The Girls

Wait, Listen ….

It’s taken me a long time to write this. I started it because … I had to? Not sure I had a choice in the matter. Just went about the thing. Bit by bit. A strand at a time. Undoing and redoing along the way as needed, as necessary. Trying to use only what was needed for the task at hand. Trying to put everything to its good use. Staying close to it to keep an eye on things. Shooing away distractions as if they were thieves. I guess I just felt that a certain Momma R needed a nest of her own. How did I know when it was done? Not perfect, mind you, but done? Just knew …. 

For the past month my favorite follow has been a momma robin in residency in our backyard. 

Over days, I spent my first morning cup staring out the window. From my downstairs desk I watched as she foraged the decaying woods for nest material, making dozens of return trips from her Home Depot back to a little nook underneath our deck. Not sure she could’ve found a cozier piece of property if she scouted the entire neighborhood. Tucked away, under cover, safe from the elements. 

While I couldn’t find five minutes to replace the light bulb in my daughter’s room that she mentioned a couple weeks ago, this momma built a goddamn castle from thin air right in front of me. 

Bit by bit. Day by day. Working by herself, constructing it from the inside out.

The slower-than-slow-motion progress was mesmerizing. This wasn’t your shoddy construction with a Target sheen to make some quick Air BnB bank. A meticulous craftswoman, Momma R used only what she needed, putting everything to its good use.  At the end of her work day … very little clean up. As one who can’t make grilled cheese sandwiches without creating a Hazmat-grade tanker spill, I found the whole production inspiring. 

Awe-inspiring, to be honest. 

Karry and I marked Momma R’s daily progress as she fashioned her findings into a substantial abode. The finished product seemed cavernous to my denatured eyes. She went way past ‘good enough,’ continuing to fortify it into something the Three Little Pigs could get behind.  

Nature only wants the best for its children, too. 

The nest sat empty for a week or so, which gave anyone who cared to notice (me and Karry, pretty much) the chance to just marvel at its engineering. 

We wondered how long it would be before she laid her eggs. 

Nature is no procrastinator. 

And one day, there she was … perchin’.

Then the next. 

And the next …. 

As magical as the nest-building part was, this was … the complete opposite. 

How boring. 

Her just sitting there, I mean. Probably not boring for her. Probably appreciated the chance to sit a spell after workin’ her ass off. But as a spectator event? Worse than golf. 

I wondered how long she would sit at a time. I didn’t care enough to actually clock it. After all, I had things to do. Bulbs not to change, you know. All I knew was she sat there longer than it took for me to drain my morning cup and return upstairs to finish getting ready for work. 

As one who lacks the patience to hard-boil eggs, I considered Momma R’s sticktuitiveness Olympic-grade. 

She spent so many days atop her nest, I started to wonder if something was amiss. Maybe she laid blanks or something? What I don’t know about nature could fill a lifetime of morning coffee mugs.

Then, all of a sudden …

Wait, listen ….” Karry shushed me as we were sitting outside.

You can hear ‘em.

And, only when I craned my ear, stilled myself, leaned in, could I pick out the tiny squeaks coming from under the deck. Couldn’t see the top of their heads, so deep the bowl of their abode. 

Not sure I’ve ever heard so much life at such low decibel.

We were giddy witnesses.

Oh my gosh!” I whisper-shouted. 

It’s the kind of thing that brings your Friday morning to its knees. 


From there the enterprise became a family affair.

They’re up early finding worms,” Karry reported the next morning, and right on cue, Momma R Door-Dashed from the yard to the nest with a mouthful. This is also the part of the proceedings where the baby daddy (finally) makes his appearance, chirping in on the care and feeding.

By their second breakfast on the planet, the babies no longer required one to crane one’s head to pick up the sounds. Hungry babies are not quiet babies. 

Looking it up Karry discovered that the newborns’ parental worm delivery subscription would last about 13 days.

