Of Heat and Hummingbirds

Winged wonders evoke happy memories

By Tom Allen

T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest of months. I respectfully beg to differ. August gets my vote. Heat, humidity, and gnats, gnats, gnats. Tomato vines wilt, squash plants squeeze out their last fruits, and summer annuals droop, save the ones tended by those who brave the August oven to deadhead and water for late-season bloom.

Yet after canning your last quart of beans or freezing that final harvest of Silver Queen corn, August has its beauty, its small backyard wonders that, like those gnats, aren’t ready to make an exit. Unlike gnats, they are welcome guests outside our windows. Hummingbirds, those iridescent, winged beauties, just keep hanging around.

My hummingbird memories go back more than 30 years, to a summer evening in 1986, when my dad called my seminary dorm room. Rarely did my father ever call. Mom would call or I would call and Dad might pick up the line but this time, Dad’s voice was on the other end.

“Hey, son, how ya doing?”

“Good, Dad. What’s up?”

“Well, I’m gonna be on television, on Channel Four.” That’s how our family referred to PBS, public television. Someone called UNC-TV, told them about Dad’s newfound retirement hobby — feeding hummingbirds. A reporter was coming to interview him as part of a documentary on nature lovers in North Carolina. My father, a rather stoic fellow, sounded elated.

He crafted an unusual feeding station from an English clothesline — an octagonal-shaped contraption — and hung a dozen or more hummingbird feeders from the lines. My folks, as well as our neighbors, got a real treat watching scores of hummers, in a feeding frenzy, dart back and forth from feeders to trees.

I smiled at his phone call, and recall thinking (in my 20s at that time), how odd, how sort of old man-ish, to spend retirement days feeding hummingbirds. A friend invited you to go duck hunting in Canada, buddies invited you on a fishing trip to the Bahamas, and you’re feeding hummingbirds, playing with old bird dogs, phoning your dermatologist to make an appointment. He, like you, saves heirloom tomato seed. It’s time for a skin and a seed swap. How odd, I thought, some 30 years ago. Not how I’ll spend my retirement.

The documentary aired a few months after our phone call. Dad was so proud of his two minutes of fame. UNC-TV sent my father a videotape of the episode. He really wanted me to watch it, but I never did. After my parents died four years ago, and I cleaned out their house, no videos were found. Mom, in one of her spring cleaning modes, perhaps not realizing what she was doing, probably tossed it.

Funny, the odd things we do after a loved one dies, how we try to recapture a moment or a memory we somehow missed. Not long ago someone posted a video on Facebook of an English clothesline with hummingbird feeders and hummers in their feeding frenzy. It sparked a memory, so I emailed UNC-TV and asked about a documentary made in 1986, about nature lovers in North Carolina, and one of those nature lovers was my father, and he had this contraption he used to feed hummingbirds.

“I was wondering if you might be able to locate that clip?” The reply, “I’m sorry, we were unable to locate your request from our archives,” came a few days later. Sadly, I missed that moment of wonder.

But today, I have two hummingbird feeders, a bluebird box and lots of other bird feeders in my backyard, because they remind me of my dad, of how he so easily found wonder, in the world and people around him, and so, like him I seek to keep my eyes and ears open, because I don’t want to miss those moments of wonder . . . again. 

Hummers visit our feeders until the middle of October, then zip away to winter in warmer locales. Until they leave, almost every day I’ll catch a glimpse of one, maybe two ruby-throated wonders, vying for sweet sips before buzzing off to watch and wait. I’ll keep those feeders filled until the last bird is gone, store them until April when they return.

Like lots of folks, I’ll smile when I see my first spring hummer, but I’ll also be grateful for a father who was wise and kind and never, whether in April or August, in any way, ever cruel.  PS

Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.

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