My Mom Was for the Birds

I loved her and nature equally. Then I became a teenager.

Paul Greenberg

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The mourning dove was in my sights, exposed by a gust of autumn that had taken away all its cover. My mother loved mourning doves. She was the one who had told me that the dove was in fact “mourning” — not a denizen of the “morning” — the naming inspired by the sadness of the bird’s plaintive five-note call. And now, at the problematic age of 14, after a childhood spent birding with my mother, I was taking aim with a pellet gun at one of her favorite birds, considering whether to shoot it dead.

It was the beginning of the 1980s, a time when America was becoming a much harsher place than the eco-friendly ’70s of my early childhood. It was also the dawn of my own harsher adolescent self. What was I doing? I didn’t want to shoot this bird. I loved birds, just as I loved my mother. But I was a teenager, and I had come to feel that everything about my mother and our little rental cottage in the backwoods of uptight Greenwich, Connecticut, was somehow disappointing. If I had to shoot my way out of the disappointment, so be it. As much as I cared about my mother and the birds that were her passion, I wanted to end up with a different life than the one she had lived so far.

She found birds of prey so attractive and her young love blended with that passion. But ultimately, her equilibrium fell apart.

My mother, Ruth Greenberg, née Goodman, who died just as the millennium was expiring, ended up the way she did in large part because of birds and the rebellion they stoked in her. She was born the daughter of a nature-averse New York Philharmonic timpanist and a Swiss-German concert cellist, and raised during the war years in the rapidly urbanizing New York enclave of Yonkers. But in 1952 she had fled her staid East Coast suburban life for the pastorals of the University of Wisconsin.

There she enrolled in a new proto-ecology department called “integrated studies,” where she did anything but integrate. In fact, from the start she began a slow process of flunking out. “She didn’t pass any of their courses,” my aunt, her twin, told me recently. “She used to go on their field trips instead.” And as was her nature…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org