When I think of Nonna Lucia, I always think of birds. She loved how free they are. How confident they are, as if they know a superiority comes with being able to slice through air and taste the sky. She would watch them for hours, sitting on the porch where she waited for me, every day, to come home from school. Her eyes would sparkle with sunlight as they darted from feathery body to feathery body, watching those Vs in the sky like they were her religion.
Even though my chest seizes every time I think of her face, I so clearly can picture her long wrinkled fingers tearing up old pieces of bread and tossing them over the edge of the brick porch like unstained confetti. She’d watch as the birds fluttered in from electric lines and gutters, landing on the floor and plucking at the scattered wheat. I can see her smile at them with an admiration I could never understand.
They were just birds. But she loved them.
Lucia L’Uccello, my nonno would call her, laughing as she fed them every morning, like clockwork. She would watch the birds, and we would watch her, all of our gazes filled with a surging love.
I don’t like birds, but ever since my nonna soared on to whatever comes after life, I’ve been obsessed with them.
Not in the way I’m obsessed with iced coffee, or reality television that puts people in shitty situations, or even beautiful women. But a deep need to understand the grandmother that meant the world to me, through the one thing she understood more than anything else.
So every morning since our last goodbye, I drive to the metroparks ten minutes from my house, and hike the birding trail. I don’t tell Mom or Dad or even Nonno. I don’t tell anyone. It’s time for me and my grandmother, in a place where I feel her more than her own home. Or her grave. Because even in death, I know she’d still go where the birds go.
It’s the only thing in my life that feels clear. The rest of my day is a sluggish fog, where all of my feelings seem to blend and collide into something unrecognizable, until I don’t know how to feel much at all. Like only I move in slow motion as the rest of the world flies by too quickly and I can’t be bothered with catching up.
Only the birds make sense. I don’t like them. I don’t understand them. But we have some sort of bond in our loss of the one thing that we both loved. A connection from the sudden disappearance of all that connected us in the first place.
I push forward with nothing but a drawstring bag and binoculars. A trickle of sweat slides down my back, losing itself in the waistband of my leggings. Twigs snap under my boots and my arms itch with left over mosquito bites. My feet keep moving, one step after another, as if the constant song welcomes me here. Welcomes me home.
Whenever I catch a flutter of wings out the corner of my eye, I stop. And I watch them and I try to learn something about them.
And I remember her.
“Nonna,” I groan, kicking my feet out in front of me with each step so the dirt scatters in a cloud and fades. “I’m bored.”
She smiles at me, the age on her face not taking away from her beauty. She’s not classically pretty or whatever, like an Old Hollywood star in retirement, but in the way one might not notice until she lights up in nature. In a way that makes her approachable. Makes everything seem okay. Better than okay. A touch of guilt sinks in my stomach for complaining. Maybe we are on a trail in the middle of nowhere, but I love being with her, spending time with her. It really shouldn’t matter where we are.
She pauses, looking past me as excitement dances in her brown eyes. I follow her gaze to some kind of warbler that we’ve seen multiple times before, a patch of yellow lighting up feathers on its body. Most birders I’ve heard of want to travel to new places to see especially rare finds.
Lucia L’Uccello never cared about that. She loves them all.
Even as her eyes sparkle with delight as it picks at a berry, a sprig of jealousy rises within me. Not of the bird, as while it isn’t in the same way, I know my nonna always looks at me with love. No, I’m jealous of the way she can have such a love for a thing that isn’t human. A passion. Where I just seem to go through life following others, never quite sure of what I want to do or what makes me. Some people have things they are known for, passions so strong you can’t think of one without relating to the other.
Some of us observe and wonder without really connecting to any sort of thing at all.
I reach for my phone to take a picture, but my fingertips freeze a few inches from my pocket. Why would anyone care about a random backyard bird? Everyone else adds pictures of adventure and friends to their Snapchat stories. I’d be so lame for posting anything about watching birds with my nonna.
The warbler takes off, and Nonna follows it away with her eyes, pausing a moment after losing track of the bird before pulling her gaze back. Like a little goodbye.
“Why do you look at them like that?” I ask. “They’re just birds.”
“Yes,” she says, smirking. “In the same way we are just human.”
I spot a white-breasted nuthatch on a tree, it’s head pointed down to the dirt in the opposite direction of a usual perch, and sort of disgust myself that I know even that much. The movements of the birds are sharp, deliberate, like they don’t have to think of anything.
