Photo: Courtesy of Anne Fadiman
A Talent to Amaze
by Anne Fadiman
Good mothers are supposed to feed sick children steaming chicken soup, coax medicine down their throats, and swaddle them in quilts. Whenever I had a cold, my mother did all the above, in addition to uncomplainingly scooping up the mounds of moist Kleenexes that had missed the wastebasket. (Basketball was always my worst sport.) But she also believed firmly in the therapeutic properties of nature.
We lived on a largish property in then-rural Connecticut, the sort of place where my brother and I could be permitted, without fear of prying neighborly eyes, to dance naked on the back lawn before a rain, when the sky had turned what we called thunderstorm green. It was also the sort of place that harbored such a ravishing array of wildlife—pheasants, foxes, pileated woodpeckers—that we might as well have lived on the African veld. Once, when I was 5 or 6 or 7, I caught a flu-y cold, or perhaps it was a cold-y flu, in the middle of winter. I was too sick to read, too sick even to watchCaptain Kangaroo. My mother bustled up to my bedroom and announced we were going outside.
She was already dressed in a wool jacket and boots. She wrapped me in several blankets, hoisted me against her shoulder, and stomped out through the snow. We could see our breath condense in the freezing air. After a minute or so, she stopped in front of a blue spruce. There, in a low branch not ten feet from us, was a baby owl, its incompletely fledged feathers fluffed against the cold.
We watched it together, in silence, for a minute or so, and then my mother carried me back to bed. I wish I could say my fever broke instantly, but I doubt that was true. I can say, however, that during the next 40 years, until my mother's death, a single four-word sentence, spoken by either of us, conjured up all that was best about childhood. It was: "Remember the baby owl?"
Anne Fadiman is a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author and essayist for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). She is also the author of two books of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) and At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (2007).
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