During my childhood, I was fond of watching the birds at my grandfather's feeder. I was particularly enamored with the cardinals that would frequent the yard, and my family affectionately dubbed them "Joanna's redbird," the whole of all the visiting birds distilled into one composite creature.
I still feel a small thrill whenever I am fortunate enough to see one. To me they will always be the symbol of simpler times and easy joy. They were a comfort to me during my strange and lonely years in Delaware, where they would visit my feeders--sometimes nine at a time--reminding me that there is always beauty to be found, even in the starkest of winters.
The cardinals are notably absent from my life now. Occasionally, a yellow warbler or scrub jay will brighten my yard, but, over time, I have come to accept my view of the more muted and unassuming birds of the Pacific Northwest.
But I will never stop missing my redbird.
Last winter, while in Baltimore visiting my grandfather, we stood together looking out toward his backyard feeders. I asked him if he saw cardinals very often, like he used to at his house in Pennsylvania. He shook his head. No, the blue jays were too territorial and kept them at bay. Just then, in a scene I would not have written into a story for fear of it being wholly unbelievable, a streak of crimson flew past us and settled into a nearby tree. I could barely stammer out "Look--" as I grabbed my grandfather's shoulder and pointed.
He didn't say a word. He didn't need to. Memories resurfaced with such force that we were time travelers in that moment, all the intervening decades gone, leaving us standing there in that Pennsylvania house as we once were or perhaps always will be. My uncle Craig had not yet killed himself; my grandmother, unaware yet that she, too, was dying, happily baked a cream cake for Christmas. Everyone was together. The first snow was pristine. Blue jays were of no concern to us yet, and the melt, with its mud and detritus, would come later. But as we looked out into the yard that day, everyone had gathered together with us, delivered through time to our memories, and delighted in the miracle of a cardinal in winter.