Teacher Bird: or Meditations on Phoebe

Alison Granucci

When out of the great cosmos of all creation a bird arrives as the new shape of your mother returning from the dead, tell me, what does it not have to teach about the nature of temporality, the invisible force of love, and the thinness of the veil that separates the dead from the living?

It could be any bird. Any creature, really. 

But in the case of my mother, she came back to me as an eastern phoebe. 

Common in New England, the eastern phoebe is an early migrant, some taking the same path my mother did at twenty, from the North Carolina mountains to Connecticut. Gentle by nature, some call the birds “friendly” as they like to live close to people and houses; my mother’s southern congeniality similarly charmed our neighbors. The phoebe was my mother’s favorite bird. Each spring, she would sit on the screened-in porch waiting for the mating pair to return to their well-used nest on the carriage shed rafters. After the first annual sighting (“Yes, she’d cry, they’re back!”), there was the daily checking for eggs, my mother climbing on the roof of the car, the what-seemed-endless roosting and then, at last, the babies. 

My mother taught me to listen by pointing out every snap of this intrepid flycatcher’s beak as one insect or anothermoth, bee, mosquito, grasshopperwas snatched out of its flight, the phoebe changing direction midair for each strike, darting, sallying, deceiving her prey as she ferried food back to the nest she made out of mud and twigs, lined with soft moss and grass. My mother taught me to be fierce by loving the phoebe. 


Phoebes were the first birds to be banded by John James Audubon in 1804, one leg twined with silver wire to track its migration, making what Audubon referred to as a little ring on the leg…so fastened that no exertions of theirs could remove it. After my father wedding-banded my mother in 1947, he always knew where she was. Having stolen her heart from the sailor she’d moved to Wallingford to marry, he kept her close, his lovingly captured satellite. 

Indeed, after thirty years of marriage, my mother had to plead with him to let her attend her own father’s funeralby some intrepid insistence, he relented and let her fly home. After the funeral, her brother and half-sisters secretly conspired to ensure that their eldest mysterious-sibling-from-the-north missed her flight back, knowing it was the only way they’d be able to spend time with her. And whenever I returned from college in Vermont, my own intrepid insistence meant my father allowed me to pull my mother out of his sphere to take her to the movies, one of her greatest, and rarest, pleasures. When my mother and I returned from the film, my father would relate with a long face how he ate a bag of frozen peas, “frozen, out of the bag,” or “all six” English muffins, for dinner. We did not feel sorry for him.   

Then, after nearly fifty years of marriage, my mother was taken to the hospital with an aortic aneurysm. Before we knew she would come home and live another eight months, my father, having spun out of his own orbit at the idea of life without her, sighed heavily when I called and asked how he was. He said only: “I’m already lonely.”

It would be convenient here to compare my father to the “tyrant” phoebe, the bird being in the genus of tyrant flycatchers with the family name Tyrannidae. But that comparison would not be true. My mother married a protective and jealous man, a secretive and possessive one, but he was not malicious. Later in life, my mother watched with something like awe as my father’s compulsive nature found its full expressionwhen his geometry genius came not only to light but to exquisite fruition. As I like to tell it, it was as if the day after he retired, my father went down into the basement and disappeared for five years (admittedly, something of a relief to my mother), then came back up with hundreds of intricate pieces of art resulting from those years of innumerable, complex calculations. His huge circle drawings were like contained galaxies, the illusion of curves, spirals, and whorls coming from the intersection of points made by thousands of straight lines. It was no surprise when he started calculating the planets, not by distance but according to the density of each orb relative to the density of Earth. Hanging on my wall are his framed studies of Saturn; each one exclaims, in his handwriting: Always start with the rings! 


Phoebe is a moon of Saturn. Like my mother, it is a captured satellite, eccentric, a renegade that orbits retrograde. But this moon wears no other’s ring. Phoebe’s orbit is the ring, the dust that sloughs off from her body stays in her circle. One night when my two brothers and I were young, my parents let us stay up late and took us outside where they had set up a brand new telescope to show us the rings of Saturn. The vast Phoebe ring had not yet been discovered by NASA’s sensitive infrared telescopeand wouldn’t be until 2009, fifteen years after my mother had died, two years after my father. 

