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The Birdie Gang

Ode to my great-grandfather WJK

By E MPublished 2 years ago 4 min read

I never met my great-grandfather, he died many years before I was born but in some ways I feel like I know him.

I know he dressed well in a suit and tie most days, I know his love of birds and I know he was a passionate storyteller.

He was the sort of man that stories trickle down through the generations about. A real character.

Some would even consider him a bit of a cad.

In his younger years he was a sailor in the British Royal Navy in the 1940’s and 1950’s and travelled to different ports all over the world. He was hardly ever home during these years and, except for the occasional letter, had no correspondence with his wife and six children at home. There were even hushed up stories of him having a whole other family in America, not that that was ever talked about too much, especially around my great-grandmother. The rumours abound to this day but I’ve never looked in to it. Perhaps I should.

Apart from this side of his character, he was a much beloved man and absolutely adored children. One of the things we were told as kids was that he would sit his nieces and nephews, kids and grandchildren down in front of the fire in the living room and tell them wonderful, fantastical stories, but they could only listen to them if they were a part of ‘The Birdie Gang’.

The Birdie Gang formed out of his love of real birds. It was as simple as him getting his biro pen and drawing a small bird on the back of each child’s hand on the spot just between the thumb and forefinger. As soon as you had that little bird drawn on then you were in his gang and could enjoy his stories.

He and my great-grandmother lived in Scotland. They had a small house with an even smaller garden but he used to spend hours out the back looking at all the birds and birds nests that were housed in the bushes outlining the property. He would stick his hand into a bush and very gently pick up a small bird egg from a nest and cradle it in the palm of his hand to show the kids and tell them about that particular species and explain that in a few weeks time they would see the little chicks if they peeled back the branches and peered inside. I’m told he was always extremely gentle and kind whilst doing this.

I’m not sure why he loved birds so much, but he was fascinated by them. Perhaps they offered a sense of freedom, just like he’d had when he was in the navy. They could fly away and return home when they wanted.

He drew them too. I have a very old book that sits on a shelf in my study that belonged to him. It’s a bird classification book and I often wonder how many times he sat in his garden, book in hand, trying to identify the different species around him.

It created a long lasting memory for my mum who was his grand-daughter and it developed her love of birds to this day which she has passed onto her children amd now grandchildren. I suppose it’s a bit of a tradition.

My own grandad, my mums dad, also took on the custom of The Birdie Gang so all my cousins and I would run around with different little birds drawn onto the back of our hands between our thumb and forefinger, signalling we had been accepted as members. Of course it washed off in our nighttime bath, much to the annoyance of us. In fact there were times I’d purposely keep my hand out of the bath just so I could be in the gang a little longer than my cousins.

I was lucky enough to have a drawing of my great grandfather’s collection of birds and I decided that I wanted to get a tattoo of one so that I would always be in The Birdie Gang.

I went through them and decided on the barn owl. It was just a simple pen drawing, not much detail but for some reason this was the one that stood out to me. This was the one that I wanted permanently on my skin. Barn owl brings wisdom, truth and understanding of life’s mysteries and most importantly the ability to see in the dark. I felt that was a good totem to have on my hand to remind me of these things throughout life.

My mum asked me to write a little poem about my great-grandfather. She always says I remind her of him. We have the same cheeky smile and glint in our eyes apparently. Plus we are both storytellers who love birds.

D’you want to be in the birdie gang?

Said the wise old man with the pen in his hand.

I nodded my head then up he sprang,

And grabbed my arm with great command.

He drew the little bird strand by strand,

Between my finger and thumb on the back of my hand.

He drew his bird with a whistle and sang,

You’ll forever be in the birdie gang.


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