Last week on Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor read one of my mother’s poems from her new book, a poem about birth, and death, and owls, and ancestors (and ghosts). She showed it to me as I was writing American Ghost, and the scene made its way into the book as well.
It’s about the night my daughter was born — and it’s illustrative, I think, to compare how we saw the same moment, both from the perspectives of poetry and prose, and from our own and time and place in life.
First, the poem:
With their Wings
On the evening you were born,
after the tremendous churning
that brought you forth, an owl
flew onto the rail of the balcony
where we sat, as darkness bled
from backlit hills into the sky.
In twilight, she perched on the ledge
measured us with wide, light-
gleaning eyes, then sailed off
on soft wings. Shades of my mother,
I thought, half-believing—the wide-
set eyes and level gaze.
For those who say the dead
have no more truck with us
are wrong. The dead are all around us
feathering the air with their wings.
They see in the fertile darkness
that surrounds this sac of light.
And in these hours we call them back
to steady us, who live in time.
“With Their Wings” by Jean Nordhaus (hear Garrison Keillor read it here) from Memos from the Broken World. © Mayapple Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
And here’s the passage from the book:
The evening after my first child was born, my parents and husband and I ate dinner on an outdoor balcony at the hospital. As we sat, the baby beside us in her bassinet, an owl flew onto the rail of the balcony. They say that owls are messengers from the other world. This one watched us in the gathering dusk, and we watched the owl and baby both, the air feathered with hope and memory, and we all felt the weight of the past—loved ones long gone, winging in to see the future arriving.
We came home, and one sunny afternoon a week or so after she was born—a perfect May afternoon when the sun streamed through the open windows and the air held our skin in equipoise, the penstemon fragrant and groping toward life—I felt the softness of my daughter’s cheeks and lips and realized that there, swaddled and held close, was life beyond my own. She carried me forward; I linked her to the past. We named her Delia—for my husband’s grandmother and also for Julia’s daughter. There are Julias and Teddys and now Delias in our family, names that stretch across the generations, because the past can illuminate the future, and perhaps the future can also mend the past.