The Birds in our Family Tree
Wherever I go, I know where they'll be.
I was born in the same room my mother was born in, and her father, and every other Swan in existence, all born on a farm in Alabama. They were all buried here, too. At least, that’s what my grandfather used to tell me. I marveled at his round face, free of wrinkles, as he pinched my chubby cheeks. Swear he never aged a day in my life. He told us they used to tease him in school when they said black doesn’t crack, but he was the only one left to laugh at it now. He had plenty of jokes. The only thing he didn’t find too funny was breaking tradition.
“Our family belongs on this soil. It’s not safe to leave this land.”
I was only 4 years old the first time he told me that. Back when my mother first mentioned she might want to move out of the south. Move up north, with there were more jobs and the people were more educated. Lived by the new ways of the world. My grandpa wasn’t a fan. The only thing he didn’t like more than talking about leaving was talking about those birds in the trees. “Don’t play around that tree, them birds are not in a joking mood.” Me and momma just laughed.
“Isn’t grandpa silly? I heard those owls were a hoot.” See, momma had jokes too.
There were a lot of them in that tree, but it never bothered me. Whenever I couldn’t sleep or I had a bad dream, I would curl up to the window and listen. It would always make me feel better to hear them sing. Those “birds” were just like me. Those barn owls never wanted to be anywhere but that tree. They weren’t like the other birds, and I wasn’t like those other kids. It’s not always easy being a young black girl in most places, let alone in Alabama. I dove deep into those books, and they became my salvation whenever we weren’t home.
Momma was pleased with my vocabulary but distressed by grandpa. He’d slip into profanity like the time one of those birds snuck into his room. “Fuck that bird! Always been trouble.” That was the first time I saw my mother angry at him. She was ready for a full-fledged fight. “How do you know it’s the same bird?” They both stopped what they were doing and looked at me. My grandpa was incredulous. I remember because we had just learned about that in school.
“Don’t pay him any attention. Your grandad’s been talking to birds his whole life.” We just looked at him and laughed. Surely this man had lost his mind spending all these years with these birds. Everyone else had already moved on from this farm. It was just up to him and momma to keep the farm running. “If I didn’t talk to a bird, you wouldn’t be here now, would you?” Of course, back then I didn’t realize what that really meant, but it was only me and grandpa laughing “Jokin James strikes again.”
That was the only time I ever heard my mother all him by his first name. When the postman came, it was only Mr. Swan. When my aunt would call, she’d ask for Jim and before they found out, I was still on the line. She’d call him Jimmy. As the years went by, momma didn’t want to wait for her father’s approval. She was ready to move on to better things in Detroit city. There weren’t too many opportunities for black people down here. I had read all the books they offered in my school by the time I had finished the 6th grade. Which usually meant I’d have to tutor the older kids when the teacher got too busy. Just meant staying out a little later before mom could pick me up.
We’d get back home to see grandpa standing by the tree, talking to the birds. “Dad!” my mom would yell, sweat beating from the black skin torched under the Alabama sun. She was halfway out of the car before it came to a full stop. She’d always get him to come back inside the house. Never bothered me. Seemed like he finally started liking the birds. Naming them cute names like Junebug, Henry and Henrietta. Bertha, Claire, GW.
Maybe he knew we were finally moving out. My mother had put down the deposit but didn’t know how to break it to him. The man that had stepped in and helped raise me. Never mistreated us or asked for anything. Didn’t complain about the work, he just did it and he let no one bully him. That wasn’t family. I couldn’t help but think this was my fault. Looking through the dusty rearview mirror as he waved, wiping the dust from his eyes. Had I not gotten into a fight, maybe our lives would’ve ended up differently.
“Never seen a black swan before.”
The rest of the kids thought it was funny. Dean and Tyler were two of the rich kids in the eighth grade. I had helped them pass English, but apparently there was nothing a black girl could do to avoid their ire. “That’s funny, because there’s a bunch of him in town.” I walked away. We weren’t supposed to fight, but grandpa let no one talk down on our family name.
“You’re a smart young lady. Don’t be afraid to educate with your mind, your mouth, and if it comes to it, your fist.”