In Greek, phoebe means bright, shining, radiant. But one hundred times larger than Saturn’s other rings, the Phoebe ring is dark and cannot be seen by the human eye. It always seemed that my father, with his commanding personality and wit, was the center of our universe. In reality, it was my mother, but I couldn’t see it until she went dark. 


The eastern phoebe is a solitary songbird. Although monogamous for life, mates spend little time with each other outside of nesting. This was not the case with my parents. My mother worked in my father’s furniture store where her favorite task was to wind the twenty-four grandfather clocks then start the pendulums swinging, “like the tail of a phoebe,” as she would say. My parents loved playing tennis together, eating together, traveling together; and every evening they read together, at least three books a week, sitting side by side in the living room, martinis close at hand. 

Born in 1923, my mother had three choices for work: secretary, nurse, or teacher. She wanted none of it. In college, she was a natural on the stage, and all she longed for was to be an actress. Her father would not allow it. That dream, dashed. When a dear college friend of hers co-starred in the 1987 film Housekeeping, my mother was as proud as if she herself had landed the role. 

But she lived the role. A 1950s housewife with three children, my mother craved independence in a generation when women were not given that option. Her dreams were not from a marriage devoid of love or pleasure, but for a spirit diminished by lack of freedom. Nurturing what she could not have, she gave me the gift of an unbounded life. When, in my thirties, I told her I was going to divorce my husband, whom she adored, I expected to be told, “You must hang in there. Look at me, I did it.” But what she said was, “You know, Alison, some people just aren’t meant to be married. Maybe you are one of them.” 


As I write this, outside my window the resident phoebe sits on the porch railing, flicks her metronome tail, biding time. Like the phoebe, my mother knew patience. And she sang: Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream was often heard wafting up from the piano room. 


The eastern phoebe is named after the sound of its own voice. The female bird rarely sings, but when she does, her wheezy FEE-bee FEE-bee wafts upperhaps to where she’s heard by that other namesake, the Titaness Phoebe, Goddess of bright intellect and prophecy, daughter of Gaia, ancestral earth-mother of all life, who was herself born out of Chaos. While the Titans personified the fundamental laws of nature, Phoebe’s more obscure purpose was to look for the patterns that connect. She became the third prophet at the Oracle of Delphi where she was believed to have heard her mother’s voice. 

How I would love to know what messages the primordial mother imparted through those rustling leaves of myth and time. I imagine she retold the old family lore that only out of Chaos could the splendor of life emerge; but what if she also divulged more intimate knowledge, having learned that life coincident with death is merely a swirling of consciousnesses that coalesce and whorl further outward forming new galaxies … or perhaps she shared the secret that while grief is a terrifying scramble through intergalactic emptiness, grief is also what reunites us with original Chaos, which is where we discover that nothing, ever, is empty … or maybe she explained that love is not only an invisible force, but is matter itself, that love is what comprises the bright, and dark, wispy material of space. Or suppose Gaia simply revealed the most basic, hidden truth: that birds are the true stitchers of the cosmos, that their flight embodies the upward winding of the Sacred Way, that birds are the link between worlds. 

What I’m trying to say is this: perhaps the goddess Phoebe heard her mother’s voice the way I now hear mine: in a small bird’s prophecy.

It’s true. While I would love some divine message from the gods, some heavenly words, even enigmatic or ambiguous, whenever a phoebe flies by, my mother’s guidance is short and sage: her answer is always Yes. Even when there is no question. And with that Yes, any wobbling in my life comes into sharp focus and I am once again set straight. Yes, she says, it is right to be right here: whether in my head contemplating a dilemma or opening the back door to my garden. Whether meditating on the night sky or walking, with trepidation, back onto the land of the man I love, after nine years of absence. Yes, she says. This is right. Yes, she says. Stay

In this way, I am bird-blessed. 


Earlier this year, in an arctic-cold winter, when Saturn rose with the moon in the morning sky, a pair of Carolina wrens took over the phoebe nest on the front porch of my house. It was the start of the Ukraine war and, in poetic response, I tried to write my first sonnet, starting with the dancers of the National Ballet of Kyiv leaping off the Paris Opera stage and flying home into the fields of war. The poem failed. So much so, I struck through the entire thing and wrote ABANDONED at the topbut now I take the other half of the verse out of its twiggy-lined nest and give it here:

Where phoebes roosted, wrens now dart: 

destroying the nest of another is quite an art.

