Insatiable curiosity. I have it. And I can blame it directly on my Mom and Dad.
I was still toddling around in droopy diapers when they bought, in 36 payments, a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica for me. It was a hugely expensive, audacious purchase. Dad had just gotten his first job as a CPA after serving as a Marine in the Korean War and earning his degree with the help of the GI Bill. Mom, a plucky, independent young woman who’d moved from a country town in northern Idaho to big-city San Francisco all on her own, had been forced to give up her job as an operator with Bell Telephone when she became pregnant with me. They were very young and very broke, but they wanted to make sure that I’d have the whole world at my fingertips as I grew up. In the late 1950s, the Encyclopedia Brittanica was the way to do it.
They invested well. I absolutely loved that mysterious set of heavy, finely bound, rich brown books. They were big. When I first turned the pages with my five-year-old, eager fingers, the top edge of Volume Aa-Az (the title stamped in shiny gold leaf along the thick spine) stood as high as my waist. The mighty World Atlas, which had its own, deep slot at the back of the neat, cherry-wood bookcase that came with the set, was nearly as tall as I was. I could just about get one of the alphabet volumes out of the case by myself, but if I wanted to look at the Atlas (and I did, frequently) I had to ask Mom or Dad to get it for me. I’d open it up on the floor and study the maps of all the countries in the world while laying on my tummy.
It was in Volume Ba-Bz that I first came across the Cedar Waxwing. It was one of many birds depicted in the smooth, shiny, full-color plates under Birds. I spent hours looking at them, fascinated, imagining how they must look in real life, fluttering among the branches of trees and flying free through the blue sky. I gazed in wonder at the illustrations as art, as well, intrigued at the skill and talent of the unknown artist who’d painted each bird in such incredible, accurate detail. A budding artist myself, I wondered if I might be able to do such a thing someday.
But back to the waxwing. Something about that bird just mesmerized me. I loved the jaunty little crest the male of the species sported like a cocked hat on his head, but more than that I loved the markings and colors both genders were adorned with. Rich, cinnamon brown bodies,dusted with pollen-like yellow on their tummies. Gray silk wings. Black bandit masks over their eyes. Their tail-tips looked as if they’d been dipped in thick, brilliant yellow paint, and there were tiny dabs of vibrant red on their wings, like afterthoughts. Amazing. Beautiful. I imagined God with a tiny paintbrush, putting the final touches on his latest creation.
I grew up loving birds. With the help of the color plates in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I learned to identify most of the local ones. But I could never find the Cedar Waxwing in the trees and shrubs around my home. Eventually I gave up looking for it, figuring that it must live in a different part of the country, somewhere far from Northern California.
So you can imagine my surprise when, 30 years later while visiting Mom and Dad at their home here in the Sierra foothills, I saw a flock of cedar waxwings land in the branches of a buckthorn tree just off the back deck. I watched, astonished, as they hopped and fluttered from branch to branch, eating the tiny, black berries just as fast as they could.
“Mom and Dad!” I whispered fiercely. “Come here! Cedar Waxwings, a whole flock of them! I didn’t know you had those here!”
Of course, by the time they came to look, the little birds had flown away. My parents weren’t familiar with the species and, wouldn’t you know it, they’d given that grand set of encyclopedias to the local hospice thrift store years back. I couldn’t even show them. Enchanted, I looked for those little birds every time I came to visit after that. But I never saw them again.
I was in the little bathroom off the kitchen, brushing my teeth. It was a little too warm in there, so I’d opened the window to let in some fresh, cool air. I happened to look up and glance out. And there, in the branches of another buckthorn tree 15 feet away, was a flock of Cedar Waxwings.
“Mom!” I hissed. “Come in here! Hurry! It’s them!”
“Who?” She came into the bathroom, frowning.
“The Cedar Waxwings! Those little birds I saw at your house back in the 80s that you didn’t know anything about! Here they are again!” I was nearly beside myself with excitement. Mom peered out the window.
“Oh, they’re beautiful!” she exclaimed. We stood there for three or four minutes, watching them, and then the whole small flock once again flew off and was gone.
I know it seems silly, but I feel as if I’ve been given a precious gift. I’ve been able to see, close enough to observe the little crest and glowing paint-dipped tail and wings, a bird that has fascinated me since I was a small child. A nomadic, busy, social little bird, about the size of a sparrow, that isn’t native to my home, but that only passes through briefly as it heads north with the early spring.
The other gift that came with the sighting was the memory of those wonderful, heavy encyclopedias and the hours I spent as a child gazing at the gorgeous color plates of birds and other animals. The memory of the almost rice-paper thin pages, densely printed with words and line drawings back and front, top to bottom. Thousands upon thousands of pages, chock-full of the big, mysterious world and everything in it.
Those books were my own quiet, private playground for many years. What an incredible gift my parents gave me.