Isherwood: How to Build A Bird

Grandparents have a critical role in a kid’s education. My wife and I disagree on gender lines exactly what this role is, you can surmise the details: fire, gunpowder and jokes about farts.

For myself I believe a grandfather’s role can be summed up by the acronym SOTG, Second Only to God, this where I take my tutorial right, on the hope the kid will someday want to be old, like his grandfather, so he can do to his grandkid what his grandfather did. I believe the human race is better for this, how precisely I don’t know.

Theoretically females have a role, it may be something similar but I doubt that.

I happen to be writing this for my grandson Kingsley, he is at the moment of this writing two months old. The following are instructions he will someday read if his mama doesn’t misplace or burn them. Kingsley is named for my uncle, a former county browny of the same name, a barrel-chested guy with a contagious laugh that hinted of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

When it comes to grandchildren the task of the incidental parent is well-trafficked, to spoil them with candy and toys, to rot out their teeth before they are seven, to read them stories of heaven. For myself I adhere to a second order of strategy, how to make of children a better kind of bad. Less with gadgets and sacks of stuff than spilling their imagination, believing as I do it is a good thing to turn them upside down even if it upsets their stomach. I totally understand why mothers fear grandfathers bearing BB guns. To admit this all starts out innocently enough, a fairytale a touch more wicked than is nice, soon followed by tractors and ghosts and Indians and big hairy animals. Stories that venture a bit wide, with creepers and the dreaded sucker washer, these to be read just minutes before bed. Stories that will make a kid pee, willing or not. Yet to mention that first person lesson of the alternate way to clear out your nose.

I have been told (several times) to be careful with stories, scalping isn’t legal any more, no bad habits, nothing on fire, it seems my daughters all hope for children that end up in choirs. Fewer outloud howls, they ask, do not champion deer, and that I should never ever share with my grandchildren my beer. As for the cigar…

I am mindful of the parental right though I believe it lapses somewhere of the age of six, to think that enough lead time and parental advantage. After that it’s war outright, for the minds, the hearts, the souls that might be tied to tractors, and birds, and campfires. To tents, to igloos, to hubcap stews, to loincloth, to dark, to greglorious mud, to nests, to walking, to wonder what lives in poop, to the wisdom of trees, how to converse with bees.

It’s war from then on, with sweet mama and good dad, for what exactly is good and what only kinda bad. I have promised outloud to never instruct the smoke, no tobacco ever, no cigars, though no mention was made of baler twine set to spark, or sumac leaves, corn silk, basswood’s inner bark.

There are to my mind humanities unwritten, some illogic, some nasty, some fatal if too loosely observed, but better the child whose mind is by whimsy, with scissors allowed to run. A place where there is no map, no sign post, instead it’s wit and grit and courage, willing to bite off something raw for supper. To know heaven and dark on their own terms, big and wide and very dark. In this scary place our human pedestals are made, the niches get filled, this the present a grandfather can give the kid.

I have contrived a recipe, it’s quite brief, of how to build a bird… for this I ask my grandson some ingredients please. Feathers first, the more imperial stuff, gather them up in a pail or a bag, a pocket will do. Gather them up, white and the black, the red kind and orange, collected from trails and corners and gardens. Don’t show your mama for suspicious she’ll get. Keep them safe in a sack, then collect bones, the tiny kind and fragile. Very little bones, those are the bird kind. Put them too in the sack. Beware your mama sneaking about, mamas are like that, afraid to let go. Next add a nest, the hair of a dog, a bramble of berry, a twist of the vine; add pebbles and seeds; add some dead trees.

Add cobwebs, get bark, lichens and moss, add weeds the seeds very dark, fill up that old sack. Add a mouse if you can find one, better if dead, dry as Rice Krispies, keep it under your bed.

This child and I, a fortune could make, of breakfast cereals of wheat and of oats resembling things no mother would eat. Lizards for one, rocks for another, leaves, twigs, bark and probably mice, nothing that mothers would like to see.

Yet our recipe is quite intent, it seems on a bird the ingredients list is long so the bag must be ample. The directions include camping at night, in tents by rule, no cabin, no motels count for this. I would add a telescope however crude is on the way to making a bird. Sky is important in liberal amounts, catch a cloud if you can, the elements of storm, a dash of thunder, add puddles and Jack Frost too.

Shake the sack when it’s full, invert and turn it over, stir like a stew. Unbidden and without either magic or wand, a bird will emerge and fly off from this sack and a granddad willing to build a bird out of stray bits and stuff. Not knowing exactly how, it doesn’t matter much as the chance to try.

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