Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bye Bye Birdie

I don't want a bird. I think they're nasty, dirty, creepy, difficult pets. (Unless you have one, in which case, I'm sure it's lovely and probably not especially diseased at all). It's the sort of thing you expect to have some control over -- which pets live with you and which don't -- but that's not always the way.

As we're in the process of transitioning an elderly relative into a residential, long-term care facility, the constant conversation has centered around "What will become of Baby?" She loves that bird, and while I really, really think the elderly should be allowed to take their pets with them to the old folks home, it isn't the way the world works (maybe it is at the high-end places, but this is merely a mid-range facility -- where, my guess is, the goal is to let you die in a clean bed, but nothing much more luxurious or extravagant than that).

So, in the last week, my Mom has decided that Baby will come to live with them. I protested heartily. She has lung disease and is oxygen-dependent, and while I don't know much about birds, I am positive they are not for people with compromised immune systems and pulmonary ailments. When I conveyed all this concern to her, her response was, "Bullshit. I'm going to keep him on the back porch."

This sounded like a much, much worse plan. I might not like birds, but come ON.

"Mom!" I said, "Baby will die on the back porch. It's a hundred degrees out there in the shade!"

"You kids worry too much about nothing," was her answer. "It's screened in."

In the last couple decades of her life, my grandmother had a myna bird. It was a gift from my Uncle Bobby and Aunt Margie. I don't remember the details or circumstances of how he came to live with my grandmother, but he must have been more of a hand-me-down than a present, because the bird had been with them long enough to have adopted my Aunt Margie's voice, expressions, and manner of speaking.

Whenever anyone came in the front door, he'd shout, "Hell-OOOooooo FELLaaaa," and then he'd cackle as if this was the funniest thing anyone had ever said. The unnerving part was that it was my Aunt Margie's very distinctive laugh. Then he'd bark like a dachshund.

He had another few stock phrases (I don't know how gifted myna birds are supposed to be), but the main one was, "Stop it Big Dog! Stop! Stop!" Big Dog was the name of a long succession of miniature dachshunds that belonged to Uncle Bobby. (Or as we call them in my family, Dash Hounds.) I think there were four or five of them, but they weren't even named according to their sequence (Big Dog 2, or Big Dog Four). One would die, and then another one would turn up, and he would henceforth be known as Big Dog, with no memory or acknowledgment of the ones who came before him. I imagine "Stop it Big Dog!" was a constant expression in their house, but I mostly remember my very large, barrel-chested, gravel-voiced Uncle tipping him on his back and cradling him like a baby, while laughing and growling, "Bite Easy, BigDog! Bite easy!" as the dog pawed the air impotently and gnawed bad-naturedly on his giant fist.

I always thought that my uncle's Joe Cocker-like voice would've been far more amusing coming from a bird, but for whatever reason, he used my aunt's voice instead. I assume they only have so much range.

Uncle Bobby was a truck driver, and each of these dogs would be his faithful cab companion. On his travels, he smoked and collected pipes (which smelled fantastic and permeated the whole house whenever he visited), and the one I remember best had an ivory bowl carved into the shape of a naked mermaid, the kind you'd see on the prow of a ship. My grandmother did not approve of it. She didn't much care for the dogs either -- or any kind of pet -- so how we ended up with these people's bird, I'm really not sure. Pets are a fairly unsentimental commodity on a farm -- one she had little patience for -- but she was genuinely fond of that bird. (Their sons had a brief and disastrous history with spider monkeys for awhile, and thank God we didn't inherit those. The monkeys were followed by a series of temperamental Afghan hounds.)

When the bird arrived, his name was Bill, but he couldn't keep that name because he shared it with my youngest uncle who'd died tragically in his 30s (oddly, no reminders of him were allowed in the house at all; I guess it was just too sad), so the bird became Little Joe. Or L'il Joe. No one really called him that though. No one really called him anything.

At night time his cage was covered with a king-size orange sheet from Sears, but if the grownups were out of the house, he spent considerably longer periods of time under it. "Goooood NIGHT, Nasty Bird," I'd say as the sheet came billowing down around his cage and  I flipped on the TV, then flopped down on the sofa for Days of Our Lives.

"Hellloooooooo Fella!" he'd respond optimistically.


They Might Be Giants
Mom Talk Pretty One Day

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