When my grandmother passed away, she willed to my mom her huge fortune and all her assets -properties and possessions- which included a 196 collection of paintings by Mary Cassatt, Degas, Monet, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, and even one masterpiece by El Greco.
But everything paled in value compared to “Sin” (short for Sinatra) –her singing canary.
Both mom and dad were greatly pleased with Gramma’s money, art, properties, and investment portfolios, but less so with inheriting a bird.When my grandmother passed away, she willed to my mom her huge fortune and all her assets -properties and possessions- which included a 196 collection of paintings by Mary Cassatt, Degas, Monet, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, and even one masterpiece by El Greco.
But everything paled in value compared to Sin (short for Sinatra) –her singing canary.
Both mom and dad were greatly pleased with Gramma’s money, art, properties, and investment portfolios, but less so with inheriting a bird.
After some initial grumblings, my father began to tend to Sin, and in a short time he took over the chores of cleaning the cage, changing the water, the feed and overall general care. Dad holds a high level political job and he travels a lot. I suppose it’s safe to say that he is a celebrity of sorts, since I always see his picture in newspapers, TV, and the Web.
“Ah, the joy of sin,” dad would say (echoing Gramma’s expression) after Sin went into one of his melodic warbles.
Whenever dad was home, every time dad unlatched the cage, within seconds, the wise canary would nudge the door open and fly out. For some reason -and it could be dad’s bald spot- Sin, after fluttering around the living room, would always land on top of dad’s head. Before long I could see that dad and Sin had bonded in such a warm way that was alien to me, for dad by nature was cool (if not cold) to all, including mom and me.
While I was away in boarding school, things started to go wrong with my parents, as I soon found out during my weekends and holidays. A tense life it was.
Then one day a reckoning of sorts erupted; both mom and dad out of control and without any pretense anymore, they both hurled insults at each other.
It was ugly.
Moments later, after the fight (for their squabbles had become open fights), Ula-our trusted cleaning lady of many years-asked me in halting English if she had done something wrong.
“Nein, Ula. Macht du keine sorge,” I would reply-with some effort-recalling the few soothing phrases of German that lay dormant in my brain. Despite my assurances, Ula moved around the apartment, gaze fixed to the floor, hands wringing, feet skittering as silent as a ghost, fearful to make noise, her eyes filled with tears. Suddenly, the apartment seemed cold and empty, as if a gust of evil wind had swept out the remnants of a fragile illusory love. I told what had happened to Mim, my childhood sweetheart. When Mim and I were growing up, Ula spoke to us in German and French; and while I have no talent for foreign languages, Mim grew up speaking and mastering English, French, and German.
As the affection that Sin showed for my father grew, mom’s grudge also grew, as deep as malignant tumors do as time goes by. For my part, I loved the bird. Sin fascinated me to no end: at night when the lights were out no night light was needed in the front because he glowed like an incandescent bulb. In daylight, his plumage was so yellow that he seemed enveloped in an eerie aura.
Uncanny as it may seem, in the evenings as dad came home, Sin got to recognize his steps as he wended his way down the long hallway, and he’d start fluttering and trilling and warbling to the point of hysteria. Such lavish display of affection would irk my mom to no end, and to add insult to injury, Sin would at times fluff up, shriek, and show hostility towards mom. Mom would curse under her breath and walk away in a huff.
As usual, after flying and fluttering around, Sin would perch himself on dad’s head, and dad would hold him and kiss him, spruce him, and finally put him in his cage.
Unexpectedly, one evening, as dad was grooming Sin, he was horrified to find a growth under Sin’s right wing. Wrenched with anguish and concern, dad rushed him to the animal clinic on 1st avenue, where the vets assured him that such growths weren’t unusual in canaries and that in most cases they were benign. And that was the case with Sin. After the surgery, during the recovery time, dad would come home early to clean the wound, change bandages, and later the band aids, bringing the pampered bird to a full recovery.
One awful morning, Mim, left me a frantic message in my cell phone: “Watch CNN right away. It’s about your dad! I’m coming over to see you right away-wait for me.”
All the newspapers and television stations carried the news. Dad had been in an automobile accident in Washington D.C., and he had been arrested for DUI. A few days later the situation got even worse when it was revealed by the media that he had a mistress in the Washington D.C. area, and that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Mom filed for divorce. Though I understood in a flash what divorce was in the abstract, the pain and the guilt I felt was palpable, concrete, lingering for unending years, benumbing my consciousness.
Before my parents married, because mom comes from old money, the family attorneys had insisted on a pre nuptial agreement, which my father had reluctantly signed. One of the clauses specified that father had no right to any property that accrued from my mom’s family. As a result, dad would have to leave the canary behind.
The attorneys soon reached a settlement on everything except the bird. Dad refused to sign the divorce papers unless he was allowed to take Sin with him, and mother, out of spite, would not let the bird go under any circumstance.
