I’d been thinking about making a pilgrimage to my hometown. I hadn’t been back there for eleven years, and that had only been a brief visit. So, it had been a long time since I’d really spent any time there.
Conventional wisdom says you can never go home. I’d been warned that the area had changed considerably, and not for the better. But that didn’t really touch my reasons for wanting to go.
My memories of Ulster County had begun to fade. Their substance was wearing thin. It was more like remembering a book I’d read than a place I’d lived. I felt impelled to go back and hold a handful of dirt. As odd as it sounds, I needed to verify for myself that it was still real.
This growing eagerness to return home became more urgent when my Grandmother’s health took a bad turn. It was beginning to seem like she might be within view of the end of her journey.
She’d smoked for most of her life, and her struggles with emphysema during recent years hadn’t sufficiently motivated her to quit. Now she’d finally been forced to exchange her cigarettes for a portable oxygen tank.
Because she adamantly refused to fly, and because I couldn’t afford to, it’d been far too long since we’d visited face to face. It seemed imperative that I get there, but I couldn’t figure out how to pull it off.
The answer came in the form of an exceptional birthday gift. My wife spread the word that she would set out a “tip jar” at my party for contributions toward my airfare and hotel. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, the trip became possible.
After settling into my hotel room, I drove to my Grandmother’s home on Old Sawkill Road. She met me in the doorway with her calm, wide smile. It was a good reunion.
We talked for a while, and then she asked me if I’d mind doing a few chores. She could still brew a fine pot of coffee, but there were other things she could no longer do. A neighbor helped her out from time to time, but as she put it, “He ain’t so young no more either.”
One of the chores was refilling her birdfeeder with seed. She stood beside the ladder, under the butternut tree and coached me through the task. The feeder was an antique, clear plastic contraption. A little door had to be worked open in order for a portion of birdseed to spill out onto the tray.
Grammy Burnett had a soft spot for birds. More than once she’d rescued a fallen robin or sparrow, and successfully nursed it back to health. I’ve heard stories about a blackbird she saved that became something like a pet. It staid nearby for a long time, and would even perch on her shoulder like a parrot.
She was still looking at the birdfeeder as I eased my way down the ladder. She said, “The dove will come around. She’s smart, she’ll open the latch. Then the other little birds will get some seeds too.”
She hadn’t intended to make a profound statement. She didn’t care much for fancy talk. But there it was, a perfect poetic image of kindness.
When I got back to my hotel room, I wrote her words in my journal so I wouldn’t forget them. They stirred up a holy gratefulness in my spirit for the doves in my life.
The Great Dove opens the latch, and courage, humility, integrity, balance, meaning, generosity, salvation… spill out into life. Then we learn to open latches for one another. We learn about kindness and grace.
That was, in fact, the way I’d gotten to be there that spring. Kind people created the means for me to spend a few days with the woman who had taught me how to handle a fishing pole. She died in December of that same year. She was one of the smartest doves I ever knew.
"I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God."
John the Baptist, describing Jesus.