Of Mothers and Birds
Another true story
A wagtail attended my great-grandmother’s funeral.
We saw it from inside the modest stone hall where we gathered to attend the first rites of mourning. At the rear of the hall, two large doors opened to the cemetery grounds. A bitumen road lay extended between grassy beds. On the road was the wagtail. Quietly swaying. Inside an old Rabbi recited his prayer. He called on us with the honour of accompanying the coffin to assemble. My brothers, my uncle and cousins. We wheeled the coffin on a metal barrow towards the grave, towards the wagtail, who fluttered, and each time landed further along the way. Behind us nearly fifty people walked politely. My great-grandmother was much admired, and she died in due course. The wagtail was waiting when we reached the grave. Later I learned my mother and grandmother were both aware of its presence. They said the bird bore her spirit. A link between this world and the next. As is the custom, each person in attendance took their turn filling the grave with three shovels full of earth. The first few made thuds, of dirt on wood. The wagtail stayed until the end.
These days I think of her most often as the bird. My great-grandmother the wagtail. After so many years. Occasionally I remember her body. Tiny and frail. By the time she died there was barely a foot from one shoulder to the other, and her chest, which carried the absence of a cancer she survived, was a valley between them. I never saw her legs or feet. She always wore stockings. But I know she travelled a long way. She fled the Pale, landed in the Cape, crossed the Indian. Thousands and thousands of miles, much of it alone. When her husband died she was only halfway. My mother loved her most of all. They were both survivors.
My grandmother is getting smaller now. And my mother. Becoming birds. My grandmother’s spine is bent. She spends her time among fruit trees and shrubs, and a small pond in her garden. She likes to stay put. Maybe a rail. Meanwhile my mother is a little bigger, better fed, her chest was reconstructed so that she carries her scars differently. She likes to walk, and make nests. But I hesitate to think of her as a bird. Only recently did I allow myself to think of her as dying at all. I was flying back from a visit. And the thought of life without her entered my mind in a way I hadn’t known it to do before. Not since I was ten, when I vividly imagined my own non-existence, had I experienced so dizzying a recognition. I felt the world expand and empty all at once. In it she was only a memory. The image of her I carry in my mind was all I could hold, and suddenly it began to glisten. Her laugh grew loud, her smile, the shape of her nose. I thought of my brothers, my dad. I thought of us all in a stone hall scanning for birds.