The mossy mudded cup now just a trace,

the phoebes will return to their home erased,

then take to rebuilding their nest by heart.

And they did. But something never felt right in the nest on my porch. One hatchling reached higher than the others, cryingno craningfor food, beak wanting, more gasping than gaping, it was something desperate. Then the nestling fell, or was pushed, from the nest and died. I discovered the gristly remnants days later, more bones than feathers, more odor than form. A phoebe-bird gone dark. The other nestlings fledged. The mother didn’t return.


After my mother came home from the hospital, she was strong (or scared) enough to realize that in some way she’d been gasping for air most of her life. She moved out of my father’s bed and into my teenage bedroom“Finally, a room of my own!” she laughedand asked if she could box up my old books to fill the shelves with her own. In her sixties, my mother had taken up writinga dream she’d never dared speak aloud, not even to me. When she died, we found her jottings slipped into the pages of books around the house: a piece on the many houseplants abandoned by my children when they moved out and how I slowly came to love them; a single piece of paper describing almost in a whisper my father’s secretive geometry project: to put down the change it has made in his—and my—life…I’ve been doing different things because of it, we are both more fully at ease; and all seven pages of her memoirs: I found, on growing out of childhood, that there was a great deal I did not know….

The day after she died, three weeks after her seventy-first birthday, I found a yellow legal pad tucked among the piles of books on her side of the living room end table. On it, she had written her reflections of how when someone dies it is not just the body that goes: Think of all the memories and experiences that this one person had—a lifetime now totally gone. And how she was not only the last person alive to remember her mother, but: Today I am the only one who weeps for her. This may be one reason I am writing about her, so that she won’t have disappeared completely. That cold November day, I sat in my mother’s chair until dark and read through the entire 1994 engagement calendar where she had recorded her daily activities, a practice she had kept for forty-nine years. 

The last word she ever wrote? Laundry.


Now in my sixties, I take up writing. Yes. 

And I write about her. Lest I forget.

And I write to her: Mom, I stayed. Twelve years later, we named our new house Phoebe Nest

Yes, she says, carrying a twig to the top of the porch lantern. 


Saturn’s Phoebe ring is so vast and full of space, if my mother dared fly there she would not know she was darting and sallying through that thin veil. Yet from afar the planet’s ghostly halo is apparent to us, not by sight, but by a more sensitive knowing. Kind of like the presence of time. Phoebe’s ring dust, I learn, migrates ever-inward toward some invisible force, beyond the normal pull of gravity. You might call it love. I imagine my intrepid Phoebe-mother now an integral part of that ring, sloughing her own dust, ferrying souls. I see my life now in the glow of that darker light. Yes, she said, fly free. Yes, she said, dare that eccentric migration. And I did. But I have never broken orbit. 

I am the moon of my mother.


Later that week when my two brothers and I spread the last of my mother’s ashes along a beam of light she loved, a sudden gust of wind tried to blow her back to us: she was a small galaxy of dust, stilled inside eternity. Equally sudden, an eastern phoebe flew by, landed on a branch above my right shoulder, called her name. The ashes dropped to earth. The bird rose. And I knew she was migrating back to her North Carolina home. 


Alison Granucci is a poet and writer living in the Hudson Valley. In 2005, she founded Blue Flower Arts, a literary speaker’s agency, and upon retiring in 2020 began her own writing. Her work is featured or forthcoming in RHINO (2nd Place, Editor’s Prize), Terrain.org, About Place Journal, EcoTheo Review, Plant-Human Quarterly, Subnivean (Poetry Award Finalist), Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Great River Review, The Dewdrop, and Little by Little, the Bird Builds Its Nest. Currently at work on her first poetry collection and co-editing an anthology of bird writing with J. Drew Lanham, she serves as a reader for The Rumpus and sits on the board of The Hellbender Gathering of Poets. www.alisongranucci.com 

You can find Alison on Instagram – @alisongranucci

Artwork: “Nest with Egg” by Rachel Singel

Intaglio on Handmade Paper with Cotton and Invasives

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