My Grandparents’ Chirping Bird Clock Strikes at The Best Part of My Childhood
Twenty stories of objects and areas in people’s homes that nourish their souls more than their social feeds. Read them all here throughout August.
My father likes to joke that only city folks call the Hudson Valley “Upstate New York.” The upstate I spent my summers in extends north of the Adirondacks, vast stretches of absolute nothing, pockets of red conservative farmland dotting the greenscape. My parents would drive my brother and I seven hours from our Connecticut cornfields and drop us squarely at my grandparents’ house, a modest split-level utopia hidden in the north country woods. We’d arrive in late June and fly through the double doors of their home, slamming ourselves into open arms. There was usually apple pie waiting for us, perhaps rhubarb, always cider donuts. The downstairs pantry was filled with sodas and macaroni and cheese, luxuries we could choose at any time. Across from the pantry was my grandfather’s tool room, where the kids would sit for hours pestering my grandfather as he fiddled with the smallest screws known to man, a burning cigarette resting on the countertop. My summer birthdays were spent swimming in the St. Lawrence River, cannonballing off a boat anchored under the Canadian bridge.
Hung in the middle of the house, below the glittered popcorn ceilings and above the kitchen sink, was my grandparents’ bird clock. Every hour, on the hour, a new bird would announce itself with its signature chirp. My grandmother would repeatedly explain the bird to us, the colors branded on its body, where the bird’s home was, whether it ever visited our home. The blue jay (3 p.m.) was the time my cousin and I yanked our mud boots on to sprint through the backwoods around the beaver dams. It was shortly after 6 p.m.’s chirp (northern oriole) that we went to the backyard, putting down seed to feed the deer. We’d scramble back inside, and within 30 minutes our hooved friends pecked their way through our givings, my cousins and I tightly pressed against the glass of the sliding deck doors staring in awe. I can still hear my grandmother singing along to “Watermelon Crawl” as the clock hits noon, a house finch dueting with her whistle as she prepped our lunches.
When my grandparents passed and my mother went to clear the house, the chirping bird clock was the one item I wanted. It was a soundtrack to a simple period of time and I needed to translate it to my own kitchen.
The birds have seen me now through many variations of home. They have seen me hosting queers around my dining table for New Year’s Eve dinner. They have seen me crying on the floor over heartbreak. They’ve joined as I dramatically read a new book aloud to myself. They saw my first big paychecks, saw me clock endless hours of writing at the table, all twelve birds looming to remind me of origin threads. My birds witnessed my body change over the years as I struggled to transition into a non-binary identity, questioning top surgery, pronoun changes, name preferences.
Previously, I built my home from income I earned working in other people’s houses. I traveled the world, hopping from house to house, as employers paid me to maintain their properties, paid me to see that every meticulous detail of their wealth was tended to, that gardeners were on track to finish terraces, that their children had plush duvets waiting on beds when they arrived to their first, second, or third homes. I learned about interior scopes, discovered variations on architecture, familiarized myself with couches that cost seven times the amount of my rent. I tried to emulate my own version of home comfort. I put miles in between the physical, bodily homes I used to keep and the physical, bodily worlds I was trying to conjure. When you’re little, no one tells you of all the growth that will hit you head-on with no warning.
The batteries sat in the clock for as long as they could, before my ex woke abruptly at 2 a.m. to remove the AAs so she could sleep through the night, sans chirps. The clock travels with me still though, the birds remaining steady, forever the same. As I unpack my home from my latest move, unwrapping items with new curiosity, I remember that home is an amalgamation filled with objects that make you feel seen and held, that how I build my body and how I build my home are solely up to me and that it’s okay to give way to change. I place my clock again in the kitchen and look up to see it’s 11 a.m., white-breasted nuthatch time, a time reserved for imagination, a time that had me feeling free and small, before hands were on my body, before I understood the complications of living in a gendered world, before I stood in wealth my family could have never imagined.
I create my own timed memories now, aligning with the same birds. It is a blend of what was and what is current and all the changes between the hours, minutes, days, years. The birds remain, but the landscape shifts.