By Rosalie Tirella
So long, favorite tree, so old and tall you grow straight past my third floor apartment! I’m moving out in a few weeks: by then, maybe a little past, you’ll be in full bloom – your green leaves wrapped in tiny tight buds unfurled, burst open. Your filigreed beauty gone.
I like trees best when they look like the one outside my pantry window: spare, the lacey green of a handkerchief’s edges embroidered on every brown branch, the branches still visible in all their drama. They are dark, gnarly, rough, crooked and broken in so many places. I like the way they cradle their “babies” – buds and fledglings in nests – spring after spring. April was invented for the filigreed trees and their promise of good things to come.
I think of my late mom when I look at this tree, too. When I was a little girl, we lived on the third floor of a Lafayette Street three decker. If you walked out onto our back porch you saw this picture too – tree tops – but in my neck of Green Island. Before the gentrification and martinis. Back when we were a Bud neighborhood. In April the filgreed trees – a row of them – stood just yards from our back porch. Four, right close to us, so close, that when I was a little girl I tried to reach out and touch the tips of their branches. The telephone poles and their heavy black wires were there, too. They were where the black crows sat. The crows on the heavy black wires tilted their iridescent heads at me, staring right back at me with their flat, black eyes. The brown English sparrows perched on the telephone wires, too. The pigeons, too big and clumsy, were often huddled on nearby three decker roof tops and under their eaves. All of them were waiting for Ma – never for me. And every morning, right before breakfast, in the early pale sunlight, before she made us kids breakfast, my mother did not disappoint. My mother, hunchbacked, careworn at 41, would stand on our back porch and whistle to her friends and throw bread scraps to them from our third floor porch.
Ma was the best whistler I’ve ever heard and could carry entire show tunes or religious hymns, verse, chorus, verse. She had taught herself to mimick the sparrow songs – and whistled them as she threw pieces of bread over the porch into our back yard. Birds – even pigeons – are smart: soon scores of crows, sparrows and pigeons were out waiting for my mom – every morning, way before her whistles. Lined up like communicants at church, waiting for their Holy Communion … with Ma. With nature, goodness, God.
Of course, the savvy crows took the biggest slices first, then the big pigeons hustled their way into the fray, the male puffing up their chests, as they attacked their scrap of bread. The wee brown English sparrows, dusty and flicking their wings, waited off to the side. That’s when Ma would throw the few scraps she had held back, round 2, special for them, right under their noses, as we kids used to say in Green Island …
Circa W W II: Ma (left) and Aunt Mary on The Block’s roof, Bigelow Street. Pigeons roosted here, and you took photos before the panorama of Green Island. Here Uncle Joe is back home on leave from the Navy. Ma, his favorite sister, wears his uniform!