Bird

On an Indian summer morning in 1958, Dad's large square frame moved gracefully within the triangle of stove, sink and refrigerator. Sporting a medium-sized brown paper bag on his head, pleated and scrunched into a tall chef's toque, he was whipping up his favorite omelet for me, my brother, sister and Mom - ham, bell peppers, onion and cheddar cheese of an orange-yellow color not found in nature.

While we buttered our bagels, Dad surveyed his estate through the window, his quarter acre of paradise on suburban Long Island.

A family of golden finches darted among feeders he had suspended from the copper beech, birch and pear trees. Hummingbirds whirred weightless, sipping red sugar water from a feeder hung from the eaves.

"Welcome to Daddy's Bird Cafe," my six-year-old sister chirped, passing Mom the binoculars.

Throughout his Brooklyn boyhood, Dad had dreamed of creating this Shangri-La. He worked out a payment plan with NYU before the days of student loans, became a doctor, married his sweetheart, had three children, and made it to the Island. On weekends he puttered in his garden to warbles instead of the El train that had ricocheted past the second floor window of his childhood bedroom like a wildcat dragging 10,000 tin cans.

In the middle of the concrete patio behind our kitchen, he had planted a tetherball pole. Once it outlived its original purpose (allowing my brother and me to whomp a white volleyball on a rope instead of each other), Dad topped the pole with a luxury high-rise bird feeder.

His own architectural design, it was a plastic cylinder with six perches and openings for red-winged blackbirds, tufted warblers and yellow-crested hatchers. He concocted fine feasts for his feathered friends, including a bird-seed suet he claimed was so tasty, he was thinking of marketing it to the local nursery. We wondered how he knew it was so good.

Now, as the butter bubbled at the edges of the omelet pan, our jovial Daddy-chef darkened. "Stop that, this minute!" He waved his spatula. Barrel-chested, tight-lipped — his small brown eyes, which often sparkled like those of a successful bad boy, squinted in his full square face. My brother, sister and I glanced around the round white Formica table, wondering what we'd done.

But Dad was yelling through the window at a squirrel that had shimmied up the pole to stuff its pouchy cheeks with Dad's sublime suet, contrary to the laws of our family fief.

"That squirrel isn't cute," he said. "It's a rat with a bushy tail."

He sidestepped to the cabinet above the kitchen counter. Rummaging through clinking aluminum pots and pans, Dad held up a disposable pie tin, with a grin and a triumphant "Ha!"

Then he disappeared down the linoleum stairs to his basement workshop, where tools hung neatly on the wall above his workbench. We heard the ping of hammer on tin. Ten minutes later, he was out on the patio dismantling the tetherball pole. Back in the basement he put the finishing touches on his latest invention: a squirrel-proof bird feeder.

When he reassembled the creation on the patio, we saw that the pie tin sat atop the pole, just beneath the plastic feeder. If a squirrel jumped from the birch or pine onto the pie tin, the plate tipped with the animal's weight, sending it sprawling. If the squirrel climbed up the pole, it seldom got past the aluminum barrier. But occasionally one made it, so Dad greased the pole with Crisco and chuckled each time his small gray rival slid splay-legged onto the concrete.

For Dad it was a perfect morning. He'd fed his family, tinkered in the basement, played in the yard, and squelched a squirrel insurrection. Order reigned at the Bird Cafe and the little boy from Brooklyn was lord of his realm once more.

Writing prompt: What do you remember most about your father?

Copyright © 2011 by Laura Deutsch

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