Most animals don’t, I guess. They act. It’s only us humans that have to get lost in our minds, always wondering why. Why is as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Although it seems to make a lot more sense for those who have something to do about it. Scientists ask why, and do research to find out. Artists ask why, and express possible answers through their craft.
I just keep asking.
“Good morning,” a voice says.
It immediately strikes me as weird, because the only people who ever greet strangers are the elderly, and even that is few and far between, but this person doesn’t sound old. I haven’t met too many others on my daily walks. Maybe birdwatching is a hobby for oddly polite people?
I twist my neck away from the nuthatch and toward the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Not because she looks like a model, or is some otherworldly kind of attractive, but because she brims with an excitement and energy that makes me want to break out into a smile. That would make me become obsessed with whatever can cause a smile like that.
She couldn’t look more different from Nonna Lucia. My grandmother was an old, heavyset woman with light skin and deep brown eyes. This girl is about my age, built like an athlete, and with dark skin and light eyes. But they wear their passion in the same way.
“Morning,” I say.
While it is the last thing I want to happen, I expect her to move on. She doesn’t. It sends a strange buzz through my chest that only deepens when my eyes slide over to the pride flag pin on the strap of her backpack.
It’s like some flip switches inside me, and my heart rate spikes. A cute girl is one thing. A cute gay girl? Something else entirely.
“Nice pin.” My squeak nearly gets lost in the chirps and songs swelling around us.
“Thanks, I always wear it with the hopes I’ll meet more queer friends, or get a pretty girl to hit on me.” A small blush betrays her confident voice. “I’m not going to lie, I’m really hoping for the second option right now.”
Before I can stop it, my smile grows to something obnoxious, and little hummingbirds flutter inside of my chest. While I’ve went out with a guy or two in the past, never in all of my seventeen years has a girl outside of Twitter expressed interest in me.
“It’s likely,” I say. “I happen to like to hit on pretty girls.”
Then we both grin like idiots. It’s something weird, rushed but also perfectly normal, like a story someone would tell in a few sentences, but you wouldn’t really believe them.
“I never thought I’d get hit on while birdwatching,” the girl admits, tucking her long black hair behind her ear. It shines in the sunlight, giving the illusion that some oranges or yellows might lie inside those dark strands.
It’s funny how once I have a chance with someone, I start to notice all the tiny attractive things about them. If she walked right by, I would never have noticed the way her lower lip seems to be larger than the upper one. I wouldn’t have cared about the way her shorts hug her hips. I wouldn’t be aware at all of the way she blinks slowly, as if waiting for something.
“Are you a birder?” I ask.
She nods. “Next year in college, I hope to study ornithology, although I might major in zoology and just have birds as a primary interest.”
So she is around the same age as me, but happens to know exactly what she wants to do. It’s something I envy but also admire. The way she speaks about her plan, as if it is destined to happen, makes my interest deepen.
I wonder if Nonna Lucia would have liked to study birds in that kind of way, never having the access to college at all. Of course, it almost seems pointless. She didn’t need to know all the individual parts of a bird. She knew them like a poet knows their subjects. She knew their soul.
“What about you?” The girl asks.
“Honestly?” I laugh, although my glassy eyes must betray me. “I find them annoying.”
I swirl the white flour and the grainy semolina together, following the motion of my nonna next to me. We create a little well in the center of the pile, our fingers moving in little circles to push the flour back.
She drops three eggs into the center of the hole, the flour acting as a wall around the liquid whites. I follow suit, extra careful not to drop any pieces of shell inside, as I can’t crack an egg with one hand without making a mess, and I barely function sometimes with two.
“When I grew up, we couldn’t afford the egg, so we would just use water,” she says. She tosses me a devilish grin. “Now, I’ll use all the egg I want.”
I laugh, even though a part of me wishes it was water as we mix the dough together. The sticky coating of egg yolk on my fingers isn’t exactly my favorite feeling. I mush the mixture into dough regardless, pushing with the heel of my right hand and turning it with the left until my arms ache and the top of the dough bounces back at my touch.
We let it rest in packets of plastic wrap.
“You’re mother never cooked with me,” Nonna Lucia says, shaking her head. “At least you can make it when you have kids and a husband.”
She says it casually, in a way that doesn’t pressure, but still has a sort of expectation. I don’t know what possesses me, but with my voice low and my eyes cast down toward the flour on my fingers, I respond.
“Yes, maybe…or kids and a wife.”
There it is. Out in the open. My chest is tight and my stomach aches. Everyone in my family makes fun of the bond between my nonna and I, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was raised Catholic, in a different time, and I have no idea how she’ll react.