When she wasn’t feeding, Momma R. stayed close to keep an eye on things, sitting on the edge of the birdbath in our backyard. Whenever any of her neighbors came too close to her brood, she flew in to shoe them the fuck away. Whenever we popped out the back door, she squawked holy hell in our direction. 

“We know, Momma, we know,” we’d say, hands up to show we meant no harm. 

For the next couple days I took my coffee not at my desk, but outside on the old vacuum-formed plastic bench we keep around back (it’s not front porch material), so I could be as close to the morning headlines as possible. 

Such was my fanboying, last Monday morning before work I sat outside and wrote my sister a long overdue letter.  Spent the first couple paragraphs geeking out to Missy over how much breakfast energy Momma R expended flying up and under the deck, one worm at a time, on repeat. Robbins aren’t hummingbirds, so the controlled hovering and landing is a much less elegant act for them. Lots of noisy flappin’. This part I could relate to. I’m winded by my third trip up the steps carrying in groceries.

Sometimes we take for granted what it takes to put food on the table.

After finishing Missy’s letter I closed my laptop and went upstairs to brush my teeth. By the time I finished my rinse and spit, I marked that, over the past few weeks, my morning buzzes had less to do with how full I filled my coffee mug, and more to do with the few minutes spent bearing witness to a queen’s labor. 


But by the time I returned to my downstairs desk and instinctively looked out my window — a span of less than five minutes — it was all gone. 

Oh, no … ” I said aloud. 

The nest was destroyed … ravaged and resting on the wall. The beam bare except for a few pieces of straw. 

A single smear of red blood on the white wall. 

Instead of going directly outside, I instinctively ran back upstairs to tell Karry. 

Something happened. Something got the nest. They’re … all gone.

We ran out the door and over to the wall. Inspecting, Momma R’s engineering masterpiece was picked clean. No signs of life … anywhere. Remnants of straw strewn on the ground. 

It’s the kind of thing that brings your Monday to its knees. 

The night before while taking the garbage out, I noticed a black cat I’d never seen before, prowling up the driveway. Didn’t think twice of it at the time. Had to be the culprit. 

What I’d considered a perfect location was only perfect for a predator, who likely just shinnied up the vertical post directly beneath the ledge and knocked the nest to the wall in one swipe. 

There was simply nothing to say. 

I mean, everyone in this production was simply doing what they were programmed to do. Momma robin. Her mate. The noisy babies. The cat. 

Still, I couldn’t shake the thought all day. Having watched how hard she’d labored, how much time she’d invested, how impeccably she’d performed each and every one of her duties …. 

It made me genuinely sad. 

I suppose it’s a human flaw, to care about such things. To invest so emotionally in something so small. 

The minute we start caring about something outside ourselves …  is the minute we sign up for loss. 

And still …. 

I’m not sure I’d ever found the natural acts of so small a creature so … venerable. 

Just never took the time to notice before, I guess. 

I wondered what she would do next, with no more mouths to feed.

I wondered what I’d do with my mornings.


For a while she just went back to work. 

Started re-building. 

But this time it was different. 

Where she had been a master carpenter, this time she was all over the place, haphazardly throwing stuff up on the beam, seemingly not caring if or how much fell to the ground. Where she had hand-picked a single nook as her fixer-upper, now she made piles in several places. There seemed no focus to her efforts. Momma R was now building the way I make grilled cheese sandwiches. 

At the end of the day, there were piles on the ground running almost the length of our patio, which Karry cleaned up (much as she does with me). Eventually, Karry felt compelled to hold a mom-to-mom intervention, moving the pile above the post where she’d built before and shifting it one nook over. She couldn’t bear the thought of nature repeating itself. Even if it meant forcing Momma R to end her spring residency with us. 

I wondered if momma’s programming was insufficient to the circumstances. Like she knew what she was supposed to do for her babies, but didn’t know what to do when her babies were gone. 

To my quite flawed human brain, Momma R’s behavior read as an act of mourning … the way we might lay flowers at the scene of a car accident.