Dean shoved me to the ground. Ryan watched and laughed. Maybe I could’ve run, but I stood up and starred him down. He didn’t like that and tried to push me again. But fist don’t fly as fast as those birds at night. He was moving slower than molasses. All I did was move out of the way of his punch… and maybe I stuck my foot out. He took a tumble and crashed into a locker. Out cold. His lackey Ryan tried next, his sweat was beating down his face. Like a startled horse, except his mane was full of hair gel that got into his eye. Yet, he still charged at me. No one moved a finger. The teachers watched the show. One little black girl against two older boys. I guess they didn’t like how it ended.
Ryan swung and missed. I shoved his hand out of the way, and it landed in a sensitive location. He fell right next to Dean and lost a tooth. Every teacher came running when it was done. They wanted to expel me from school for fighting. Even though I never threw a punch, or as my mother said, “If she had punched one of those boys, you’d know.” If it weren’t for the embarrassment of two boys getting bested by a girl, and a black girl at that, I’m sure they would have made a big deal about it. Instead, they sent me home with my textbooks, but the damage was done.
That night, my grandfather visited my room. He was proud of me and wanted to let me in on a family secret. We went out to that giant tree out in the yard, where all the barn owls rested at night. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” Not sure what came over me, but those birds looked so peaceful in that tree. Ordinarily, they’d be soothing me to sleep from my bedroom, but now they almost didn’t seem real. Perfectly still and silent, preserved in their majestic stance. I climbed. By the time I heard my grandpa calling my name, I was pretty high. The shock made me lose my grip.
When I woke up, my mother was standing over me, crying. Grandpa was yelling at the birds for letting me fall. “Junebug, don’t you know that’s your little girl? Why would you let her climb like that?” Momma couldn’t take it. She tried to scoop me up, but I wouldn’t budge. Just looking at the owls, looking down at me. Swear I could hear a few of them laughing at me. So, I laughed back at them.
That’s the last memory I have of us all together. Momma making fun of Grandpa. Grandpa talking to the birds. It would take 10 years to get back to Alabama. Between the blistering cold of Detroit. It was a beautiful city in the snow. Felt nice not to be the only black kid in town. There was still the feeling of being different, but at least I had some people to be different with. After the civil rights movement, many black families found themselves in with better opportunities in northern cities. Leaving the south for Detroit during the boom of the auto industry. A familiar migration pattern for Swans.
I loved Motown, the Detroit Institute of Arts, watching the Dream Cruise on Woodward Ave. Yet, even with all the good times, I would always wonder how much more fun it would’ve been if Grandpa had been there. “When ya’ll gonna move back here? You know the birds miss singing to you at night.” Every call ended just like that. Not because it had to, but because we were too busy. That’s the shame about those teenage years. The days when you convince yourself that you have to make everyone like you. Putting yourself out in the real world, which really means spending the whole day in your friend’s basement, gossiping about people you don’t really know. Getting into a college and feeling like a big shot when you finally have your own room. Walking into the cafeteria with a meal plan and getting every bit of fried food you can find. Meeting a boy or a girl and getting your heart broken. Finding out that being smart just means you get the most work out about your group project. If not by default, then by necessity, because your standards are higher than your peers.
Understanding the struggle of being a talented black woman. Watching my mother work her ass off for the honor of training her superiors at her job. Was that all there was for me? I refused to believe that. I only dove deeper into my studies, like my mother dove deeper into her work. We didn’t speak in those days, but the love was there. It wouldn’t be until I choose a grad school program back home that I would have the time to look up.
What did I miss? I missed every sign I should have seen. I kissed my mother goodbye and didn’t even think twice when she decided not to make the trip. She had lost weight, but maybe she was on a new diet. I missed everything just like I missed her, and I’ll never forgive myself for that.
I remember the day so clearly. Spent a few extra weeks with a boy named Ben. We were in the same grad program, and we were definitely compatible. He was the one that drove me home that weekend. Pulled up to grandpa kneeling in front of that tree where all the owls were. They were resting and once I realized he was crying; I rushed over to him. “You shouldn’t be here! You’re not supposed to be here! Why didn’t you stay!” He was inconsolable, yelling at a beautiful bird that I had never seen before. “May! Not my baby May!”
