Posted by: johnhourihan | February 26, 2012

Just a bird in a cage

Birds are supposed to be free.

Just a freebird

Sweet Genevieve was a quiet woman.
I only saw her really angry once. It was the day I learned a lesson about how not to treat a bird or a woman.
Born in 1919, by the mid-1940s when I first met her, she was in total retreat from the onslaught of having had her fifth child in seven years. I often wonder, if there had been a birth control pill back then when would she have started taking it.
We all lived in a cedar-shingled five-room hovel in the woods, a quarter mile off the road, five miles from town. No car.
For me it was idyllic: Pussy-willows and milkweed, axes, pellet guns, trees to climb, and a granite quarry just for fun.
For her, less so.
And even less after having Dennis and Cornelius within the next three years.
Seven children in a five-room house, and Scrapper Jack finding every opportunity he could to escape to Tibby’s or Gallagher’s for a pint or two.
Who could blame him?
Two very important things were pretty much missing back then — divorce and welfare.
On a seven-year-old summer morning, I awoke to breakfast and her smiles. She was a warm woman with only one emotion that we saw. She loved everything, smiled constantly and she was smiling now over oatmeal and tea.
She walked me to the back porch screen door and asked, “Are you going to the DeBoers’?”
That was the home of the grandparents of the red-headed Linda Chalmers, so of course I said, “Yes.”
I walked the matted warm path toward the next farmhouse, but no one was there.
Some special trip I guessed, and went back home.
I sat next to the barn and tossed rocks at the chickens for a while and then walked the path around the back stand of elms to the blackberry bushes.
Then I remembered something my father had taught me. There was something I could do, a cure for the boredom.
I pushed the heavy wooden barn door and it scraped along the dirt as it opened, and I rummaged through the dark dusky heat and stench of the August barn.
I found the box I wanted. I had had my eye on it since my mother brought it home full of books from the auction for a dime. The books were in the little room under the bed, but here was the cardboard box.
Outside I propped it against the house and went inside.
I took a slice of bread from the pantry. She saw me and I caught her smiling again, “Do you want that toasted?”
“No this is fine.”
I didn’t want to give her anything else to do. She had her washing and cooking and all the other mother things she had to do like waxing the linoleum.
Back in the barn, I grabbed one of the old baseballs, one that had the cover torn off, and unraveled some string, about fifteen feet.
I grabbed a stick from next to the dead DeSoto and walked off toward the other side of the house.
I spread out the bread and propped the box up over it with the stick, tied the string to the stick and backed off the whole fifteen feet and waited.
Finally it happened. An oriole stepped under the box and pecked at the bread. I yanked the string, the box dropped and I had her.
Just to make sure, I put a rock on top of the box, but this bird was strong and I found myself piling rock after rock on top just to keep her from getting free.
I pondered my predicament.
I had trapped the bird, but if I lifted the box she would get out, so there was no way I could actually possess it, all I could do was keep it caged for a while.
I went to get another rock, but the screen door hit me full force. I fell on my backside in the dirt near the garden hose as Sweet Genevieve shot past me glancing a stare that could freeze water and frighten the dead.
She wagged her finger at me and stared red-faced for a few seconds. No words would come out. Then she took a few quick steps and kicked the box into the air.
“Never,” she shouted, storming directly at me, “Never put any living thing in a cage.”
“But it’s just a bird,” I protested. She didn’t listen.
As she stepped back into the breezeway and her daily work, I thought I heard her say, “Great job, Jack.”
I thought about this day often.
She had never lost her temper with me before or again, and I gave her plenty of reason.
It wasn’t long before I was old enough to understand her anger, and the incredible love she must have had to stay trapped beneath the roof of that hovel in the woods with seven children piled on and Scrapper Jack just being himself.



  1. Glad I wasn’t born later in life or I wouldn’t have been born. I bet your glad I wasn’t either. Right?

  2. I’m glad that I was privileged to have known Genevieve for at least a few years. I too, only experienced a very happy woman with a wonderful sense of humor who knew how to handle pain when it did come her way. We are all very fortunate to have had her in our lives.


  3. I love this. The symbolism of the bird and Genevieve. How Genevieve felt trapped but couldn’t let other living things feel trapped. I have been there, but now I am no longer. Kind of inspiring..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: