When we were growing up, every summer we traveled from our home in Kansas up to South Dakota and Minnesota to visit our grandparents. My dad grew up in Delmont, South Dakota, which had once been one of the state’s many small but flourishing rural towns. When we were visiting in the 70′s and 80′s, it was smaller still and extremely quiet, even as small towns go. The downtown had a single stop sign, and when a car drove by the house, you looked out to see who might be passing by. Nevertheless, every day at twelve noon the air raid siren blew, just so you would know it was twelve o’clock. Our lunchtime conversation had to stop until it died down.
My grandfather was a retired Lutheran minister, and my grandparents lived in what was known as the “old” parsonage, as a new modern ranch home had been built for the current minister directly next to the church, a mere half-block away. Their house was a time capsule of sorts, filled with furniture from the 30′s and metal fans with fabric-covered cords. It was also filled with hand-wound clocks, three of which chimed, bonged, and cuckoo’d on the hour. (You can imagine what it was like at noon, when they were joined by the siren). We read old comic books and played with vintage toys that my dad and his siblings had once enjoyed. We knocked croquet balls through wire wickets staked out in the side yard.
My grandmother was tall and thin, and wore her hair in two long braids that were wound around her head and held with wavy tortoiseshell pins. She had married my grandfather at 28, and they began raising their family during the Depression. Even though she was a quiet person, she seemed always to be the one in charge, strong-willed and opinionated. After a fall that caused (or was caused by) a broken hip, she was diagnosed with osteoporosis, and had to use a wheelchair to get around the house. She spent a lot of time in her recliner (admittedly the house’s only modern piece of furniture) in the living room, and we played lots of games with her at the card table: cards, cribbage, and Yatzhee.
She loved songbirds, and in her younger days had occasionally defended hers against the neighborhood cats with an old BB gun that sat on a shelf just inside the back door. One year there was a flicker who drummed on the storm gutters and woke us up in the mornings, and there were always mourning doves cooing close by. Every time I hear a mourning dove, I remember being at the parsonage.
One summer when we arrived, there were two cylindrical feeders hanging just outside the kitchen window, filled with a mass of tiny seeds. We were amazed to see the flocks of tiny, bright yellow birds that began visiting them during the day: goldfinches, birds we hadn’t seen at our feeders at home. They sat on the little perches, hung upside down, and clung to the window screens as they devoured the thistle seed. I was completely taken by them. I was also taken by the sight of my grandmother, standing up carefully from her wheelchair to reach across the kitchen sink, and open the screens to retrieve the feeders and refill them. It seemed a precarious act, and yet she did it anyway. I can only imagine how much she must have enjoyed having those bright little birds come to visit her. Today, every time I see a goldfinch I think of my Grandma Wild. Besides being lovely, acrobatic little birds, it’s the reason I love painting them so much.
Last summer I potted zinnias in the planter boxes on our porch, and grew them from seed in the bed around our little tree in the front yard. I was thrilled to soon find goldfinches visiting them regularly, clinging to stems and pulling the flower heads apart to collect the seeds. I can’t say I minded that minor destruction though, because of the joy and the memories that they brought with them. I planted more zinnias this spring, and am looking forward to when they’re flowering and bringing the finches back.