The Hummingbird Man
For years before they died, my parents tended to the many fragile little creatures that flew into our lives. Now I look after themand they look after me.
A WISE OLD MAN NAMED Slim, who wore a paper Rainbow bread cap, drank warm Jax beer in infinite quantities, listened faithfully to the hapless Houston Astros on the radio, and washed dishes at our family’s ranch, once told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “You’re born alone and you die alone, so you might as well get used to it.” It didn’t mean much to me then, but over the years I’ve come to believe that old Slim might have been on to something.
I live alone now in the lodge my late parents once lived in, and I’m getting used to it. Being a member of the Orphan Club is not so bad. Sooner or later, fate will pluck us all up by our pretty necks. If you have a family of your own, maybe you won’t feel it quite as much. Or maybe you will. I’m married to the wind, and my children are my animals and the books I’ve written, and I love them all. I don’t play favorites. But I miss my mom and dad. In the past fifty years thousands of kids have known Uncle Tom and Aunt Min. They bought our ranch outside Medina in 1952, named it Echo Hill, and made it into a camp for boys and girls. Echo Hill will be open again this summer, and though the kids will ride horses, swim in the river, and explore the hills, they will not get to meet Uncle Tom and Aunt Min.
My mother died in May 1985, just a few weeks before camp started, and my father died in August 2002, just a few weeks after camp was over. I can still see my mother at her desk, going over her cluttered clipboard with all the camp rosters and menus. I can see her at the Navajo campfire, at the big hoedown, at the friendship circle under the stars. I can see my dad wearing a pith helmet and waving to the kids in the charter buses. I can see him raising the flag in the morning, slicing the watermelon at picnic suppers, sitting in a lawn chair out in front of the lodge, talking patiently to a kid having problems with his bunkmates. If you saw him sitting quietly there, you’d think he was talking to one of his old friends. Many of those kids became just that.
I don’t know how many baby fawns ago it was, how many stray dogs and cats ago, or how many homesick kids ago, but fifty years is a long time in camp years. Yet time, as they say, is the money of love. And Tom and Min put a lot of all those things into Echo Hill. Most of their adult lives were given over to children, daddy longlegs, arrowheads, songs, and stars. They lived in a little green valley surrounded by gentle hills, where the sky was as blue as the river, the river ran pure, the waterfalls sparkled clear in the summer sun, and the campfire embers never seemed to really die. I was just a kid, but looking back, that’s the way I remember it.
What I remember most of all are the hummingbirds. It might have been 1953 when my mother hung out the first hummingbird feeder on the front porch of the lodge. The grown-up, outside world liked Ike that year and loved Lucy, and Hank Williams died, as did Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I believe now that I might have been vaguely aware of these things occurring even back then, but it was those tiny, wondrous rainbows of flying color that really caught my eye. And those first few brave hummingbirds had come thousands of miles, all the way from Mexico and Central America, just to be with us at Echo Hill. Every year the hummers would make this long migration, arriving almost precisely on March 15, the Ides of March. They would leave late in the summer, their departure usually depending upon how much fun they had had at camp.
For those first few years, in the early fifties, the hummingbird population, as well as the number of campers, was fairly sparse, but as the green summers flashed by, more and more kids and hummingbirds came to Echo Hill. The hummingbirds nested every year in the same juniper tree next to the lodge. Decades later, after my mother’s death, the tree began to die as well. Yet even when there were only a few green branches left, the hummers continued to make that tree their summer home. Some of the staff thought the tree was an eyesore and more than once offered to cut it down, but Tom wouldn’t hear of it. I think he regarded the hummingbirds as little pieces of my mother’s soul.
My father and I more or less took over the hummingbird program together in 1985. As time went by, we grew into the job. It was amazing how creatures so tiny could have such a profound influence on your peace of mind and the way you looked at the world. My father, of course, did many other things besides feeding the hummingbirds. I, unfortunately, did not. That was how I gradually came to be known as the Hummingbird Man of Echo Hill.
Tom and I disagreed, sometimes almost violently, about the feeding methods for these fragile little creatures. He measured exactly four scoops of sugar and two drops of red food coloring into the water for each feeder. I eyeballed the whole process, using much more sugar and blending many weird colors into the mix. Whatever our disagreements over methodology, the hummer population grew. This past summer, it registered more than a hundred birds at “happy hour.” Tom confided to me that once, long ago, he mixed a little gin in with the hummers’ formula and they seemed to have a particularly lively happy hour. Min was not happy about it, however, and firmly put a stop to this practice.
Now, on bright, cold mornings, I stand in front of the old lodge, squinting into the brittle Hill Country sunlight, hoping, I suppose, for an impossible glimpse of a hummingbird or of my mother or my father. They’ve all migrated far away, and the conventional wisdom is that only the hummingbirds are ever coming back. Yet I still see my mother hanging up that first feeder. The juniper tree blew down in a storm two winters ago, but the hummers have found other places to nest. One of them is in my heart.
And I still see my dad sitting under the dead juniper tree, only the tree doesn’t seem dead, and neither does he. It takes a big man to sit there with a little hummingbird book, taking the time to talk to a group of small boys. He is telling them that there are more than three hundred species of hummingbirds. They are the smallest of all birds, he says, and also the fastest. They’re also, he tells the kids, the only birds who can fly backward. The little boys seem very excited about the notion of flying backward. They’d like to try that themselves, they say. So would I.