“Where are the birds going?”, I asked, squinting up at the bright September sky, from my vantage point in the vegetable garden. I sat cross-legged between two rows of tomato plants, the earth still warm from the late summer sun, shielding my eyes with my hand, straining to see the last few stragglers as they flew over Korry’s barn, and out of sight. It was the second flock I’d noticed that day, another noisy procession, in a big ‘v’ shape, flying from behind the house, over our yard, and across the Third Line.
“They’re heading south.” Mother responded, without looking up. She was busy filling her plastic mixing bowl with tomatoes; picking the softest, reddest ones, and leaving the hard, little, green ones on the vines. She was on a mission these past few days to harvest as much as we could from the garden, and preserve it all in glass mason jars, before the frost hit.
“Why are they going south?”, I questioned. I was always asking questions, and wondered to myself what it was like to be grown up and have all the answers, and to understand how everything worked in the world.
Mother stopped for a moment and set her bowl on the ground, realizing that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with a short answer. She went on to explain that when the snow came and covered the ground, that the birds wouldn’t be able to find any food, so they had to fly south where it was sunny and warm all the time.
Sunny and warm all the time? With no snow? Why doesn’t everyone go there?
I had so many questions that I didn’t even know where to begin. While I was busy thinking my way through this new information, Mother had picked up her bowl and moved to the next row.
I got up, dusted the dirt from my clothes and ran into the house. If the birds were going south today, then so would I. I ran up the back stairs where we kept the suitcases. I picked up a small one that would be easy for me to carry and lugged it up the main stairs to my bedroom. I grabbed some tee shirts and shorts out of my drawer and placed them in the suitcase.
What else should I pack? I would need some food for the trip. I ran downstairs and into the pantry and took a cookie tin off of the shelf. I grabbed a brown paper bag out of the drawer and placed four chocolate chip cookies inside. I took one of the new mason jars from the shelf in the pantry, filled it with milk, twisted the lid on tightly and put it into my suitcase. I was ready to go south.
I carried my little brown suitcase out to the garden, over to where Mother was working, and announced that I would be going south with the birds. I suppose that after having raised four children before me, she’d heard it all, and she merely nodded, smiled and kept on working.
The two flocks of geese that I’d seen that day seemed to be coming from the side road behind the house, so I decided that I’d head back there, find a flock that was ready to leave and join them. The fact that I didn’t know how to fly hadn’t really registered in my five-year-old mind at that point and I hurried down the lane, turned left and headed down the dirt road, toward the Fourth Line.
I passed the little creek where I’d watched the tadpoles in the spring. I set my suitcase down and peered past the opening of the culvert. There was hardly any water passing through at all; not like the wide stream that rushed through just a few months before. There was only a narrow trickle running under the dirt road and out the other side of the big metal pipe into the lowlands.
No wonder the birds were leaving. The water was drying up, the wild flowers were turning to seed and the sun was sliding down behind Mitchell’s barn a little earlier each evening.
I continued to walk until I reached the railroad tracks. I hadn’t seen one flock of geese since I left home. I climbed the grassy hill beside the tracks, dragging my suitcase until I reached the top and sat down, leaning against the big maple tree, shaded from the sun. I decided to eat the lunch that I’d packed, and I unzipped my suitcase, and pulled out my bag of cookies, and jar of milk. I finished the cookies, drank the milk, and put the containers back in my case.
I leaned against the tree and waited. I saw a few birds darting in and out of the trees nearby, a couple of squirrels, and even a curious chipmunk that sat up on his hind legs staring at me for a few seconds before scampering away. I didn’t see any geese; not one goose, let alone a flock of geese. Maybe I was too late. Maybe they’d already left. Maybe that was the last flock going south that we saw from the garden today. I sat there and waited…and waited…and waited.
I heard a voice in the distance calling, “Co-boss! Co-boss!”. It was a familiar sound that I heard each evening around seven o’clock when our neighbour Chris Perkins, on the next farm, gathered his heard from the pasture, and brought them back to the barn for milking.
The sun was sinking lower in the sky, and I knew it would be dark soon. I didn’t want to be outside all night by myself so I picked up my little brown suitcase and climbed down the hill, back up the side road, up the lane, and into our yard, just as the last sliver of red sun was disappearing below the horizon.
I opened the old wooden door that led into the kitchen, and set my suitcase down on the rubber mat. Mother heard me come in and called from the living room, “Are you hungry? I kept your supper warm in the oven.” I felt defeated. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I had failed to meet up with a flock of geese and join them on their trip south. The birds had all left for the season, and I was stuck here with the cold and snow. They would have sunny days and warm weather, and I would be walking on chilly floors in the drafty old house, too cold to play outside.
Looking back on that day, so many years ago, I realize that I was wrong about a couple of things. I realize now that I was wrong to think that I could simply pack a suitcase, and join with a group of birds in their southern migration. The second thing was thinking that it was better to be grown up and understand how the world works.
Yes, we grow older and ‘wiser’, but in doing so we lose much of our innocence. We stop believing that anything is possible, and replace our enthusiasm with all of the reasons why we can’t do something.
At this time of year, when the days grow shorter, and the geese fill the skies overhead with their familiar chorus, I like to remember a little girl who packed her bag, and left the security of home, ready to join the flock on their journey. That little girl didn’t tell herself that she couldn’t fly, or that the birds might not want her to come along. She made up her mind, grabbed her bag, and headed back the side road.
Remembering that day, makes me wonder what each of us could accomplish if we stopped listening to the grown-up voice telling us all the reasons why we can’t do something.
What if, even once in a while, we listened to the voice of the child inside of us telling us that we can?’
Illustration: “Flying Geese” by Stephen Mackey