The spring that my daughter graduated from high school, I had two bird’s nests in my life.
An ambitious pair of robins chose the overhang above the tiny porch outside my office door. Apparently they thought the protection afforded by the small roof made up for the frequent interruptions of people coming and going all day. They fussed, but were not deterred. Eventually, they not only got used to me, but expected me to feed them, which I did.
Shortly thereafter, a tiny wren built a complicated construction of twigs resembling a small cave on the windowsill on the porch of our house. We could walk up to the nest and touch it from inside or outside, but of course we didn’t.
The robins’ schedule was two or three weeks ahead of the wrens, so I had nearly two months of bird distraction while my household prepared for all of the changes that accompany the first born child making the transition from high school adolescent to the next stage of life. While the major decisions for the next step, college, were already made, we had an entire summer to be anxious about it. We shared this task with her graduating friends and their families.
Meanwhile, I had lovely blue eggs in the nest at my office, which I admired by standing on a chair and holding a mirror over my head. The parent robins and I waited. And waited. My daughter, her friends, and their families waited. And waited. Growing is usually slow, sometimes sudden.
I was privileged to see my baby robins fly for the first time. It was almost as if they waited for me. When I left one Friday, they were all so big they couldn’t fit in the nest together and one had to sit on the edge. They jostled each other for position. I approached slowly on Monday morning while they watched carefully. Then, suddenly, they all took off, fluttering and squawking, to land various distances from the porch. I realized they would not be able to get back into the nest because the location took very precise flying. When baby birds get their feathers, the ones on the wings grow in first. Tail feathers don’t follow till later; this means they can fly but they cannot steer. They could not manage the acrobatic dip and swoop pattern their parents used. Even getting into the trees was a matter of hit and miss, but they all made it by the end of the day. I could still identify them by their stubby tails, but within a few days, they were indistinguishable from the many other robins in the area. I missed them.
Meanwhile, the group of recent graduates who had been friends since middle school didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves. They couldn’t bear to be apart and they couldn’t stand to be together. They gathered at one person’s house or another every evening, complete with their new laptops, to practice i-chatting with one another, and to argue. They often parted in a snit, declaring their desire to “get out of this backwater town!” but the next evening they all collected again. They were as ready as they could get, but the only way to alleviate the anxiety of the transition was to get it over with, and it wasn’t time yet. They knew they had the skills they needed, but they hadn’t yet been able to try them. They knew how to use their wings, but they had no tail feathers and couldn’t steer.
When my robins left me, I still had my wrens. They were harder to see, in their little twig cave, but they were easier to hear. The dedicated wren, who appeared to be a single parent, spent all her time flying back and forth trying, futilely, to feed them enough to make them quiet. One evening when the weather was lovely, we had all the windows open to catch the breeze, but finally we had to close the window with the nest because the little guys were making such an intolerable racket. The next morning when I checked on them I found, to my horror, that the nest had been ripped apart and was in pieces all over the porch. My first thought was that a snake or cat had gotten the babies, but my daughter reassured me that this was expected. Her school counselor had told her that some birds, when their babies were ready to fly, destroy the nest so they cannot come back. The counselor told this to the youngsters as a way of explaining why they were having so much trouble getting along with people at home. I understood; if I’d been that mother wren and had put up with all that loud, demanding behavior, I would have torn up the nest, too.
So, as parents, we waited anxiously and with trepidation for the days when they would, one by one, set off for college. They were all too crowded in the tiny nest of their lives, but they weren’t quite grown enough to leave. The nest was still too comfortable, too familiar, just too small. They had to make themselves and everyone else in the nest miserable in order to leave it. They fought with each other and with us but wouldn’t tolerate separation, their moods dipped and swooped acrobatically, we all got frantic, until finally, they left. The house was empty and lonely, but at least it was quiet.
Everyone survived the first semester. My daughter spent most of her holiday break recovering from having her wisdom teeth extracted, which meant that her high school friends all rotated through our house to see her. They were the same but different. They hadn’t changed, really, but they were polished in a subtle way. They had acquired a confidence, a sureness, a certain poise, that only leaving home could give them. They can be connected to each other, and to us, without being stuck. They have tail feathers as well as wings. They can fly now, and they can steer. They may not know exactly where they are going, but they know they can get there.