Monday, November 4, 2013

Davy's Grey

When I was little Mame had an African grey parrot named Kato who hated us children with the zeal of a terrorist, and accompanied Mame everywhere she went, perched on her shoulder. The effect was of a querulous Athene noctua, the Little Owl of Athena, Mame's very verbal daemon. Kato knew some Latin names of flowers (Mame was a well-known horticulturist) and nuzzled her cheek tenderly as she read the paper every morning. He also embarked on theatrical nervous breakdowns when the sole object of his avian affection hosted dinner parties for other humans, during which he'd pull out his feathers and scream expletives at the guests. But Kato adored Mame, and Mame –for his devotion and ability to sing with her in French– loved Kato.

In Mame's greenhouse: slipper orchid varieties from Borneo, massive ferns she'd propagated from spores at Planting Fields, grafted heirloom roses, cascading garlands of winter jasmine. Here and there between the terracotta pots my sisters and I would on occasion find Kato's evil molted feathers. They looked like pigeon feathers, nothing remarkable (I'm in the studio right now and realize they were the exact color of Old Holland Davy's grey oil paint).

And yet somewhere in a shoebox of girlhood wampum stashed under my bed at the farm is a collection of Kato feathers, tied up with a piece of garden twine from Mame's greenhouse. I think I kept them all these years because under my surface-level repugnance toward him, I admired Kato for his deep devotion to Mame (in this way Kato and I had something in common). The grey feathers of the dead parrot who loved my dead great-aunt.

It's a way to hold on to her.

Last week after class I took Maggie to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see the Titian, ogle the chrysanthemum display, sit in front of the canary in the reading room and wait for him to warble.


It's no wonder why the Gardner is my favorite museum.

I miss Mame often, sometimes so deeply and suddenly a sluice of tears fills my eyelids before I can locate the trigger. One morning last spring in New York the Dutch parrot tulips spilled from every bodega on 2nd Avenue and I fled to tulipless 1st Ave to gather myself before rushing to a studio visit with a famous painter who turned out to be a lecherous faux-spiritualist with halitosis. After he left (thank GOD) I went out and bought myself two dozen tulips on the way to the F train and smiled the whole way home.

The lesson there has something to do with embracing your grief. Also, oral hygiene.

In my experience one passes some invisible threshold around the age of thirty and no longer cares about impressing people in general but wishes to dote emphatically on the people one loves and trusts. I suppose it's just people growing up. I see this happening all around me in my circle of friends.

P. and I are spending our last morsel of expendable income flying to the desert for his 30th birthday later this week after I finish my last class, and I can't wait to celebrate together with our friends in our favorite place on earth. P. and I have been working on a big project that will allow us to spend more time out there, and I can't wait to share more soon.

One last thing. My wonderful friend Kelly made a downloadable calendar featuring successfully adopted cats and dogs, and a clematis-crowned Dolly is Miss November. You can read about Kelly's project here, and download the sweet calendar here. All proceeds go to the Human Society.



  1. Ahh, just the lovely dose of Lily Stockman I needed while twiddling my thumbs in New Zealand. Soon a c-17 cargo plane will pile me into its cavernous belly and puke me out in Antarctica, but I will have parrots and tulips and desert dreams keeping me warm :)
    P.S. Kev's Mom has a monstrously evil African Grey that is not very old, and I fear for a day that it is announced as our inheritance.

  2. Oh God, do I hope you are right that with the impending 30 (next year, for me) will come a molting of the need to impress others; for others to think that I am independent, yes, creative, yes, but perpetually calm and kind (no, that is too hard. And too much to expect for oneself).

    Thanks as usual for your words and your pictures.

  3. Ahh growing up- is something interesting isn't it? I think turning 30 is such an interesting time because it means the 20's are over and for me it was a marker for starting something new and looking onto different and new projects.

  4. always so happy to find something here; the story about your great-aunt reminds me of mine. she worked for the zoo and had this old little monkey, living with her. and though I adore monkeys, this one was a mean little diva. stealing whatever she got hold onto. and I was so scared of her pulling my hair. thinking about it so many years later, yes, mokeys now are my reminder of the great love for my aunt. maybe it's the more tricky memories that stay deeper with us.

  5. I found your blog while searching for a love of the desert, as I've moved to one, and am learning to love it while missing the Plains I came from. I enjoy your words, and hope you enjoy the trip.

  6. My happiness is passing that parked van. We walk by it all the time and it's just a small happy reminder all is right.

  7. That exact thing happened to me the other day - I really needed a hug only a grandma can give and lost it. I compounded the tears realizing all the hugs I took for granted when she was alive, the emotion was so surprising. I like how you found something to carry home in remembrance - that's an excellent idea.
    have fun in the desert!

  8. Enjoy the desert! My partner and I went to Joshua Tree for the first time this summer, mostly due to yours and a few others recommendations, pictures & lovely stories. It was so beautiful. I'd never been to a desert before and I was amazed at all the beauty to be found. Man those sunsets were incredible. Even in the scorching heat we had an incredible time. What a unique place!

  9. Oh lord you have just reminded me that my grandmother, who wanted to be called Gran Lou but we called her Grandmama, had a green parrot named Kelly. Excuse me while I go in the corner and sit, stunned by memory.

  10. What an absolute treat to come by here and read your thoughts! ( the view of those paintings too) I am already looking forward to your desert blog posts. Have a lovely time;-)

  11. the tale of Kato is the best thing I've read in a such a long time. Actually, this entire post is. I'm grateful it's how I choose to begin my Wednesday. The image of that bird in hysterics during the dinner parties will have me smiling all day, I know it.

  12. I miss you, Lily! Almost done with GOLDFINCH and it is marvelous. Also: Donna Tartt READS Donna Tartt -- A SECRET HISTORY on Audible is a mothereffing revelation, if you need something for a long drive. Also: rescue dogs. Keep an eye out for one that would make a good Edie companion? x ABS

  13. Little morning tears, my dear Lillette. You're so right.

  14. This is such a wonderful post, I just want to give it a big old hug.
    I'm so with you on passing into your thirties and caring less about what people think ... it's so fantastic!

  15. It's amazing what we hold onto as children and how it can sometimes be a tangible reminder of what we held dear - what we still hold dear.

    Love your words, Lils.

    p.s. wait until you reach the ancient age of 37 - you seriously won't give a shit about what people think. Well, except the ones you like. ;)


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