At Home in New Hampshire > A Sign of Spring

Desperate for color after the bleakness of winter, I hung the impatiens plant from the roof of the portico outside my senior apartment. I wanted, needed, its splash of fire-engine red to brighten the view from the window near the desk where I spend much of the day writing.

What I got was something very different.

Day after day, I reached up to water the plant; day after day, the plant grew, blossomed, kept on blossoming. One sun-filled May morning, I spied a house finch flying in among the blossoms. Then, a male and female—back and forth, in and out. I grew suspicious.

A few days later, carting a stepstool outside, I climbed up and gently tipped the white planter toward me. Inside a scooped place in the soil rested a small, tightly woven cup: bits of grass stems, pieces of twig, a down of feathers and an egg—palest blue, dark speckling, a little bigger than the end of my thumb. The next day, another egg, and another the day after. Three perfect ovals held in that little cup.

Now what? How could I possibly water it? And, if I didn’t, the plant would surely die. With the loss of leaves and flowers, what protection would my birds have?

Yes, my birds, because suddenly a fierce maternal protectiveness stirred in my long-past-motherhood heart.

At first, I tried to water around the edges, but afraid I’d damage the eggs, I gave that up. Without water, the leaves withered and died, the blossoms fell. But still the bird returned to sit on her A Sign of Spring By Patricia Fargnoli Illustration by Lenita Bofinger nest. Now fully exposed to the world, she drew the attention of the neighbors.

And pay attention, they did. Daily, from my window, I watched Lila, the wiry eighty-nine-year-old stretch her five-foot-four-inch frame tall to peek in, and Charlie, across the way, limp over and gently tip the pot. Each time the mother flew off, I feared we’d spooked her with our curiosities, feared she wouldn’t be back. But back she came, day after day, a lesson in persistence, in fortitude, in motherly protectiveness.

Then, suddenly, there were babies in the nest. For days, it seemed, they didn’t move and I feared they’d died. My worrying increased. I printed a flyer on my computer and taped it to the building’s siding near the nest: “Congratulations to the new mother. Please leave her alone.”

And each time someone made a noisy exit from the building, or chatted beneath the nest, I fretted. Three fuzzy babes; three open mouths. The neighbors’ inspections increased. Mary and John, the gray-haired couple upstairs, dug out their binoculars and stared down into the nest from their secondstory window. “

The finch reports” became part—a waited part—of our days. And what we all waited for was to see the fledglings fly. When would they? When?

As fate would have it, when they did, I was not there to see it. I’d driven to Connecticut for my grandson Joe’s high-school graduation party. How disappointed I was when I returned to the empty nest clearly visible among the dried leaves of the impatiens.

But Mary, John, Charlie, Lila—all came out to tell the story. And, given the power of the imagination, I saw them too then, the birds, just the way it happened: The father and the mother came at once, nudged the fledglings from the nest and taught them to fly. Around and around the lower air they flew. And others came too, other finches with their own apprentice flyers, so that, not far above the earth, the air was spinning with birds, seven of them at least, a graduation. And then, gone.