“Your mother will never yield,” said Mim. “Even though she hates the bird. It’s all for spite that she wants to keep Sin.”
“Mom never leaves the apartment anymore. She’s even becoming agoraphobic. The only place she ever goes to is Solly’s Pharmacy-for her Xanax and her valium.”
All the suffering, the pain, and the shame, had taken its toll on my mother; she was now but a shadow of the willowy beauty I see in the framed pictures that adorn our apartment.
“Something’s got to give,” Mim concluded. “The Court will not be tied up for much longer; judges must keep a clear calendar; if they fall behind they are disciplined.”
Annoyed that such a trivial detail was occluding his calendar, Judge Hofeld-a bird lover and occasional bird watcher-took it upon himself to settle the matter himself, setting a date for the canary to be brought to his chambers. When the day arrived, Mim and I brought Sin in his cage to the judge’s chamber, and set it in the middle of the long conference table.
“Dad will win,” I kept murmuring to Mim. “There’s no way that Sin would point to mom-he’s afraid of her!”
“And he has a good reason for that,” Mim whispered back. Mim knows that mother had once attempted to poison Sin.
Let me digress for a minute. One day, Ula found Sin unconscious in his cage. Without wasting a second, Ula knocked on my door and rushed me to the den.
“Der Vogel! Er ist schon tot!”
In a half panic, and not knowing what to do I called Mim. Within minutes-Mim lives in Beekman Place, a few blocks away from Sutton Place-she rang the bell. Jabbering in French to Ula, soon she had her opening windows, running fans, and the air conditioning system.
“Grand Ciel!” or “Mon Dieu,” Ula kept lamenting.
“Courage, Ula! Un peu de sang froid,” urged Mim.
“Ah, C’est vrai. Ne nous affolons pas.”
“Et tout ira bien,” said Mim.
Next, Mim asked Ula to fetch cotton balls and a gallon of ammonia; and with a swift pass of the pungent compound, the bird opened his eyes, snorted, and gave a weak fluty twit.
“He’s alive!” I cried.
“Marie, Reine du Ciel!” Ula exclaimed. ” Que Dieu vous benisse!”
Mim held Sin on the palm of her hand and holding him up, her voice cracking, she said:
“Tu wast pas né pour la mort, l’Oiseau immortel!”
With the battalions of attorneys facing each other across the table, the judge –who was indeed a bird lover– within seconds had Sin responding to his trilling whistle. Then he opened the door and let Sin out. Tense were the seconds that followed; the suspense unbearable. Unfamiliar with the surroundings, the magnificent warbler fluttered in circles perching himself atop of the mast of the American flag.
Father shifted and slid low on his chair, lowering his head as to make his bald spot more visible to Sin. The musty journals and unending rows of dusty law books on the shelves seemed to give off and offending odor that was alien to me.
“Smells terrible-what is it, Mim?” I asked.
“Yeah, I was going to ask you the same thing. Something vile! Like the smell of dead rodents oozing through the walls.”
So this is the odor of the other side of love, I thought, of hatred and disillusion. Unable to conceal what was bothering her, Mim murmured in my ear, “Look at your mom’s hairdo; she never teases her hair, but today you can see she’s fixed it into an old-fashion beehive-how strange!”
Watch Sin land on father’s bald spot, I said to myself. “He’ll win for sure.”
After a few seconds of hesitant indecision, Sin started to warble a low-toned melody that I couldn’t quite recognize; I knew Sin’s repertoire by heart, and these chirps and melody sounded not only melancholy, but strange and eerie. For a brief moment I thought I was being transported –along with Sin’s music– to a dimension of eternity in which all beings are but notes on an infinite symphony composed by God. And life seemed to me but a prelude to that eternal opus.
“Good Lord, this is the saddest tune I’ve ever heard a canary sing!” exclaimed Judge Hofeldt.
My heart stood still as Sin opened his wings.
Sin went straight to mom’s side and landed on her head-on top of her beehive.
Judge Hofeldt shot a nasty look at father and his attorneys, as he pronounced: “Sin has made it clear. The canary will remain in the plaintiff’s custody!”
If betrayal could be painted, you could have seen its image on father’s face. And had I not seen Sin’s betrayal with my own eyes, I would never have believed it.
A couple of months afterward, mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and Sin developed a cancerous tumor, so that by mid-year, and on the same day –which ironically was Father’s day– my mom and Sin both died.
According to Mim, Sin chose my mom simply because she had fixed her hair to make it look like a nest and that had tricked Sin. I disagree. I see Sin’s siding with my mom not as an act of betrayal to dad who had cared so much for him, but as an act of God. I’m convinced Sin was an angel sent by the good Lord to call mom to his side.
As I wait for Mim at the M57 bus stop on 57th St. and 1st Avenue, I notice that Solly’s Pharmacy –which I’ve known my entire life– is dark and boarded up. But in the gentle breeze a tiny feather lingers for a second at eye level, and then it glows and soars out of sight.