Owls seem to follow me. If there is one thing people remember about me, it is my affinity for these beautiful birds of prey. I have been gifted many times over with beautiful additions to my growing and unexpected collection. I have a red alabaster owl straight from Italy from a lover and a carved wooden one gifted to me by a former student’s mother. I have a knit one made by a long time homegirl, an ornate gold and ivory painted one I bought in Philly on a day trip with a sister friend. Three small paintings done special for my 25th birthday, a small ceramic bank that I fell in love with in a store window. Mugs. Countless earrings, necklaces. Some call it an obsession. I call it a theme.
One cold night, I was at home with my mother and brother. I had spent a lot of the day doing schoolwork and was in my bedroom, when my brother rushed in and walked towards one of my windows. His urgency slowed as he got closer to the window, his fingers reaching for the pull to the Venetian blinds. Slowly he pulled it up, revealing the top of the air conditioner that sat in the window year round.
The windows needed to be replaced, and were old and cloudy, showed a mere silhouette, but something was sitting on my air conditioner. Something big.
“Angie, look at this bird!” he whispered. “Come slow so you don’t scare it.”
I stepped up from my bed, laying the laptop I was pounding away on down on the sabana. I inched my way closer. I saw it’s feathers before I saw it’s eyes. It’s head turned over it’s shoulder, it’s round eyes staring at me, it’s beautiful fringed feathers blowing in the air, edges delicate like powder. The bird was big, bigger than any kind of bird that had ever landed on my air conditioner before. This was no normal Sedgwick Avenue bird.
“I think it’s a hawk. Or an owl.”
It flew off before we could get a better look through the old clouded window of my bedroom.
My mother insists it was an owl. My brother and I can’t decide.
She says it’s because they’ve always followed me.
My mother and aunt took care of my grandmother everyday for the last eight years of her life. Just like it had been them helping my grandmother take care of her ailing sister, who had lost her mind from Alzheimers. Except this time it wasn’t their aunt. It was their mother.
My mother and aunt spent eight years taking care of my grandmother every single day, visiting the nursing home to bathe her, take home soiled batas and robes to wash fresh, feeding her meals, changing her diapers. Every nurse in that nursing home knew my mother and aunt’s names. They were present. They were her daughters, the oldest and the youngest, bookends. You don’t abandon your mother to the wolves of low-income nursing homes. You take care when and where you can. And when we couldn’t, when we ran away and avoided, they were constant. They were stable.
The owl has forward facing eyes, kept immovable by fixed eye sockets. Their heads are only connected by one socket pivot, allowing their heads to be more flexible, able to turn. Flexible, but facing forward. Mami and Titi seem to have this same flexibility, this focused sight on what has to be done, forever knowing the result, but only being able to move around that. Nothing gets done if you are not paying attention, if you’re not present. Tita was the fixed eye socket, everything else was the one socket pivot.
I wonder so often about the fortitiude it takes to care for someone. Mami says it’s not work if its someone you love, like your mother, but that always didn’t feel right to me. Wasn’t it a lot to see her like that, to see this pillar of strength wither, become feeble? How unsettling to face the crumbling of a foundation that kept you built up. What does that do to your strength? I think you are allowed to be shaky when facing that kind of earthquake. Love or no love.
When my grandmother is put into the nursing home, it is my mother and aunt that clean out her apartment. My mother asks me what I want from my grandmother’s house. I only ask for four things. One is the pendant that she wore of the Virgin Mary around her neck. I don’t get that, it probably being passed to my cousin or kept in my mother or aunt’s jewelry box. The second thing I ask for is a doll, a flamenco dancer dressed in lavender lace ruffles, holding a fan. The third item I ask for is an English decorative tea pot with gold paint details and images of men in fancy clothes riding horses. It is one of those pieces that remind me of the TV show “Antiques Roadshow,” one of those episodes where the person is blown away because it’s worth 500k. I’ll never have it appraised but I imagine that a fortune worthy of my grandmother is sitting on my altar.
When she dies, I ask myself if I want to put some of her ashes in there.
But the last item I ask for is the owl pot holder she always had in her kitchen. Made of cast iron, I’ve always loved it. I remember her placing it on tables that would soon grow heavy with holiday food. I remember pots of white rice that sat on top of it, beans thick with flavor, cinnamon rich avena in the mornings.
No one else asked for those items. I insisted on the tea pot and the pot holder, reminded my mother over and over to grab the owl. I still have it, sitting on my small kitchen window altar next to the tea pot. It is the first thing I look at in the morning before work, gulping down vitamins. They say that in many dream interpretations, seeing an owl can often represent a deceased loved one come back as the owl.
I am washing dishes as I think about this essay. While scrubbing bits of baked on cheese off of a pan, I look up at the altar made on the kitchen windowsill where sunlight crawls in by fingers. I’ve had friends over, a sister friend from VONA who stayed overnight after wine and working on our laptops and a childhood homey for breakfast the next morning. The day is filled with laughter and food and comfort and creative work. My eyes land on the cast iron owl potholder as I wash our breakfast dishes.
I didn’t have some mystical experience with owls that spawned this connection. I actually have never seen an owl outside of the Bronx Zoo and maybe perhaps that night in my bedroom. But the symbol has followed me and when asked to talk about why, I wanted to make sure that I knew in my mind that something connected for me. So, I did what I do best. I read. And I found all of these meanings of the owls as symbols, it’s symbolism in different cultures.I even researched how science can even be interpreted into some emotional significance for me. It was, to the say the least, overwhelming. There were all sorts of connections that I could make about this theme in my life.
I stare again at the cast iron potholder.
I smile, turning the faucet off.
I say hello to her as I wipe my hands dry.
I know who to write about.