted his shoulders to his ears, eyes wide in manufactured confusion. “Psh, beats me dad!”
My mom leaned into me. “Tootsie, you know this. Remember who we were talking about over lunch? What was that man’s name?” Her breath had the bitter smell of coffee.
Biting the inside of my chubby cheek, I thought long and hard recounting the things I had learned that day “Is it Wonald Weagan?” I said after a few minutes.
“Very good, Colleen!” They all cheered at once and my dad nodded, sending me a wink.
“Very good, Doodlebug.” He smiled and continued eating.
My mom, sister, and I used to collect feathers. If while walking to the front door from the car after a trip to the mall, or going to the doctor’s office, I spotted one on the ground, I’d squeal with excitement! Pinching the stem between my two tiny fingers I’d hold it in front of my face like a treasure. The stem felt fake—almost like plastic. I ran the tip of my index finger along the edge of the feather. It felt silky and the edge fanned out beneath my skin spreading and splitting under my touch.
We always found time to through books and try to guess at what feather came from which type of bird. One particular day after school, the three of us were going through our box o’ feathers while my brother did his homework sitting at the table next to us. Swinging my legs back and forth, they dangled lifelessly over the edge of the oversized chair I sat in. I held a pale blue feather up to the light and squinted while looking at it. “I bet this is a wobin’s feather.” I puffed my chest out, certain that this was correct.
“Don’t be stupid,” my sister spoke without even raising her eyes from the book, “A robin’s feather isn’t blue. It’s either red or brown. Their eggs are blue.”
And my chest deflated, defeated again by my sister’s know-it-all attitude.
“Bridget…” My mom’s voice was deep and she drew my sister’s name out about 4 syllables longer than necessary.
Bridget sighed audibly. “But that was a good guess, Neener.”
Neener was one of the many nicknames I developed in my family, along with Doodlebug, Umze, and Tootsie. Take your pick. I still respond to all.
I grabbed several more feathers from the box and cupped them greedily in the palm of my hands. “I wish I could fly!”
“Well,” my mom’s voice was back to its normal tone, “have you ever tried to?”
I giggled while scrunching my nose. A habit I still have to this day. “No, I’ve never twied.” I spoke through my high-pitched laughter.
“Then how do you know you can’t?” My mom looked down and to the right at me without moving her head, still holding a large gray feather out in front of her. “Here,” she took the feathers I had in my hands and tucked the stems underneath my arms, “I’ll try it with you.” She helped me down off the chair, then took a few of the larger feathers and tucked them beneath her own arms. She began flapping her “wings” vigorously and her feet started running in place. I did the same all the while laughing at my beautiful mother who looked as foolish as I did.
Bridget’s lip curled in embarrassment and she dug her face even deeper into the bird book. My brother laughed in spite of us, taking a moment’s break from his pre-algebra homework.
“C’mon Bridget! Don’t you want to fly?!” My mother’s breathing was getting heavier and small beads of sweat were beginning to form on her forehead.
“Yeah, BJ, don’t you want to fwyyyy?” I repeated my mother like a dictaphone. A dictaphone with a speech impediment.
Her face was growing redder with every moment. It made no difference that none of her friends were there to be embarrassed by, she was still the shade of a radish.
My mom and I began running in circles around her, singing, “We’re flying! We’re flying!”
Bo’s eyes narrowed and a look encroached his face that was comparable to any expression Dennis the Menace may have had; a mischievous and deviant grin spread across both cheeks. He disappeared down the hall and came running back to us in seconds holding his Nerf gun. “Not for long!!” He yelled maniacally.
Screaming voices filled our house. We were running—no, flying for our lives. Bridget grabbed her own set of feathers, finally joining in on the game. I ran, trying to find refuge from my brother, the bird hunter and tucked myself behind the couch in hopes that he wouldn’t see me hiding. Our house, which moments ago was picturesquely clean now looked as though it had been ransacked by four thieves. Chairs were overturned, Nerf balls were scattered about the floor, books had been knocked off the coffee table, and feathers were floating pretty much everywhere you looked.
My brother somehow cornered all us ladies in the foyer of our house; we had nowhere to run. He pointed his bright orange and blue gun at our bodies and squinted one eye closed like Clint Eastwood would do in an old western. “All right you yellow-bellied, lily-livered birds…prepare to meet my oven!” And just as he was about to pull the trigger, our front door opened. In walked my dad, wearing a suit, trench coat and hat.
We all froze.
He looked around for a moment, breathing in his destroyed house, and placed his briefcase by the door. None of us dared to move. Except my mom. She flapped her wings over to my dad and kissed him on the cheek, still lifting her knees in rhythm with her flapping. “Hi sweetheart,” her voice was filled with love and if I think back on it, I swear I could hear pure honey dripping from her vocal chords. “We’re being birds! If you want to read your newspaper in quiet tonight, you’ll have to do so upstairs. We’re not going to stop playing right now.” She smiled at him, and still none of us kids moved. We were barely breathing, frozen in fear.
My dad exhaled and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. “Kids, cover your eyes for a moment.” We did as we were told. I heard a sound that I didn’t recognize…a very quiet rustling and then a soft click, like the sound I made when I sucked on my cheek, too angry for words. I lowered my hand from my eyes, the palm of it brushing the bridge of my nose. Above two chubby, pink fingers, I saw my dad’s arms wrapped tightly around my mother’s waist. He had her pulled in close to his body and I couldn’t tell where her lips ended and his started. Eyes were closed, their heads shifted from right to left every couple of seconds. I wondered how they managed to not bump noses. Would I someday be kissed like that by a man I loved? The kind of kiss that makes your knees turn to Jell-O? The thought of a boy kissing me on the lips made me want to vomit and I scrunched my nose, revolted at the thought. Why were they doing this in front of us? Perhaps they weren’t just my parents–but PEOPLE too. They were husband and wife as well as mom and dad, even though I didn’t quite understand what that meant at the time.
They pulled back from each other and I quickly recovered my eyes so that they wouldn’t catch me peeking. I heard my father’s sigh. “Ok, kids, you can look.” We all removed our hands from our faces simultaneously and I saw my brother send a crooked smile at my sister. They both knew about this revolting display? My chin brushed the floor and I was unable to lift my jaw off the ground. They knew that our parents performed this disgusting act and yet they allowed it to happen? Gross.
A smile slowly spread across my dad’s round face. He methodically loosened his tie and then in one swift movement lifted both Bridget and myself, running down the hallway with us under each arm. My mom followed at his feet and my brother was close behind us, shooting again.
Soon after, for my father isn’t exactly the Hulk, I was passed to my mom. Her fingers pressed into my belly and I extended my hands in front of me feeling the breeze brush across my face.
So now, 20 years later, I still smile every time I see a feather. It reminds me of a simpler time. A time when I still believed that anything could be accomplished if you just tried hard enough. The feather reminds me of the kind of mother and wife I want to be; a symbol of the kind of family I want to have. A symbol of the family that I one day will have.
That night set the standard for the type of love and marriage I deserve; the type of man I deserve. And I refuse to accept anything less than a love that will give me wings and allow me to fly.