Kitchen Martins

At the time of this writing, the first purple martins migrating north from their wintering grounds have been spotted on the Gulf Coast. They bring with them the assurance that, in spite of everything, spring is coming soon.  

Two martins, however, aren’t making the journey. In fact, they’ve been in my kitchen this entire time. 

A pair of hand-decorated purple martins on a white ceramic tile has graced the back ledge of my kitchen counter for a year or so. The male gazes beyond the frame, oblivious to the viewer, his condominium, and the partner perched behind him. 

“Par for the course,” a more jaded birding blogger could mutter. 

The female, on the other hand, wears a thousand-yard stare and a haggard expression, the eyes displaying that sort of quiet horror observed most often in Edward Gorey’s grimmer illustrations. I don’t know what she’s been through, but that bird has SEEN SOME STUFF. 

Another writer soliloquizing on avian-themed handicrafts could whisper, Same.” 

Close-up of female in purple martin painted tile. Photo by S. Clark.

Anthropomorphizing projections aside, these birds traveled to my home not from the savannas of Bolivia and Brazil, but from southeastern California’s Mojave Desert, where my parents live. The Clarks observe a sweet practice of plucking a trinket that reminds them of me from a rummage sale table or thrift store shelf from time to time. And because I work at a birding magazine and optics retail website, birds now figure largely in the list of Things Sarah Likes. My mother assembles a cache of these and other items she thinks I’ll find useful, like a kind-hearted corvid. Eventually, she’ll ship them via USPS in a flat-rate box or find space to pack them in the car the next time they travel east for a visit. 

When my flat martins arrived, I was touched by the sentiment and impressed by the craftsmanship, but also shaken by the female’s stare. It’s just so raw and spooky. Where to put this token? Houseguests and deep, dark introspection don’t typically make their way too far into my kitchen, so tucked beside the stove was deemed a safe position to display the tile. 

I say “my kitchen,” but I should note that it was my mother’s kitchen (inside the house that she lived in) before I was born. And looking back at my childhood, it seemed like preparing food for her family took up so much of her time, in every home we occupied. She was always within inches or feet of an oven or counter or sink. An ongoing act of love and selflessness, I suppose. Meanwhile, I, the parent of one indoor cat and nothing more, have to bargain with myself to prepare one wholesome meal. The time that act and its cleanup takes is exasperating to the point that one wonders if it’s even worth it. Dishes are a vicious and relentless cycle. It’s all too much. How Mrs. Clark could do it for five children every day, I’m sure I don’t know. Nobler priorities, maybe. 

The female purple martin on the tile witnesses my hardly passable cooking skills and cleaning habits. Look at her. She knows. 

But this room has provided me with many gifts besides echos of my mother’s kindness. The window above the sink has provided views of a pair of Carolina chickadees scoping out a crevice in a cedar as a potential nest site, and this winter’s first dark-eyed juncos foraging in the weedy patch around which my neighbor’s driveway wraps. I saw out the backdoor two red-shouldered hawks glowing rufous in the first light of morning last spring, and what I’m fairly certain was a female magnolia warbler the spring before that. No purple martins in the flesh, though. 

Effortless birding, all without leaving the kitchen. It makes the pile of dishes in the sink (and everything, really) a little more bearable. 

Thanks, Mom. 

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