Em lives one street over from me, and her grandmother has lived there with her family for as long as I can remember. Em and I have been friends for year, and all of the kids in the neighborhood know and love Em’s grandmother – we all call her Nana.
Nana used to to bake us wonderful treats; she made the most amazing fudge on the face of the planet. But when she started feeling sick, she began to confuse her recipes. At first, we thought she was inventing wild and wonderful creations – she had never added cereal to her fudge before, and that was pretty good. The cookies with jujubes in them were somewhat odd, but not totally distasteful. It was after the appearance of birdseed in the next batch of fudge (that and the first of many of Nana’s random disappearances) that concerned Em’s parents, and they took Nana to see the doctor.
Since then, Nana just hasn’t been herself. She has been restless, and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Em’s Mom says she spent a lot of time sitting in the garden chattering to the birds. When Nana lived in her own house, Em said she always had a pet bird. Em’s gigantic gray cat, Zeus had kept Nana from getting a bird since she moved here. Now that Zeus was getting old, Em’s Dad doubted he could do any harm to a bird, so they decided to bring one home for Nana.
I was at Em’s for supper the night they told Nana about this idea. We were surrounded by a mosquito haze in the back yard while we had watermelon seed spitting contests - - Nana was very good at this. Em’s Dad broke the news to Nana, and I have never seen an old person so excited, she was like a little child. Her eyes were dancing and she could hardly contain herself. She immediately began a list of names, claiming that, “Of course you can never name a canary before you meet her, but it’s reasonable to have a few names on hand if you’re going to meet a bird who will need a name.”
These were the names on the list:
The next night, as soon as I finished supper, I raced to Em’s house to meet Nana’s new bird. Em’s parents were going to take Nana to pick up the bird when they finished work that night.
I bounded up the front steps, and paused before I pressed the doorbell. From inside I could hear the canary’s song. Em came to the door, but she looked disappointed. She told me that Nana had taken a bus to the pet store that day while everyone was out and came home with the canary on her own.
Since Nana was so thrilled with her new friend, they decided that she had just been too anxious to wait until everyone came home that day; they just smiled sweetly when they watched the old woman and her new friend. Zeus seemed mildly interested in the new family member, and he hopped up on Nana’s lap to peer into the cage.
Nana had named the bird Sapphire, and the two of them quickly became inseparable. She would put Sapphire’s cage in the garden and chat outside with her all day, and well into the evening. “What a lovely day, eh, little Sapphie? What do you suppose those sparrows are on about over there?”
Every night, Em’s Mom would put Nana and Sapphire to bed, tucking Nana in and placing Sapphire’s cage on the dresser in Nana’s room. The last thing she’d do before closing the door was drape an old shawl over Sapphire’s cage so she wouldn’t interrupt Nana’s much needed sleep.
After about a week, Nana had changed Sapphire’s name to Saffron, claiming it had never been Sapphire, that Saffy was short for Saffron, “…Who would name a canary Sapphire anyway…” she’d exclaim.
Two weeks later, Nana went out again and came home with another canary, this one she named Filbert. Em’s parents decided that two birds shouldn’t be much more work than one, so it was okay to let her keep it. Nana sat between the two cages, twittering happily to the birds, with fat Zeus smiling lazily in her lap.
But as time wore on, Nana would make more trips to the pet store, each time returning with a new friend. There was a Clyde, a Bunch, and an Edna, among others. It seemed that while Nana was out for a walk, she’d decide she wanted a canary as a pet – and completely forget about her growing collection at home. Em said this was part of Nana’s sickness. Nana did seem embarrassed the first couple of times this happened, but as time went on, she didn’t seem to notice. She’d simply decide she wanted a bird, and upon returning home with it, she’d cheerfully introduce it to the rest of her aviary – usually changing some of the names with each introduction.
Because of this, almost our entire class had pet canaries – we even had two in our classroom. Because all of the kids liked Nana so much, they all wanted to help Em’s family find homes for all of Nana’s canaries.
One week, Nana brought home five separate canaries, and Em’s family hadn’t been able to find new homes for them fast enough. Em had put up posters at school, but the number of families looking for a free canary was seriously dwindling.
It was that week that Em came over to tell me that Nana had died. She had died quietly in her sleep, and Em’s Mom had discovered her when she went into the room to wake Nana and her birds for breakfast. Em says it’s how she would have wanted to go, surrounded by birds. When they uncovered the cages, Em said the birds sang softly for the rest of the day.
They decided to keep the last five canaries, in memory of Nana.
Zeus didn’t seem to mind.