Maybe she was still using only what she needed, putting everything to its good use.

What I don’t know about nature could fill a lifetime of morning coffee mugs.

But watching her, in her mess, making such a mess, gave my lingering bird-sized grief a place to … nest.  At least for a little bit.

The other day she was standing on the wall beneath her work-in-progress, next to where we’d wiped away her babies’ blood. Couple of sparrows were coming around, trying to scavenge some straw for their own nests. She, though, was having none of it. Chased ’em the fuck away. 

And still …. 

A mother’s instincts. Standing her post. Regal as fuck. 

A final, proud act. 

We know, Momma, we know. 

As I type this, progress has been halted on her new constructions. Seems she finally abandoned the enterprise. Maybe the sparrows, or Karry’s nudge, convinced her of what she already instinctively knew. It wasn’t a good place to raise babies after all. 

I hope she finds a better location. Hard as she works, she deserves it. 

While watering last night, Karry noticed that two of her front porch ferns have been commandeered. Nests built way down in. The sparrows, she thinks. Three eggs already in the one. 

Nature is no procrastinator. 

Letters for Maggie, The Girls

Speed Dating 25 ….

I figured we had about an hour’s drive to make our 7:15 reservations. 

I had the car out of the garage and air-condition-cooling by 6 p.m. 

Married twenty-five years, she knows how much I hate to be late. 

I hold the car door and she lowers herself into her seat … at promptly 6:35 p.m. 

Married twenty-five years, I know she’s never ready on time. 

She: Wait a minute. Forgot my cheaters. Can’t read the menu without ‘em. 

I get back out to hold the door a second time, and give the bridge of my nose a deep tissue massage until she returns and floats once again into her seat. 

As we pull out of the driveway, we Google Map our drive to check traffic. 

ETA: 7:37 p.m. 

My chest tightens. 

“Don’t drive like a maniac or you’ll make me sick.” 

Ah, the sweet nothings of anniversary date night. 

Continue reading
Fathers and Sons, The Girls

Picture Day Redux – No Strings Attached

Mercifully (for me), this year, proceedings returned to their normal rhythms. Held at the respective studios. A two-day affair. Saturday = Waynesburg. Sunday = Washington. 

Last year quarantine forced the stay-at-home edition of Picture Day, whose gravity I was unable to escape. 

This year called for less desperate measures, leaving Karry and Emma to tag team this, their 12th edition of the annual amalgam of yelling, hair, make-up, costumes, and teenage angst. 

Preparations began weeks in advance. Came home one day to find Emma outside in the driveway with a pair of tap shoes and a can of neon pink spray paint. 

“Don’t ask,” was all she said. 

My Karry radar began ringing in my head. 

Me: You’re taking precautions, yes? 

She: I’m not making a mess if that’s what you’re asking. 

Emma has convinced herself that she rarely, if ever, makes messes. 

Her conviction is strong. She’d probably pass a lie detector. 

In truth — and I say this lovingly — she’s a disaster. 

Continue reading
The Girls


The girls are out for errands after going to church. Peter’s still sleeping. I’m alone at the dining room table, looking out through the screen door on a rainy Sunday morning. The poblano plant is finally starting to sprout. “Look at them … they are mutants!” Emma gushed when she went out to inspect earlier this morning. Until she said it, I hadn’t noticed. But they’re now the size of chubby toes, and have finally caught up to the jalapenos we’ve been enjoying the past couple weeks. 

The porch garden was foremost among Emma and Karry’s experiments this summer. My wife suppressed her pessimism born of past failed backyard garden attempts sabotaged by the gluttonous cemetery deer who, for years, have roamed and ravaged our neighborhood as expectant as tourists with lobster bibs. Her youth nourished by lush family gardens in the country, Karry fully indulged Emma’s initiative. As my wife is a resigned realist, I found her sanguine act significant. 