I know how that sounds. Even speaking it to truth feels like it is impossible. When I looked at that tree, every owl I had ever seen before was staring back at me. The same owls that had been in that tree since I was a child, except for one. The most beautiful bird I had ever seen and yet when I saw that bird, I cried. May was my mother’s name. Ben grabbed me when before I could collapse to the ground. My phone was ringing, but I already knew. My mother was dead.
Breast cancer. A diagnosis she had before I left for grad school. She had never mentioned it before, but is that any excuse? “Why didn’t she come back? This soil is magic. Why didn’t she come back?” I didn't feel like I deserved to be in that house. Hearing the owls sing at night only made me cry. The only peace I found was when I was with Ben. Once I graduated, I brought him along wherever I went, and my guilt made me leave.
Found a career that allowed me to work and start having a family. Believe me, we tried to start a family many times, but it never worked out. I was 30 now. My mother was already getting me ready for school by the time she was my age. Couldn’t believe her strength. I avoided the farm for as long as I could until, after 80 years, my grandpa passed on. I would have to return to our family soil for one last time.
Ben and I stayed at the farm. It looked better than ever. “Does anyone live here?” Ben asked.
“No, it’s just supposed to be us. Maybe they have a company or something. I saw some people working on the lawn a few times when I was in grad school. Maybe they’re just helping while it’s empty.”
The words hit me hard. Our family home was empty, and it’s my fault. Now, I’m the one that’s empty. After going through every test and treatment imaginable, you can feel hopeless. Perhaps this is my curse for leaving them behind. There’s never enough time in the world, but when there is time, how can you be so selfish to waste it?
I decided we should stay. Ben didn’t even put up a fight. “Evie, if this is what’s best for you, for our family, that’s all that matters.”
Grandpa was right. There’s something in the soil down here. I could finally hear the owls singing to me again. It’s only gotten louder since the birth of our son, James May. Now, it sounds more like old friend cracking up in the night. This was all I wanted, but in the end he would stay up at night too. He wouldn’t stop crying. I had work to do, so Ben took daddy duty for 20 hours a day. Of course, I was grateful for him, but I felt so much guilt. I was doing it again. I told Ben this was the last day he’d be a single parent.
That night, I walked out to that tree in the front yard. Sat down and looked up at the owls. Junebug, Henry and Henrietta. Bertha, Claire, GW. After 20 years, they were still there. Except I couldn’t find May, and I didn’t see one for James. I walked back inside the house. Ben was sleeping on the couch, his glasses are stuck between his face and the couch. James was just crying his heart out. I picked him up and carried him to my old room, which we turned into an office. Looking out the window, I finally saw her. May, sitting on the fence next to a bird I had never seen before. James.
Two familiar hands rested on my shoulder. In an instant, I was back to being a child in the loving arms of my mother and my grandfather. Justin stopped crying. I watched them admire the newest Swan in the family. Made my way to the bedroom to put my son down and embrace my mother. “I told you, there’s something about this soil. Maybe now you’ll understand why I was always talking to the birds.” That night I cried myself to sleep.
When I woke up in the morning, I found myself under that tree outside. Junebug, Henry and Henrietta. Bertha, Claire, GW, May, and James were resting among the rest of the owls in that tree. Rushing in to find my husband making breakfast. I recognized the smell immediately. James wasn’t crying anymore. He was giggling his heart out, looking outside the window. “You feeling okay?” Ben asked.
“I’m fine. Where’d you learn to cook like that?” I joined James, looking out the window.
“Well, I had a really weird dream last night and felt inspired to make breakfast. You sure you’re alright?” Ben was glued to that stove.
“I’m fine, except for sleeping outside all night.”
Ben stops cooking. Looking at me to see an ounce of humor in my words. “You didn’t sleep outside. You came back in and then left early this morning. Honestly, I don’t know what you did, but James has been laughing ever since.”
“You sure?” He nodded back at me as he finished making my plate.
“I think I like it here.” He holds my shoulders. I look over at our son, laughing away as he looks out the window towards the tree.
“Yea, I like it here too. Must be the soil.”
About the Creator
Blake A Swan
NCSA Strength and Conditioning Professional certified as a CSCS, TSAC-F, and CPT. I have my FMS Certification as well, and spent over a decade working with athletes in various sports. Including youth, high school, college, Olympic and Pro.
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