“Of course,” she says. “Either or.”
My lower jaw drops. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t for her to continue on, grabbing the hand-cranked pasta machine and whistling a song like a bird as if I said nothing much at all. It’s almost better than an overly positive response, but makes me feel incredibly stupid for putting off telling her for so long.
“Did you know?” I ask, and my mind races with who could have possibly told her when I just really admitted it to myself recently.
“No, but what’s the issue.” She twists the handle to secure the machine to the side of the table. “Why should I care who makes you happy as long as they make you happy?”
Like an absolute idiot, tears spring to my eyes. Now that I put that out in the open, it’s like I can’t stop. “But how can I know for sure? It’s not like I ever dated a girl…”
“If you didn’t know for sure, you would have said nothing.” She turns to me, voice so matter-of-fact. “Do you think a bird needs proof he can fly? No. When he gets the chance he takes it. And soars. And even if he never flies a day in his life, that doesn’t make him any less of a bird.”
I don’t know what to say, so I just cry. Nonna Lucia holds me, and I wonder if there is more to her nickname than just the fact that she loves birds. Even as we roll the dough into thin sheets and push them through the machine, my arm twisting the handle in rapid circles, I feel calm. No words are needed, only the sound of her humming. Nothing and everything changed between us, in a moment.
Lucia L’Uccello doesn’t just like birds, a part of her is like them.
Like their flight overhead, she brings happiness. Like their songs in the morning, she gives hope.
“So why come here?” The girl asks.
It’s a valid question. Someone who dislikes coffee probably wouldn’t wake up early every morning of the senior year to go to Starbucks. Not without being a masochist or something, but I don’t think that is contributing to my presence here.
“My nonna,” I say.
Normally I would be embarrassed and just say grandma because I don’t want to sound like a white girl who thinks she’s exotic just because she isn’t like solely English. While I still know I might be ridiculous, I can’t help but say it. It’s almost like I need to hold onto the labels I can claim. Italian. Bisexual. Recovering from Depression.
Most people dislike labels, but I live for them.
I don’t have my birds, or anything of the sort to lift me.
If I’m stripped of the labels I do have, I don’t think there is enough personality or passion left to compensate. Without these labels, I’m worried there will be nothing at all. Just a shell of a person that never mattered much to begin with.
“She loved birds,” I add, even though I’m sure this girl doesn’t care.
“Yeah?” The girl looks off at a landing barn swallow. “They are beautiful.”
I’m glad she doesn’t say anything about the tense I used. While I can’t be made over anyone trying, I’ve had enough pity and sorry in my life to last a while. Condolences can’t fill the hole created by losing someone who may not be everything, but is impossibly close.
It feels absurd for someone like her to call anything beautiful, as if a single damn thing in this forest could compare. With the way her lips curl into the smallest smile as the bird ruffles its feathers. No matter what that bird does or how it reacts, nothing can be more intoxicating than those lips.
For a brief moment, I think about how it would feel to kiss them, but my face heats slightly and I’m actually glad she’s absorbed in the sight of the bird.
I try to find beauty in the dark blue feathers, the red markings around that short beak. And I guess I know it’s there, but I don’t really feel it down to the depths of me. Sort of like falling in love with someone. I know it can exist, and I know that it is something often classified as a beautiful thing, but it isn’t something I actually experienced for myself.
“A tree swallow is prettier,” I say.
The girl laughs. “For not liking birds, you sure know a lot about them.”
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” I joke.
Of course, birds can’t really be my enemy. They aren’t to me what they were to my grandmother, but that doesn’t mean I hate them. I just don’t particularly like them either.
“Do you ever think you’ll love them?” The girl asks as the barn swallow takes flight.
I don’t want to tell her that, in a way, I think I already do. I love them for what they gave Nonna Lucia, Lucia L’Uccello. I love them for, because of that, what they indirectly continue to give me.
A way back to her.
“I don’t have to,” I say to her. “I don’t have to love birds when I’m content to watch the people who do.”
With my backpack straps digging into my shoulders, I roll my neck in a circle. Finally I managed the walk home from school and approached Nonno and Nonna’s house. While I love my parents, this familiar little building with the cracked yellow paint and brick porch feels a little more like home.
Nonna sits on the porch, looking out, as always, at the birds. I stop for a moment and watch her.
She’s thinner than she used to be, generally the type of woman who would proudly describe herself as round, now willowy and branchlike. Although it’s warm outside, a knit blanket lies across her lap. Her wrinkled hands look so fragile. In the past, I thought if anything, she’d be most like a falcon. Now, she looks like a baby bird, grounded, only able to look up and see flight.