So they rimmed the perimeter of our porch with seeded planters of tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, jalapenos, poblanos and onions. Neighbored them with basil, oregano, spearmint, and cilantro. For months, Emma dutifully tended her little green village daily. The monitoring of progress has elicited from the girls consistent spasms of giddiness. I know this not from direct participation, but through the evening glee that wafts through the screen door back into the house. Admittedly, some subjects have fared better than others. But even the humblest of harvests have brought small joys.

Continue reading
The Girls

Picture Day

So normally at this time of year, my wife and daughter spend a long, excruciating Saturday at the dance studio for Picture Day.  Typically — and gratefully — I orbit beyond the gravity of this black hole. From a distance I appreciate it to be a 10-hour, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, costume changes, drama, yelling, teen angst, pasted smiles, and despair. 

Saturday morning, my wife made a vague reference to “Picture Day,” and “Dad helping,” which I took in stride as my wife, the kidder, exercising her playful side. 

Had I thought deeply in the moment, I would’ve remembered that my wife (a.) is not a kidder, and (b.) has no appreciable playful side. 

Since the studio is shut down due to the pandemic, all photos have to be DIY.

So around noon, Karry informs me of the executional guardrails: all white background, no visible wall outlets, good lighting. 

 Our house is old, tiny, and meets NONE of the aforementioned criteria. As such, it offers few places for me to hide. So, before I know it, I’m push-pinning a sheet to the wall, moving the dining room table, and gazing through my son’s I-phone (best camera in the house) to see if we can frame a scene that approximates the guardrails while excluding the ‘tender clutter’ of our dining room. 

Full disclosure: I am in no way qualified for the task. The only reason I’m holding the camera is that (a.) Karry has to iron and steam 12 costumes, (b.) it’s the early afternoon, therefore my son is still in bed, and (c.) Emma has to be in the pictures. 

My daughter has been dancing for 11 years, during which I’ve watched from afar, apart. I’m a seat in a theater, participating only in a support role, loading bags and luggage, occasionally dropping off, picking up. I’ve watched every single one of her dances with a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach … wanting her to kill it, recognizing I have no bearing on the outcome. It is she, alone, on stage, buoyed only by her genuine love for the craft, her discipline, countless hours of practice, a full heart, and her desire to simply do her very best. While I would love to believe that she’s My Girl on that stage, she is not. It’s hard for me to admit that, when I see the game face, the make-up, the costumes. She is herself. Strong. Confident. Prepared. And while I’m sure fear is somewhere in the equation, she’s never afraid. With hundreds of hours of practice under her belt, it’s merely a question of execution. 

Awes me every time. 

So, with the camera in my hand I establish three goals for myself, two obvious, one surreptitious. 

  1. Try not to displease my wife (the goal I roll out of bed every day with, and usually blow before exiting the breakfast table). 
  2. Keep a steady hand. 

My third goal is humble, and, admittedly, purely selfish. I just want to crack her game face. I want to see through the make-up, the costumes, the stage smile and catch a glimpse of … My Girl, the one I never get to see from my seat in the theater. 

Continue reading
Fathers and Sons, The Girls

In a Sentimental Mood….

(For Auld Lang Syne)

Jan 2, 2017

Found myself at Starbucks with Em yesterday afternoon, warming my hands around a small Dark Roast, and my ears around her delightful ersatz British accent as we advanced a few pages deeper into the Half-Blood Prince. 

Though the establishment’s jazz soundtrack was narratively incongruent to the scenes Em read to life … temporally speaking, it was completely in sync. 

I paused Em’s recitation to Shazam the interpreters of In a Sentimental Mood, which had momentarily thieved my attention (Duke and ‘Trane, um, for the record). 

The familiar melody caught my ear. Used to play it — also as an instrumental, though admittedly more ersatz than even Em’s accent — when Dad and I shared the stage as part of Sammy Bill’s band. All those nights playing Sam’s big book has left me a lot of musical bread crumbs that lead me back to those good times. 

Continue reading