Her mind could still soar, but her body fell far behind.
For the first time in my life, I think of my nonna as old. And it’s a terrible kind of realization.
I slowly step up onto the porch, and she smiles when she sees me. There are only the same type of sparrows that decorate her yard, but it’s been a while since she’s been able to go anywhere else to watch the birds. No longer can she hike the past, or leave the house very much at all.
My shoulders rise in relief as I toss my backpack onto the floor. I’ll worry about homework when either Mom or Dad get off work and pick me up. For now, I sit next to my nonna and watch the birds.
“Do you know where you want to go to college?” she asks.
“Not really,” I admit. “But I’m thinking of going somewhere out of state.”
It isn’t very Italian of her to approve of her grandkid going somewhere far away, but my nonna smiles, because she understands. She may not like it, but she relates to it. After all, she was younger than me when she came to a new country by herself.
“You should,” she says. “It’s a terrible thing for people like us to be trapped in one place.”
I don’t ask her what she means when she says people like us. I think I already know. Although my chest fills because while I always thought of Nonna Lucia in that way, I never considered it for myself.
Still, I have to wonder if that’s how it feels now for her. That she’s trapped, only able to taste freedom through the animals she loves.
A terrible thing.
“Nonna?” I lean back into my chair. “Why do you love birds so much?”
Her eyes are glassy, although it’s hard to tell if it is from emotion or just from age. “They’re what I always wanted to be. Survivors, free, able to travel and adventure while still never being alone. Strong, even though they can be small. Always having a song to sing. Everything I always strived for, I found in birds, and for that, I related to them. I love them.”
“They aren’t just the things you want to be, Nonna,” I say. “They are the things you always were.”
She smiles that smile that could change hearts.
“No matter how much I love them,” she says. “I will always love you more.”
I don’t know if that’s true, or if the two loves can even be compared, but I do know that it doesn’t really matter. Because even if her love for birds is more than the rest of us, that’s just something I love about her too. I’d accept it all, no matter what.
She reaches her hand out to squeeze mine, and I try not to think about how weak her grasp is. Instead, eyes wet and heart full, I watch the birds with my nonna.
With the love for her fresh in my mind, I try to look at the birds in the same way she does. I try to understand them like Lucia L’Uccello.
I don’t succeed, but that doesn’t quite seem to matter.
The more I talk to this girl, the more incredible she gets. It sneaks up on me. Like at one moment she’s just a pretty girl looking at birds and the next there’s not a single pretty girl I’d rather have looking at birds with me.
Nonna Lucia was right about me loving people. What I didn’t tell her was the problem that went along with it. When it comes to people, or even myself, I either feel too deeply or feel nothing at all.
I know that I have to leave soon if I want to make it to class on time, and that actually causes my stomach to sink a little. It really isn’t often that I feel particularly disappointed about something. When everything disappoints you, nothing disappoints you, or something like that.
I forget all of that in her laugh. I forget everything except the feeling of helium in my chest. If I could pause this moment forever, I think I would.
“Will you be here again tomorrow?” she asks.
All too suddenly, it hits me. She wants to see me again. An opening. It’s a strange feeling, but I think I’m so happy I can throw up.
I nod. She smiles. My chest implodes.
“Good,” she adds, and it becomes my new favorite word.
A moment passes with both of us smiling, watching the birds that fly by or perch in trees, singing a song they never questioned.
“Why do you want to study them?” I ask.
She thinks for a minute, adjusting the binoculars that hang around her neck. While they match mine, for some reason, they seem to belong on her. I wear them out of a strange obligation, and I have to wonder if it shows.
“I like that they seem to be bigger than they are,” she says finally. “So many people use birds to represent different things, and that’s pretty cool. So many of us compete on land, trapped on this same planet we barely know how to take care of, but birds are different. They rule the air. They accomplish what we can never dream of, not without a shit ton of mechanical assistance. And I’ve always been a scientist at heart, so I can’t help but want to know more. Want to know everything about them, as if that could get me closer to flight myself.”
Her words seem to ring in the forest and my heart beats that little bit faster.
“I’m sorry,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m going on way too much. After all, they’re just birds.”
A sparrow jumps on the dirt, darting across the forest floor. The calls of different species mix and blend into a wonderful song.
Just birds. In the same way she is just a girl and this is just a moment.
“Yes,” I say, looking at the delicate creatures as my nonna did, face painted with the sky. “I suppose they are.”